To fight for anything, women have to believe that they matter
Gayatri: I read this tweet somewhere about how when a financial institution asks for one’s mother’s maiden name as a security question, it is because that part of the mother’s identity has been sufficiently erased from one’s public history that it has become safe enough to be used as a password to access private information. To me, that’s disturbing because it makes it seem as though the only important thing in a woman’s life is getting married and having children, and her life before marriage is completely erased so that there is no evidence that she was a person before that.
Astrid: I find it interesting, because for me the whole naming process has a lot of ambiguity. You use the word “maiden” name as if it is specific to the woman, but once again you are really talking about a women’s father’s name. So in any case it is a very patriarchal system. But I do agree that changing one’s surname is a very subtle way of erasing a women’s life pre-marriage. Here in India it is more obvious because, particularly among Hindus, a woman is expected to change not just her surname but even her first name because once she gets married, she is supposed to be starting a new life in which her husband is supreme. She has to actually ask permission to visit her parental home. It’s one of the reasons why girls are actually called paraya dhan – someone else’s property, and women who suffer domestic violence do not return to their parental home.
Gayatri: We raise women to think that their identity can be submerged, pushed back. I know, I was taught to adjust, adjust, adjust, compromise. It was never you, but all through growing up every time I said something mildly shocking or mildly rebellious there were all of these aunties who would say to me either: “You will change when you grow up and get married and you will stop thinking about all these things” or “How are you going to get married if you cannot compromise or adjust?” or “It is really important for a woman to adjust and compromise when she gets married. I mean, the men should do it also but ultimately it is the women who does it.”
When you are taught your whole life that your identity does not matter, how do you expect women to fight for anything that they believe is important to them? They have never learnt to believe that anything is important to them and even if it important to them, it does not mean that it is important to the rest of the world, because the world does not think that they are important.
Astrid: It is very interesting that you should say this, because as you were talking what came to my mind is that in many ways you were describing a concept that has become popular in the Church of late – the ‘feminine genius.’ It is very often used to encompass the compassion of women, and their ability to adjust, and to bring peace. Listening to you I’m wondering how much of that is based on strength and how much of it is based on vulnerability or maybe even powerlessness.
Is it possible to have a world of unity where both people can bring their strengths to the relationship or will this bring only conflict?
Gayatri: I have been thinking about this because I feel like this is a lot more true of the friends that I have now, who are both male and female – and all feminists – and all believe that everybody is equally important and deserves equal opportunities and I realize that it is not about both people being strong but about both people being able to be strong and weak. So regardless of gender or sexual orientation, they are able to show their vulnerabilities – whether they are expected to be strong or not – and to bring in their strengths when it is important and at the same time then also adjust when it is important to adjust.
Astrid: I like that word “vulnerabilities”,I would agree totally with you and that’s why I have a problem with the phrase “feminine genius”. Is it “genius”? Are these qualities to which I referred earlier coming from a position of strength or from a position of powerlessness?
Also like you said – are these only “feminine” qualities or are these qualities that we also find in men and which we could nurture and develop in men too, so that we have a humanity that is more compassionate, more sensitive, more invested in creating life-giving relationships, in building peace.
Gayatri: I find the word that you use ‘nurture’ very fascinating. Because I find that it is almost always used exclusively for women. It is the most feminine quality that you can think of and whether you are working in education or nursing or religion, whether you are a nun or whatever, it is this quality that is expected of women. This ability to nurture, the ability to put other’s needs before their’s, the ability to take care of somebody else at a great cost to themselves and do it uncomplainingly, do it without the feeling like they are giving something up, and I wonder when that is ever going to change.
Astrid: Well, I did not use nurture in that sense. I used it more in terms of helping people to develop their capacities and capabilities and I would not at all associate that with women only. I would expect a good leader, a good boss, irrespective of if it is a woman or a man, to nurture these quali-ties in those that she or he is responsible for.
Years ago we would talk about the need for women in jobs which were not only service-oriented, care-giving jobs, and today you find a lot of women that are in decision-making and policy-making jobs. So for instance in my own institution the financial controller is a woman and that is a very powerful position.
Gayatri: But are they expected to bring that ability to nurture and adjust to the table as women? Because I notice in a lot of the women in management positions where I work there is a softness with them that does not really come through with the men. They sort of tone down criticism, even if it is constructive, but they offer it as suggestions rather than saying “don’t do it like this, do it like that” and they would be like “do you think if you would do it like this and not like that it would be better?” I often wonder when they put women in positions of power, are they expected to be people in positions of power or a woman in position of power bringing these feminine qualities.
Astrid: I don’t think I would identify these as feminine qualities. If I were to look at myself in a leadership role, the question to me would be very simply: What strategies should I use in order to get what I want done. So if the other person would be more likely to accept a proposal when I put it forward as a recommendation, I would do that without thinking “oh, it’s the woman’s way to do it.” If on the other hand, I thought that this particular situation needs somebody to give a very clear-cut order, I would do that. So I would not see that as feminine or masculine. I would just see it as a strategy to get the job done in the best possible way.
Astrid Lobo Gajiwala was Voices of Faith panelist in 2015. She serves as a Consultant, Tissue Bank, Tata Memorial Hospital. Co-editor: Practicing Peace: Feminist Theology of Liberation; Gender Relations in the Church: A Call to Wholeness & Equal Discipleship; Marriage and Family Today: An Indian Theological Search; Member of drafting team, CBCI Gender Policy of India, 2010.
Gaya Lobo Gajiwala was Voices of Faith panelist in 2016. She works as a secondary English Teacher, Oberoi High School, Mumbai, Writes and performs poetry, follow @gaya_lobogajiwala on Instagram and Vitamin स्त्री on YouTube to check out her work.