Not too long after the dreaded Q&A round with our teacher, I was given a choice of choosing between German or Sanskrit as a third language. My elder sister had picked German when offered the same choice, so I just went with the road (only previously) taken. And what use is Sanskrit anyway!
I was very excited for my first German class and even learnt some words like mutter, vater, bruder, schwester (mother, father, brother and sister) beforehand, to impress my teacher and classmates (courtesy of my sister’s old notebooks). As it turned out, I was surprisingly good at German! Good enough to make my parents surprise me with an iPod when I got 91 marks in German in my 10th grade exams. This was 2005 by the way, so an iPod for a middle-class family was pretty huge!
I was also happy, naturally! Since my “marks” told me that I was good at German and I enjoyed the language, I decided there and then that this is what I’d do when I grew up – learn German academically. I was fifteen then, but I had a very clear idea of my “German” ambition.
The next few years were a blur of being a not- so-average-hey-I-am-actually-good-at-this German student. I became the class topper and the teacher’s pet during my three years of studying German at the University of Delhi. Not only did I top all three years of my BA, I received two scholarships to study in Germany, spent practically most of my third year in Berlin (I know!) and received a gold medal from the chancellor of the university. I was literally on top of the world. I was headed towards my goal of being a German language professor.
While most of my peers went for corporate jobs with handsome salaries, I decided to continue further with German. I wanted to study pedagogy and teach German. It was a match made in heaven, or so I believed.
The year was 2012 and I had just finished my MA and enrolled in MPhil at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. But something just wasn’t right. Mind you, I loved teaching, I still do, but for the first time in years, I was back to feeling unsure about what I was doing. You see, this was just about the time when we learnt about the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case.
As a young girl in her early twenties living in Delhi, I was frustrated beyond limits. Till then I had accepted how a young girl is treated in India. Of course, I had to be back by 7 or 8 pm. And it was okay that I had never celebrated New Year’s Eve out with my friends because I was never allowed. Conversations in my extended family about how my parents were expecting a boy when I was born or how they should have tried for another child because our family is “incomplete” infuriated me. I would constantly argue with my relatives till I broke down and cried my heart out.
Curfews, casual sexism, stalking, street and sexual harassment, differential treatment – these were just some of the things that I had normalized. I felt so wronged and violated! We as individuals still do.
On top of that, there would be everyday cases of rape, discrimination and violence against women in the news. These incidents and dialogues began to fill my head. I was distressed and felt I had to do something about it. We all did. It’s all so many women around the country talked about.
One wintery day in March, huddled in my bed, I was reading the book Feminism in India. On a whim, I opened Facebook and created a page called Feminism in India (FII). Mind you, this was 2013 and Instagram and Snapchat were not the rage yet. Perhaps it was out of boredom or frustration fuelled by everyday sexism, memories of being stalked on my way home and being harassed in the streets, at times by men I knew.
Or perhaps it was because a few years previously, on my way to college, I had been molested on the Delhi Metro. A memory I had repressed and “moved on” from. This was before Delhi Metro had a women’s compartment. A man was rubbing his private parts against my body in a very busy and crowded metro. The moment I saw it, I froze and quickly got out of the compartment. I didn’t say anything to anyone and went home quietly. The incident completely shattered me and I continued to blame myself for keeping quiet, for not raising an alarm, for going into a shock and not doing anything.
In mid-2013, I was in Germany, as a part of some research work I had to undertake for my MPhil. I began blogging mostly about personal experiences. I wrote about the pressure of arranged marriages that young women have to face in India, about rape culture and how politicians and law enforcement tend to blame the victim rather than the perpetrator, about menstrual taboos and stigma, about safety for women in Germany as compared to India.
Even though I was living in Germany, my heart was in India. I would constantly think about what was happening back home. Many people, including my parents, would tell me that I should just “settle down” in Germany, that it was a better place to live in, and safer for women. I could, but I didn’t want to. I guess, I’m one of those emotional fools who didn’t just want to make a better world for herself, but for many more women around her.
I used the Facebook page and the blog to vent and interact with like-minded feminist bloggers. It became a safe space where I would also share feminist content from around the internet. Because I was still writing my MPhil thesis, I wasn’t very sure what I wanted to do with this page, but with each passing day my conviction that this is my calling grew stronger.
A year later, I woke up at 2 am with an idea! I had seen photo campaigns called “I Need Feminism Because...” on a few feminist groups and I was instantly inspired. “I Need Feminism...” (INF) was a public awareness campaign where men and women are asked why and how feminism is important to them. The campaign was directly inspired from a similar campaign held at Oxford University and Cambridge University, which later became a rage in many campuses across the globe.
The campaign was also organised in Pakistan by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). I thought, why not India! I called my friend Gayatri right away. We were going to create India’s first INF campaign.
The idea quickly turned into an event with the help of Gayatri, who was then a student at Indira Gandhi Institute of Technology (IGIT, a women-only technology institute in Delhi) and her friends. We also reached out to professors and students in the gender studies department and took permission to extend the campaign to Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). We decided on a date, created a Facebook event page, invited students and friends we knew.
On 15 April 2014, Gayatri and I, along with lots of enthusiastic volunteers, were ready to kick-start the INF campaign at IGIT and AUD. To break the ice, we started by asking people what they understood by the term “feminism”.
Soon people started warming up to the idea and powerful slogans began to emerge from these conversations that we ran around documenting.
I need feminism . . .
- because I want to go out into the streets, carefree. because gender roles shouldn’t dictate my life, the way I carry myself, what I wear.
- because I don’t need to be told whom to love. because I have a story to tell.
- to assert my own individuality.
- because I want my daughter to live in a better world than I did.
- because equality should be a fundamental right. because I want unqualified freedom.
By the end of the day, we had exceeded our initial target of photographing 100 thoughts on “I Need Feminism Because...” The campaign was featured on multiple news and media platforms. India’s first-ever “I Need Feminism” campaign, organised and executed by young students keen to bring about a change in popular mindset as well as action, was a huge success. This was before BuzzFeed and Bollywood celebrities did it, they mostly took inspiration from our campaign but never credited us, by the way!
The overwhelming response at the event inspired me to organize more events – offline and online. I couldn’t stop now. It was at this point that the fog I had been in started to lift. This was the first time I indulged in “activism” and although shy initially, I was in the groove by the third or fourth campaign. My love affair with German was over. My parents were very unsure of this and asked me to find a “balance” where I could do both. Most people asked the same question again and again, ‘You’re doing so well in this subject, why do you want to change it?’
On the surface, it looked like I had everything I wanted and things were fine and they were. But sometimes you don’t have a clear answer as to why you want to do something different, even though it may look illogical to others. So many aunties and uncles we know laud conventional career choices and defying those paths is viewed with a lot of suspicion. It wasn’t easy to let go and start from scratch, but the heart wants what it wants.
Stupid heart! I had to give my calling a chance, even if I failed. Some people felt like I did not know what I was doing by embracing gender activism – changing goals after a certain point is seen as a sign of being lost. Some would say I was being incredibly stupid and I’d agree with them. But if you ask me, I felt a new-found confidence and passion for something I believed in and loved doing.
At twenty-five years of age, I left behind twelve years of a chosen career and switched from German to *drum roll* Gender. I guess I finally knew what I wanted to become. I know it was pretty late but the problem is not the question, but society’s expectations of young people. We are not given that space to explore, make mistakes, change our decisions and try out new things. I’m so happy that I did get that opportunity and that my family stood by me. They understood that I needed to do something that I strongly believed in.
Excerpted with permission from “An Accidental Ambition” by Japleen Pasricha, from Big Mistake: An Anthology on Growing Up and Other Tough Stuff, Penguin Books India.