Born Free?

Is there anyone else out there who’s annoyed at fellow-citizens trashing our country? I think it’s become fashionable to do that these days – the television channels do it, the newspapers do it, even my Facebook friends do it! I am irritated because I am always trying to sow the seed of patriotism in my daughters – if you don’t throw garbage – your country can be clean, if you work hard enough on the sports field – you can win a medal for your country and blah blah. Then I have to start explaining why other people put India down!

Last month I was in a Middle Eastern city and I had the opportunity to enjoy a lovely Lebanese meal in the company of a couple who had lived in this modern GCC country for over 27 years.  Conversation led to the gang of girls on the table next to ours – this is apparently a common sight. Women go out every evening and bond with each other in this city. “Progressive!” I thought to myself, remembering the times I have left my husband in charge of the kids to enjoy my girl’s night out. But, their reality – the women on the table next to ours, was from far from that.

Most women on the next table, I was told, would be abandoned or divorced wives. Of course we all know that Islam allows men to have up to 4 wives at a time and most of them in these countries do marry several times in a lifetime. And getting a divorce in their society is easier than getting married. Though they do have the system of mehr to secure the women financially when they are getting married! Saves everyone the trouble of running to the court to divide the wealth when one wants a divorce, I suppose! And maybe it’s better practice for the women to say “show me the money” before she gives her life to a man but this way a woman can’t really demand anything more even if she has played a huge role – in whatever way – in helping her husband acquire any wealth. But oh, I forgot - how does a woman living in this region do that? How can we ever say that these women are born free?

As the conversation progresses, I learn that there exists, in this society, a concept of pre-decided 8 hour, 12 hour, 24 hour etc. marriages. Maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired but I can’t help but think of the use of mehr under those circumstances as payment for legal sex – why else would a man want to marry a woman for just 8 hours?

My hosts tell me about the Pilipino maid who had come to their door asking to be taken in because she had spent two months working in a house where she was raped every night - by 3 generations of her employers - the grandfather, the father and the son. They couldn’t take her in as they risked deportation and even imprisonment for sheltering someone ‘illegally’. I am horrified at her story – “What happened to her? Did she go back to the Philippines?” I ask. Amazingly, she didn’t. She went back to the same house and lived like that for years. She had nothing to go back to. She came from a life of abject poverty and so the choice was not between getting raped and consensual sex – it was between a full and an empty stomach. You see, she was not born free.

Yes, there are so many things that we just take for granted because maybe we have never had to fight for our freedom. Yet, I can’t help but think how subjective the meaning of freedom is. For some women, their sheer existence, even in our own country, is an achievement. After all, UNICEF’s official  State of the World's Children report of 2006 revealed that over 7000 baby girls are killed in India every day either before or after they are born. For many girls, freedom will mean getting to eat as much as their brothers do, or going to the same school, marrying who they want, staying single if they so desire or about having the same work opportunities.  Some countries still don’t allow their women to drive, to step out without a man from the family. Not allowed to do so many things that you and I take for granted - so many things that I tell little girls they can do because they were born free.

And freedom doesn’t always come with a defined fine-line. At times the discrimination can be so subtle that it’s difficult to point out anything other than circumstances - such as in the case of the woman I once met in London many years ago. Her husband and she had met in college – they both acquired the same education and earned more-or-less the same – in fact she a bit more than him. But then he got a job in another city and she was made to pack her bags and follow him. He didn’t 'force' her but it was taken for granted that she should be the one sacrificing her career because she was the one who would be taking maternity leave anyway! As life chugged along his career flourished and she had to take on more responsibilities at home till her home couldn't function if she spent half a day away from the house.

I met her recently after the gap of a decade and she is reduced to being a dependent spouse with the freedom of spending money, but not earning it. Only a person (and not man or woman) who gets more than his pay-check from working can understand what it is to not have this freedom.

Not all of us are free in the way we would like to be yet, every day, I tell my daughters that they are born in a country where they can wear what they like, think as they please, study what they want and even marry another woman if they so desire. I realize that they are not daughters of a perfect nation but I like to believe that one day they will have the power to make it the country it should be, a country we all want it to be. And that will happen only if they love their nation and if they value it.


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