The last two days, my mailbox and phone have been getting more than their usual share of messages. Most of them declare attractive, exclusive offers for Women's Day: discounts, two drinks for the price of one, free makeovers--you name it, and your empowered self can have the entire world laid out at your feet, for a minimal charge of course. The Google doodle will celebrate us, and so will the deluge of WhatsApp messages. And today, everyone I know took extra care in getting dressed for work. All of us wished each other with a broad grin and the customary "Happy Women's Day" and a "You look lovely!" A few charts were put up in the hope that some of the girls in the college would feel empowered too.
Air-kissing and putting up a plastic smile every time someone wishes me on Women's Day is miraculously changing the life of a woman somewhere in rural India?
Having been raised in a family of strong-headed, fairly empowered women, I somehow do not understand the frenzy. As soon as I say that, the decked up women, ready to max out their credit cards on the must-have deals, scoff and shake their heads. "It is not about you. It is about the millions of rural women out there who suffer and lack confidence in themselves. It is about bringing a change in their lives."
Hmm. So air-kissing and putting up a plastic smile every time someone wishes me on Women's Day is miraculously changing the life of a woman somewhere in the interiors of rural India? The shaking heads also imply that we, the urban, upwardly mobile women, are empowered right down to the last strand of our blow-dried hair. I usually make a hasty exit when caught in such a debate because over time I have learnt that it is futile--futile to argue, futile to present statistics, and, in fact, perilous to disagree.
I avoid it because I have seen these very faces turn away and buy the excuse that the domestic helper gives for her badly bruised face. It is these women who in hushed whispers condemn the young girl who is hesitantly relating her ordeal post-marriage, by saying, "Who knows what this girl has been up to?"
"That's (Women's Day) all for the educated well-off people, Didi. For us, it is work and a night's sleep without getting beaten up."
Last year, around this time, over a cup of morning tea, I asked the helper, "Do you know tomorrow is Women's Day?" She didn't pause from what she was doing to converse. She never does. Most of our tête-à-têtes have happened over furious mopping or sweeping.
"So, what do you think?" I persisted.
This time, she paused and looked up. That is when I noticed the blackened eye.
"That's all for the educated well-off people, Didi. For us, it is work and a night's sleep without getting beaten up." She grinned her stained smile and went right back to her fight with the mop.
After that I followed her around from room to room trying to convince her to lodge a complaint, to go to a women's cell or something. She stopped only once the floors were gleaming and threw back two reflections--one of a bruised woman in a sari tucked up to expose her worn-out knees, and the other with a newspaper tucked under her arm.
"Nothing will happen. What will the police do? And getting beaten up is no big deal. He is fine when he is not drunk. It is only when I am caught off guard that there's a problem. Otherwise, the kids and I usually crawl behind the sandook and sleep."
That shook me. Not the fact that there are people capable of being monsters but the realization that most women accept it as perfectly 'normal' part of their existence. They have learnt to be helpless. And they are reluctant to do anything about it.
The reluctance, however, is well placed. One trip to the police station, or the women's cell and you'd know where the sympathy lies--definitely not with my helper, who has more bruises than clothes to cover her body, and neither with the educated, empowered woman in a bad marriage who goes there as a last resort. They are both told, sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtly, to take it on the chin and live with it.
Irrespective of my scepticism about the 'celebrations,' I do cling on to the hope that solitary troopers will bring about change, Women's Day or no Women's Day.
So, who is benefiting from the celebration? Call me sceptical, but I honestly do not see the loud, all-encompassing and empowering message of the day trickling down to the people who really need that push. My helper doesn't care. Nor does a friend caught in a bad marriage. Their battle is solitary and this day is not going to change anything for them unless you and I go beyond mere lip-service.
Irrespective of my scepticism about the 'celebrations,' I do cling on to the hope that solitary troopers will bring about change, Women's Day or no Women's Day. When I hear my mother talk about the house-help's daughter eagerly waiting for her every evening to read her share of books, I see hope. When I see the bruised maid losing her cool because her daughter missed school, I see hope. When I see my students daring to dream, I see hope.
And this hope has nothing to do with the last message in the inbox from a superstore that declared I get to choose the discount I want since I am an empowered woman. It has everything to with you and I finding the power to stand up, brush off the dirt, and hold out our hand for another one to rise.
A version of this post originally appeared in Random Thoughts
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