28/01/2015 8:11 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Woman, Go Choose

Priyadarshini Chatterjee

"So, I heard you've quit your job to stay at home and cook," a friend of the family shot at me accusingly at the dinner table the other night. Before I could speak in my defense, he turned to my father and said in a solemn voice, "Your father must be disappointed. How could you let your education go to waste?" My father fumbled for words and made a sloppy attempt at changing the subject. Our guest had no idea what I actually did, I noted.

He clucked his tongue and continued, "This is hardly what is expected of a modern, independent woman. Why did you pursue higher education then? My daughter has never entered the kitchen, I did not allow her to ," he smugly asserted, and satisfied that he had successfully projected himself as the free-thinking, modern man he thought he is, he asked for a third helping of the chicken curry I had cooked. I plunked a curry-laced chicken leg on his plate, all the while struggling to conquer the overwhelming urge to wring his neck, and told him that the point was to do whatever it is that made one happy. I also wanted to tell him that cooking is once again cool, fashionable even. In fact, it is sexy. It would have irked him a little more and I would have enjoyed that. But I let it be. He was not listening anyway.

He had made his point. I had failed womankind and its struggle for empowerment. What was I doing in the kitchen when I could be heading corporate conglomerates or a country actually, flying a plane or taking the next spaceship to the moon, or Mars? We were not quite done convincing the world that a woman's place doesn't belong in the kitchen, and here I was an educated, 21st century, cosmopolitan woman giving up on a lucrative job so I could cook chicken curry. 'Well, chicken curry is not all I cook; there are other more exotic items I dish out with panache.' 'What difference does that make, traitor?'

I haven't fared well, but it seems like I am not the only one. Others have done worse. A friend for instance, an IItian with a promising career ahead of her, decided to quit her job after marriage and stay at home. She was called a fool by many--our friends, her relatives and even strangers at dinner parties. Her parents were a little distraught; they were tired of the reactions they received when they told their friends that their daughter had opted to turn a homemaker. A well-meaning relative even offered to try and persuade her husband and her in-laws to let her work. "But they have nothing to do with it. It is my choice, this is what I want" my friend reasoned. "Oh rubbish, you couldn't possibly want that?" her now flummoxed well wisher bit out.

But the thing is that is what she wants, it is her choice and that is why she must have it. The key word here is 'choice'. She could be a star in the corporate boardroom or rock that cockpit in a fighter jet, if she wants to, but if she wants to take care of her home, she should be free to do so without feeling the pressure of justifying her education or her rationale, or the fear of being labelled. If we are still asking for validation of her choices, only because we think it doesn't confirm to certain standards and guidelines saved in the folder titled 'miscellaneous' in the 'women's empowerment' file saved in our mind, she isn't really empowered, is she? Not even free. The idea is not to break an old mould, only to fit into a new one, immediately.

Another time, at a bachelorette party I was attending, friends of the bride-to-be gasped in horror when the she said she was willing to change her surname after marriage. "What about your own identity?" they challenged. "Well...I am still going to be me..." the poor woman mumbled awkwardly. "Regressive," her best friend concluded. But why, this desperation to pin a label? Why has anyone got to be either this or that? Yes, a woman must be free to retain her maiden name after marriage, but should she choose otherwise, must we question her stance on womanhood?

In this entire hullabaloo about 'empowerment' and 'liberation' are we missing a crucial point? Here we are all psyched about breaking old, rusty stereotypes, while quite determinedly spinning a string of brand new stereotypes that are equally limiting, suffocating and definitely off-putting. See it is something like this--just when a woman has managed to free her sore feet from a pair of rather uncomfortable shoes, she is asked to slip into another pair. "Such pretty shoes, you must fit into them," she is told. But maybe, just maybe, she wants to walk barefoot...There is nothing she 'should' be; no shoes she must fit into; no image she must confirm to. She is free.