By Nazanin Kaur Rai
My father is, in many ways, a textbook hero. He did not have the privileged start to life my sister and I enjoy – far from it. He grew up with almost nothing, worked very hard and gave his children better lives. In many ways, he forms the essential pillars of his family – providing support to his siblings, children and extended family members time and time again. He is giving, loving and deeply religious. He was able to go from worrying about where his next meal would come from to creating enough financial and social stability for his children to study abroad in the UK. In prioritising his children’s education and his family’s needs, he has been able to provide more opportunities than he himself could ever have had growing up. He is an admirable man: knowledgeable, focused, disciplined and diligent. If you are sensing a ‘but’, you have good instincts. Here it is: he has been oppressive to the women he loves.
The oppression to which I refer cannot be given a singular definition. It is manifested in attitudes and incidents that have formed the basis of the gendered status quo in many households across the world. I will focus on one particular, arguably minimally intrusive, aspect of it in this article. At this stage, I would like to stress that I am not an expert in social sciences. This is an article about my own personal experiences, and those of close friends. It is focused on my relationship with my father. It is relevant that we are part of the Indian diaspora and we have held on to many cultural values.
I would argue that my father has more liberal attitudes towards gender-based issues than many of his peers. For example, he has never given me the impression that he believes I must get married to a man in order for my life to be complete, he believes in a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion and he would never tell me to choose one profession over another simply because I am female. He has always, however, had very strong views on how my mother, sister and I should dress. There have been many fights, tears and even public outbursts of anger over the years which centre on what we choose to wear. His main issue is with sleeveless clothes and ‘low’ necklines. He does not seem to have a problem with the shorts and skirts I choose to wear – it would appear that the level of thigh exposure I engage in is OK. Shoulders and cleavage, however, are a different story. Again, it would seem that, compared with so many of his peers who would flinch at the thought of a girl wearing anything above the knee, my father is liberal and not asking for too much. It may all seem trivial, but it is a symptom of a much larger issue.
Over the years, my mother and I have managed to care less and less about my father’s attitudes. Very wisely, my mother always let me decide for myself how much I was willing to fight against my father’s clothing impositions. I am proud to say that after years of restricting my choice in clothes to my fit my father’s definition of modesty, I was finally able to tell him that his views were sexist and oppressive. But while this has appeared to put an end to his comments on what I wear, I do not feel that it has solved the problem. I have to hope, however, that what I said has caused him to at least consider his views from a gender-sensitive perspective. Though I cannot hope for an apology, or any logical (as opposed to emotional) discussion on the matter, I may have taken a very small step towards addressing a fundamental attitude towards his exertion of control over the women in our family. When you consider this issue in the grand scheme of everything my father stands for and has achieved, perhaps it seems like a very small, forgivable ‘but’. In fact, this is the argument that has been put to me multiple times by friends and family who face similar issues with their parents: when you have a father who has given you the world, who has provided for you and supported you, who has made sacrifices and placed your needs before his more times than can ever be counted, why is it so difficult to do the one small thing he is asking of you? This is how many of my friends choose to view the situation.
I would guess that some of you (even some of you in the ‘West’) may agree with my friends. You may think that wearing a t-shirt as opposed to a tank top or avoiding a push-up bra so that I don’t have a cleavage are very small sacrifices to make for my father’s happiness. If that is the case, you are probably thinking (not necessarily incorrectly) that whether something amounts to oppression is a question of degree, and that compromises can and should be made for the people you love. We feel that we ‘owe’ our fathers something for all they have done for us, that they get to have a big say in how we live our (adult) lives because they feed, clothe, educate and support us. Moreover, there is a poisonous, associated guilt complex – we feel we are hurting our fathers by not conforming to the ‘little’ things they want. This, I think, is to do with independence. Somehow, my father is personally affected by what I choose to wear. This is very different to the dynamic in many of my ‘Western’ friends’ houses. There, parents are emotionally affected by the consequences of their daughter’s decision where some detriment has come to the daughter as a ‘result’ of her decision, rather than because they themselves feel hurt by what she has done. It is so difficult for my father to see that I am not doing something to him by wearing a tank top.
I cannot agree with my friends who tell me to make this small compromise. To do so would be to allow myself to feel guilty about having independent thoughts. Perhaps a good argument could be made for ‘owing’ our fathers respect and gratitude for all they have done. But we do not owe them control over what we choose to do with our independent lives. It is not an issue of how much control over our bodies we should compromise, it is the fact that we are asked to make any compromises at all. No matter how small or large the compromise appears to be, the point is that we should not have to compromise our inherent right to have control over our own bodies, especially not for those whom we love and who love us.