I wonder what my story would be, if my Nani [maternal grandmother] had decided that my mother should get married at age 10. I wonder what compelled her to insist that my mother continue going to school. In post-partition India, after leaving their homes, possessions, and livelihoods behind, my mother’s family lived in poverty in a single room. My Nani sold the last of her wedding jewelry to make sure my mother could have a bicycle, so she could go back and forth to school. In her lifetime, my mother’s family was offered many proposals of marriage for my mother, from families seeking a good daughter-in-law and wife. And yet, my Nani insisted that my mother should have an education. My mother would go on to complete her college degree, by distance learning [yes, distance learning existed before the internet].
My paternal great grandmother, and my grandmother, who I called Amma and Bhabhi, had no formal education. Together, they both *officially* raised 9 children [boys and girls], all of whom earned college degrees and beyond. Since their family lived in a college town, they also raised several of my dad’s cousins and second-cousins, making sure that they had all of the comfort and support they needed to finish school. In my life of knowing them, I never experienced them any less than joyful. I wonder what my story would be without their commitment to education…
When I think about my own journey as a woman, a mother, a partner, an educator, that journey is incomplete without understanding the journeys of the women who paved the way for my existence. I spent the majority of my youth resenting my heritage, embarrassed by how my family’s cultural traditions and values were perceived and received by my American world. I was colonized by the inaccurate interpretations I was taught about my own postcolonial cultural heritage. This is what oppression does to us- it teaches us to reconceptualize our subordinated identities from a dominant lens, and further perpetuate oppression. I hated being an Indian woman- because Indian meant inferior, and it was interfering with all of the messages I had received about being an independent, confident, American woman- a feminist. My early embrace of feminism cost me deeply- it cost me my love and connection to my racial/ethnic identities. The narrow definition of feminism forced me to strip myself of my cultural pride.
How could I introduce my feminist, forward-thinking, American friends to my mother, who always made sacrifices for the greater good of our family? How could I authentically feel like a feminist, when my story emerges from the stories of women with arranged marriages [read: as women with no choices]? I struggled with reconciling the amazing stories of the women in my family and the definition of, and history of feminism which excluded those stories.
I intentionally start with the stories of my women elders, because even our own imaginations of feminism would not exist without their stories. During colonial rule, because of the high infant mortality rate of British babies in India, Indian ayahs [wet nurses] breastfed British babies to keep them well nourished. If not for the breast milk, life force, and love of those Indian women, there are many British family lineages that might not exist today. Imagine how many shared histories we miss, when we do not consider the intersections of the lives of women-who-have and women-who-serve? When we do not consider the intersections of our identities, we miss the opportunities to understand how some of us are raised with a sense of entitlement while others of us are raised with a sense of self-sacrifice, and the life trajectories that determine which thoughts we get to inherit. Thinking about this stirs my soul, because the way in which Indian women [and other women of color] have repeatedly sacrificed of themselves for others is too often missing in the feminist narrative.
I choose to define myself through my women elders because this approach liberates me to embrace my whole self, with all of my identities [privileged and subordinated], informing my approach to how I will fulfill my purpose in this world. The womanist in me compels me to create an environment that is fertile for opportunities that I cannot even imagine, for a generation of women [all people] that I might never know, in the same way that my grandmothers did for me.
How do we as women imagine that world? How do we expand our feminist agendas so that women of all social classes, racial identities, abilities, ages, faiths, gender expressions and affectional orientations are all our priorities? How do we recognize and dismantle our own privileged identities? For me, the answers come from my own mother- first be silent; then be open to knowing yourself, loving yourself, and changing yourself [particularly as it relates to your privileged identities]; and then be an agent of positive change using love and shared humanity as your primary tools [her version of self-as-instrument].
We are the realization of generations of women’s prayers and wildest imaginations. We are the blossoms of generations of sacrifices, watered with tears of hope. Let us now bear the fruit of transformation and healing, and nourish the world.
Bharti Motwani’s daughter
[Mamta Motwani Accapadi]