An Open Letter to Amma for International Women’s Day

When we were told we couldn’t be leaders because it was what boys did better anyway, we didn’t let it slide. We got angry.

When we were catcalled across the street, the parking lot outside work, the school grounds and even from inside campuses, we didn’t take them as compliments. We got angry.

When I managed an entire office floor with military precision and produced results, only to have articles angrily tossed on my table and told by my male colleagues I was harsh or didn’t treat them ‘politely’, I didn’t let myself feel guilty. I got angry.

When we were told to choose brains over beauty, we didn’t want to make that choice. We got angry.

When we were told we were responsible for the leering eyes and the grabbing hands, we chose shorter skirts and tighter tops. We got angry.

We are the angry generation. The ones who are constantly furious about the world around us, because there are so many things we haven’t been furious about for years. We are the “nasty” women who will birth and breed years and years of nastier women. But we are the women today because we listened to the stories of women who were older, stronger and fought the good fight for us. We listened to our mothers, teachers, friends and wise women and cried for them. Because they couldn’t get angry like us.

When I was younger, I learnt a lot about being a hard woman from watching my mother. I wanted to be a self-made woman like that. My mother was always the kind of person who wanted to make something worthwhile of herself. It was her ingrained work ethic, sense of adventure and thirst to seize the great unknown that isolated her from her community. She taught me the value of being committed to your dreams and focus on your career, a lesson that has carried me through my worst moments.

She worked incredibly hard and dazzled in her career whenever I had the chance to see her work, but she still came home to comments about how she wasn’t there enough for the children, frazzled remarks like “How do you think they’re growing up without you?” As I grew up and worked with her, I saw the way her staff respected her because they knew she was the best in the office. But I also had to see how she had to strategise endlessly, fight tooth and nail for new jobs and put up with a string of professional disappointments by being both Indian and a woman in her field.

When she made the decision to walk away from her husband years later, I learnt the value of being a proud woman. I learnt that I wouldn’t suffer through the same remarks and arguments she would have to hear, about “what was best for the children” and “how would she ever go on from here” or my personal favourite, “where are you going to get a man again?” One of the most difficult things we don’t hear about is the social stigma attached to a lot of divorced women that convinces them to stay in unhappy or abusive relationships, and for the most part that could have been my mother. It wouldn’t have changed how I felt about her or make me love her less. But I saw she cared about herself enough to leave and despite everything, the fears, the constant explanations and the feeling that people would never stop criticizing her in their heads, she was determined to get the spring in her step back again.

My mother has always been a hard woman. She is no harder than any other woman who has been in her place, all across history and all across the world. She is one of many hard women who have taken it. Every single comment. Every word. Because they have all grown up knowing this was normal. Each sting, she is one of the many women who have taken it and made something beautiful out of it. She is also one of the many hard women who have raised sons and daughters to be the “nasty” generation and shout about the things they weren’t meant to whisper.

I get to be a soft person only because my mother, and all the mothers, teachers, workers, grandmothers, best friends and incredible women, have been hard for me their entire lives.

And I, like every other woman out there, will come to learn the value in what my mother has taught me. The way she has neatly tucked away her share of injustice and hurt, and wrapped it in the many folds of her saree.

And I will learn to do what she does. To walk in that saree with my head held high, marching up and down the corridors of the office, the way she would whenever I came to visit her at work. You would never know the prejudice and intolerance each woman before us carries with them. You’d probably be like me. Too in awe of a successful Indian woman trail her saree behind her as a mark of her pride, as she educated boardrooms of people how to run a business.

To the women who shaped us and taught us why this day is important, Happy International Women’s Day.

For talented women visual artists, follow Malaysian Women’s Arts on Twitter. Help support women who are in need by donating to Tenaganita or Women’s Aid Organization. Fight the patriarchy!

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