By GUNJAN HOOJA
For many years, I hid the fact that I was a feminist. Due to whatever negative connotation I thought the word had, I never outwardly identified myself as one. I’ve since realized that feminism simply means advocating for the equal rights and opportunities of men and women. Although the definition of the word speaks for advocating for fundamental equal rights for everyone, I know that still in this day proclaiming myself a feminist at the age of 19 would earn me many peculiar looks.
Four years ago my mother told me a story of her friend who dropped out of school in eighth grade because her parents deemed it the right time for her to get engaged. Ever since, the young woman looked at my mother with resentment knowing that even though they were equally capable only my mother would go on to study further. This story sparked my passion for the advocacy of women’s illiteracy in developing countries, and was the catalyst for a group I started in high school called Shakti. Shakti, the Hindi word for empowerment, was my way of helping this huge problem in some small way. In my three years heading the group we raised funds and awareness for an issue not well known in this part of the world.
Since coming to college, I’ve remained committed to the mission of Shakti. I took social psych my spring semester and learned about the “identifiable victim effect” in which people are much more likely to help when they know the story of a single victim rather than the blanketed strife of millions. I carried this lesson with me when I visited my mom’s hometown in India this past July. I decided to embark on a project where I would enter villages to conduct interviews and take pictures to record the individual stories of many girls. Their actual stories would hopefully be much harder to overlook than statistics. While I was there, I went to numerous villages with different names but similar girls. I interviewed so many young women whose futures were taken away because their parents and society believed it was right that after eighth or ninth grade they would be more useful at home or working.
I met many girls, each with their own stories, grievances and struggles, but slowly they started to blend into one girl; a girl who wanted to study but was told by her parents that she had to look after her younger siblings; a girl who wanted to learn, but whose parents saw no use when she was going to get married anyway. The complete disregard for educating these girls is heartbreaking. These girls have been stereotyped so completely in the role of homemaker that the tiny spark of hope they have of fulfilling their dreams when they are young is completely doused by the time they reach eighth grade. In these girls’ eyes, I saw that they understood the confines of their circumstances. They were jaded and angry, and with obstacle upon obstacle in their way, I saw their situation as being close to helpless.
I realized during this summer project that the negative connotation behind feminism was completely irrational. In what society is a movement that strives to help these girls looked down upon? It’s not a radical movement, and neither is it a movement advocating radical ideas. It’s simply a movement that hopes for a day in which those girls I met in the villages may have the same rights and opportunities that so many of us take for granted today.