Freedom, to me, is being able to say “no” so I don’t end up doing things that cause me a lot of anxiety for other people’s benefit. Freedom, to me, is having a room of one’s own like Virginia Woolfe famously wrote about: to think, create, dance, feel and simply be. By myself.
Freedom, to me, is letting go of the fear of the future and giving into it. Freedom is allowing myself to feel ok with confusion and enjoy this unsettling phase of life. Freedom would be going easy on myself if I have a few unproductive days. Freedom would be changing my perception of what it means to be “productive”. Freedom, to me, would be the ability to dance in front of the others the way I dance alone in my room. Freedom would be moving past the inertia of a blank page. To put onto paper the images I have in my mind. Freedom is making mistakes and knowing that there is always an eraser or another blank page to start on. Freedom is listening to the voice in my head and trusting it. Trusting my instincts and trusting the future.
Freedom, to me, is being financially independent. To be able to make my own decisions backed by my own funds. Freedom to me is also having a support system and safety net when I fall. Freedom is letting myself fall.
Freedom is not having a cursed Indian passport. Freedom is having autonomy over ones body and being able to decide whether you want to rise for the national anthem in a cinema or not.
Freedom is being able to wear what I want without the fear of unwanted stares or harassment. Freedom would be being able to trust the world, and men. To wake up to headlines no longer filled with rape. Freedom is seeing more women on the streets, not staring at the ground as they walk but making eye contact with the world. Freedom is wearing red lipstick and a skirt and not feeling ashamed as I leave the building. Sometimes all I want to do is go up to a man who thinks he is entitled to my body and slam his head into the ground, that would make me feel free. I would like to be able to do this to every man that has made me or my friends feel uncomfortable with the knowledge that I will not be punished. India may be better off for it. Freedom would be having the government invest in educating the boy child on how to treat the girl child.
I could go on. As a young Indian woman, there are countless things that keep me shackled. Freedom, to me, would be having the strength to break free from each one, on my own terms and in my own time.
Me and the road of my life
I am the vehicle and I am the road — I am the signs on the highway
The speed breakers
The roadside stop that tempts me to pause
I am the vehicle and I am the driver
Cursing other travellers and the road with its potholes and the traffic and the hot sun
Enjoying the cool breeze from the window
Moving moving always — there is no stopping a vehicle in motion
I am the rear view mirror and the accelerator and the driver and the vehicle.
I am free when I see this.
I am tempted to say “Freedom for me is continuing to sip my single malt and not having to think about writing this blog”. But I fear that would leave you, the reader, feeling a trifle cheated. You don’t buy a movie ticket just to hear the national anthem. You expect more. So, I am obliged to put aside my glass and dive straight into the topic.
I must admit that I am finding it difficult to clearly bring into words where I stand on the topic. I therefore take the help of some reading that I did on the topic a few weeks ago.1
Freedom is understood by most people as the absence of any external obstacles to options available to an individual to determine his/her actions. Such obstacles could be moral (“You should not show too much skin in public”), social (“You shall not offend others”), religious (“You shall wear the hijab”), political (“You shall not criticize the emperor”), gender based (“Women shall not enter certain temples”), legal (“You shall not practice homosexuality”) and so on. Most people agree that there ought to be ‘some limits’ to such liberties but, despite constant argumentation, any consensus on the degree of the limits remains elusive. Because of this inability to arrive at any agreed limits, some people argue that the best way out is that there should be no limits. “Wear what you want, offend all you want, go where you want, do what you want” is their proposed resolution of the impasse. Extreme as this may sound, it is certainly one way to settle the matter.
There is another sense in which freedom is to be understood, but receives much less mindshare. Imagine a person who wants to emigrate and take up a foreign citizenship to have a better standard of living but a feeling of guilt that by doing so he is betraying his nation, is preventing him from doing so. Is the freedom of this individual compromised? The only difference here from the earlier examples is that here the obstacle is internal to the individual. Before you completely switch your mind off from this type of freedom impairment (since the obstacles are internal you can argue that ‘a choice’ was made by the individual), consider the fact that it is politically or collectively possible (and indeed common) to influence, manipulate or coerce such feelings. People living in dictatorships or under authoritarian leaders often display an exaggerated view of national pride. Or take the case of an individual belonging to a minority community who has exercised his democratic rights of voting but the majority government which comes into power as a result of this process, takes decisions inimical to the individual’s interests. Is he more ‘free’ now by virtue of having gone through the political process than he was without it? From the individual’s frame of reference, it certainly does not appear so. He may believe, with some justification, that living in a democracy has actually reduced his freedom. On the other side, the government may say that “We’ve been voted to power on the promise of these precise actions and therefore it’s only fair that we now go ahead with them”. How can one fault their logic either? In this example the obstacle is internal to the system.
At this point of my write-up it is necessary for me to pause and pick up my whisky glass and take a few more sips. This is to buy some time to mentally process this stuff and frame the response on where I stand on all this.
While I would lean clearly towards the concept of freedom being the absence of external obstacles to what you can do or what you can become, I would go further and say that such absence must be guaranteed. It is not good enough that obstacles don’t exist. The probability of the existence of such obstacles has to be very low. I should not only be free; I should also feel free. There has to be a reliable and credible mechanism, which works towards blocking the emergence of the obstacles. In constitutional terms, this could be strong curtailment of the government’s powers through a judicial process. In social terms, it could be emancipation through education. In religious terms, it could be subjugation of religious rights to constitutional authority. In legal terms, it could be individual rights given higher status over social norms.
And in spousal terms it could mean being allowed to have another glass of whisky before coming for dinner. ‘Just kidding, honey. I’m coming right away.’
1.(My examples in the write-up are illustrative of the concepts of “Negative liberty” and “Positive liberty” respectively propounded by Sir Isaiah Berlin, the renowned liberal political theorist in the1950s who has done seminal work in this area. Google him for more.)
Freedom to me..begins with an ‘F’ and ends with an ‘N’.
When I can wear what I want, without thinking twice, that’s freedom.
When I’m allowed to dress-up or dress-down, that’s freedom.
When I’m not being judged, by the length of my skirt, that’s freedom.
When I’m free to dress up ‘not-so-like-a-girl’, that’s freedom.
Freedom is my choice of wearing my mind.
It’s a personal thing, if I want to dress bold or dress right.
An LBD or a skinny pair of jeans;
How does it matter? I’m dressing for me.
What I wear, doesn’t change what I can do.
It doesn’t define my capabilities.
It doesn’t make me any less or any more than you.
What I wear, doesn’t change who I am.
It’s about my comfort, not character.
But for those who think otherwise, I still don’t give a damn.
This post is an attempt to articulate my thoughts about the nature of freedom.
I find it particularly difficult to define freedom and what it means to be free; however, I find it much easier to identify situations in which I feel free and situations in which I don’t. My guess it that this is probably true of most people.
We tend to have a good intuition about personal freedoms and I would argue that this intuition is based on a visceral feeling rather than an abstract conception of freedom. Furthermore, I think we are sharper at identifying a lack of freedom or the feeling of being trapped rather than the more ephemeral feeling of being free, however I believe that both are equally important to consider.
I think examining the experience of a lack of freedom is a fruitful exercise, one that will help us mitigate subjugation, and one that I end up doing pretty often. However, it can also be overwhelming and deflating, especially when there are no clear steps to alleviate the feeling of being trapped. This in my opinion can be countered by examining personal moments of freedom, however fleeting they may be, and acknowledging that the feeling of freedom can be learned from those moments.
Thinking through how I feel during both these types of experiences helps me build a useful subjective framework, one that I can count on during moments of doubt as well as one that helps me make the most of situations I find my self in.
This line of thought puts subjective experiences at the heart of the nature of freedom, and moves the conversation away from a laundry list of what you can and cannot do, to how you can maximize your experience of a particular situation.
Even though it is important to have objective rules that guarantee certain freedoms, like the freedom of speech, expression etc., it is even more important to have a strong constructive personal outlook that allows you to frame the question of freedom on your own terms. This provides an avenue for even the most trapped/subjugated people to have a meaningful and practical conception of freedom, and thus in my opinion concentrating on building an intuition based on the feeling associated with freedom, and how to maintain that feeling, is more important than coming up with a foolproof definition of freedom.
‘Shh! Not so loud! Remember, you’re a girl! Behave like one! Learn to laugh like one!’ The woman who spoke these words of wisdom was old and wrinkled, obviously widowed by the way she draped her white chunni over her crown and to my young eyes, she looked like she had never laughed in life. I obeyed her fierce instruction instantly, clamping down upon the belly laugh that had overcome me at a friend’s joke. We were in a public bus in Delhi, surrounded on all sides by people conscious of our gender, and the old woman had given us an early lesson on what a woman in this country should be. I was eighteen, an age when I should have had perfect freedom to do what I like, be who I like. But society, in the form of that old crone, thought otherwise. The lesson has stayed with me till now. I think twice before laughing.
Come to think of it, Indian women don’t really laugh. They chuckle, they snigger, they smile, they simper, but laughter, the laughter of cartoon strips and emoticons, is a missing expression. Why is that not surprising? Laughter is about freedom, about doing what one wants, thinking what one wants, expressing what one wants, laughter is about not looking over your shoulder every time you do something, about not caring if you’ve offended somebody. Laughter is about being you, and in India, Lord help a woman if she becomes she.
While I was sitting down to write this little piece about freedom, I received a whatsapp forward that said ‘Freedom is Being You Without Anyone’s Permission’. Grammatical errors aside, the sentiment echoes my own feelings on the subject.
At the age of eighteen, the human body is fully grown, and the human mind, if allowed to keep pace, is also an adult mind. An adult individual is one who should be free to do as she likes, within the bounds of the law. By that yardstick, how many of us are really free? How many of us need no permission to follow our own destiny, to try out our various desires before choosing what suits us? How many of us can claim to have nobody looking over our shoulder, ready to point out our mistakes to us, and steer us around towards another direction?
I know that when I was eighteen, my friends, my books, my music, my opinions, my professional aspirations, my choice of fashion, had all been checked and approved by my parents, who stood at the end of the conveyor belt carrying me through life to do a quality check, rejecting all the ‘imperfections’ that they found in me, and sending me back to an imagined start point to construct me all over again.
Like a Stepford wife, I no longer know what it is to be free, but boy! I’m ready to kill anyone who tells a young girl how to laugh or eat or talk or dream. I want to be free to open the gates of the sheep pen and let all the little ewes out, to be what they want without seeking permission.