In Focus 23rd March, 2017
Conversations With My Father.

Do I have a progressive father? Can a father give a daughter ‘too much freedom’? How important is my father in shaping who I am today?

I am 29, single, have stayed away from family for over a decade in the city of Delhi and have recently moved back to live with my folks at home in Odisha. The transition was anything but easy – the change in lifestyle, the change in the pace of life and the appearance of my extremely well meaning relatives who have interpreted my decision to move back as a cue for them to don their matchmaker hats and marry me off.

I think it is a challenge every other woman my age has to face. The inevitability of it is what continues to bother me. Sometimes, even my unsuspecting mother falls under the pressure to fit in and joins the bandwagon. What keeps me sane and focused on my own growth and development is the unwavering, unquestionable support of my father. My father has played a critical role in making me an independent and confident individual, despite the usual pressures of the society.  

Am I a feminist? Hell yes I am. But I have never thought of it as an overt reality because I was raised in a household where the fact that I was a girl was never a factor in any of my choices. I am well aware of the challenges so many women have faced and continue to face. What has always shocked me is the opposition and challenges many of my acquaintances and friends have had to face from their own families to pursue a  life of their choice – struggling sometimes with educational choices, career choices, the choice to marry or not, the choice of person who they wish to marry, the relationships they choose etc.  What bothers me the most is when women can’t turn to their own families for support. I mean the world outside is tough to navigate through as it is, isn’t it?

These are issues and pressures that have always seemed unbelievably inconsequential and inconceivable to me. I was raised to have the confidence to make my own decisions and the courage to stand by my choices whatever they may be. So while I had been mildly pestered about marriage when I was away, the pressure when I returned home was overwhelming. This rabid insistence for marriage irrespective of circumstances and consequences is something I have a severe allergy to. I have nothing against marriage for the right reasons and with the person of your choice but it has somehow never been the sole purpose of my existence. For that I have to thank my father. While he himself has been married for a little over 30 years, he has never insisted that my sister and I hinge our life purpose around the institution.

I remember coming to him on one such occasion, after having had to sit through a particularly odious conversation exchange with a well meaning relative, who was frantically trying to find a suitable match for me.

I ask my father, who was reading the newspaper, “How important is it that I get married, Dad?”.  He responded without bothering to look up, “Not at all important.” I went into a tirade about how the arranged marriage system is flawed and how I didn’t understand why everyone was so bothered anyway.  My father wryly quipped back, “Because people have nothing better to do and they really need you to fit into a box they understand.” He went on to say, “See all that matters to me is that you are a happy adult, are financial stable and independent, doing something you enjoy, have a strong work ethic and that you promise to constantly grow and evolve. The rest is all noise.”

He categorically said, “Marriage is not a solution to anything or the only way of life. It is one of the ways. It is not even necessarily the best way for most. It’s just a choice not the end all and be all. If someone or something doesn’t add value to your life, why would you want to invest your energy there, when you could be doing something more satisfying? If you choose to marry someone who makes you happy, somebody you are certain of, I will be happy because I trust you to make the right choices for yourself. But always follow your happiness. Marriage is just a milestone, not the purpose of your existence. As long as you can stand by your choices with commitment and happiness, I wouldn’t worry about a thing, especially not about the opinions of others. ”

Is my dad my ally? He totally is, on the principle of treating me as an equal, as an individual capable of making her own decisions and taking responsibility of the consequences. Not once has he treated me like a helpless damsel in distress or even encouraged that idea.  Not once has he fuelled my self-doubts. Not once has he questioned a decision of mine – be it dropping an entire life in the city, to move back without a job, (which turned out okay!), or not knowing what to do or choosing to go after a guy or choosing not to, staying out late or sleeping in, or even how I spend my money. There is nothing that cannot be discussed.

Parenting is a learning curve. Being the father of two daughters makes it important for him to have an open mind and to allow us to push his limits and to test our own. He might not approve of certain things and he might say it sometimes, maybe because I am his child, but it has never been because I am a girl, sometimes as a matter of principle not of gender. Like Dad says, “I raised my children. I didn’t stop to think whether they were boys or girls.”

I have never doubted myself of being incapable of doing something because I am a woman, maybe due to ability or lack of experience but never on the basis of gender. And I owe that innate confidence to Dad. He has never backed down from being one of the strongest voices of support in my life, in the public and private spaces, and the only one that matters the most. And he has always done it silently, leading by example. People underestimate the role of a father in a child’s life, especially in a girl’s life. He shows you how to treat yourself and how to allow others to treat you. That is what a supportive father does; he gives you the confidence to fly and the roots to call home.

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