Recently there was a hue and cry about the 'My Choice' video featuring the Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone acting and giving a voice over in a sultry voice over the new brand name – choice. The word 'choice' has a very powerful effect on me. It’s because I know how very difficult, alien, dangerous, and totally rebellious an act it can mean if exercised. Coming from a region where there isn't much of a choice for women, be it from my grandmothers’ generation, my mother’s or mine. I do however have hope for my child's generation. But the kind of video being peddled as an emancipation proclamation kind of puts the whole struggle for the freedom to choose in a very shady area. It’s already hard to speak in favour of women's rights, all the more harder in a region where abuse and oppression of women is not even recognized. So to have it packaged and sold in an advertisement of a "fashion" magazine whose voiceover is going to get a handsome amount for it not to mention the publicity it makes for the new found crusader of awareness, undermines the whole awareness about equality where it is taken for granted that the place of women is at home. 

My grandmother's generation could only exercise so much of a choice till age 13 when they would be married off, often to older men twice their age, either already married, widowers or estranged from their wives generally. There is not much of a choice left when you're popping 13 babies in quick succession (both my grandmothers and my child's great grandmother who is still alive). The shuttlecock burqas they wore to hear the sermons in the mosque and for any visit outside the home had become a part of their own bodies and I doubt if there ever was any reflection or doubt of it not being a 'choice'. This generation was one which having done its primary duty of producing sons and daughters (more power and status within the household if it’s a son) would fade into oblivion at menopause. Their middle-age and twilight years were also based on the mercy of their children and grandchildren's choice. Having never experienced the complete intimacy of the union apart from breeding, they would slowly become relics in their own homes, tolerated at best for their eccentricities and their matriarchal positions. Anything sexual, physical, erotic, or touch-related was shameful, hidden, taboo, never to be discussed even among friends or trusted relatives. Of course, I am talking about the upper class, 'Khoja' women. The lower class women were relatively free and more open and what would generally be termed 'vulgar' in their attitude to intimacy and a choice vocabulary of satire and cuss words.

For my mother's and aunts' generation though the "choice" of getting education was more of coercion than an option thrown their way. But the resultant opportunity for employment and financial independence it provided was quickly recognised and the right to step out of the door for education was duly exercised. Kashmiri women can never be thankful enough to the efforts of the Christian Missionaries like Tyndale Biscoe in educating the male population and ushering in a progressive, literate generation who would go on to different parts of the country and gain insight and awareness about equality, human rights, scientific temperament and liberty. This very same generation came back to make changes to the existing status quo and women found enough champions for their fight for equal rights. Not to forget another European Miss Mallinson who faced a lot of tough situations wherein she had to personally go to each and every house in the city to convince them to send their girls to school, with assurances to the parents about religious studies and a covered 'shikara' from the prying eyes of strangers. The missionaries changed the future of Kashmir with their 'choice' of coming to live and settle here in paradise and do 'God's work' in the words of the physician William Elmslie who is famous for setting up the first dispensary in Kashmir Valley in 1865.

There were still no choices for the women – men being 'arranged' for the daughters, albeit now the marriageable age has shifted to a respectable and healthy 20s. No choice in the number of children to be had, the 'son' producing still the main aim, which means complicated pregnancies, miscarriages, etc. The spread of education among the upper class and elite families and the first foray of women into various fields for jobs like education, handicrafts and the arts, with the Indian struggle for independence in the background, made it possible for women to increasingly venture into the work field. Now the drudgery at home could be escaped from for a few hours, the earned income unquestionably going to the in-laws and secretly to aged fathers, ill mothers, downfallen brothers, or greedy nephews. There was no choice on property; it automatically being handled by the patriarchs of the family, the bridal jewelry unquestionably being the base on which this choice was made. 

The previous generations' helplessness at producing babies was curbed to a great extent thanks to birth control policies, their aggressive implementation in the 80s and increasing literacy and education. But it did not sexually liberate them, since the courage to even hint at their needs was a far cry. This generation elevated love to grand levels of the platonic, chaste, ecstatic kind of 'Ishq' that Sufi saints talk about with failed attempts at love with men belonging to a different caste (Dar vs Syeds), sect (Shia vs Sunni), or the occasional religion (the infamous marriage to a Kashmiri Pandit and the rare Muslim-Sikh alliances). Bollywood seems to have immortalised these unrequited love stories and is responsible for the immortal and great literature produced by these women – which to be noted - was never published. They lay hidden in the bottoms of iron or copper trunks, between the pages of a personal Quran, wrapped in moth-eaten organza fabric, often buried with the women by trusted relatives; these manuscripts never saw the light of day. But if one read them, they would have been on par with the exquisite literature of Anais Nin, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, etc.  

The only choice which these women were allowed to exercise was when it came to their daughters' or sons' marriages. However, in the late 90s with the advent of technology, they saw this one chance at attempting to exercise a 'choice' shattered with the added travails of conflict providing educational opportunities outside the state and the forced independence of women due to the curbing of movement of the boys/men in the Valley. My generation though deeply affected by the conflict, benefited too. But let me get to the choices first. Kashmiri youth still have to fight for the choice of their careers which can stunt their whole lives if they're not able to win the resistance. Though it’s a given in the upper class that both girls and boys have to be educated but the choice of fields/streams/careers is connected with the status of the family – medicine and engineering being the coveted positions through which a family can gain respectability. The marriages are more flexible now though the Sunni/Shia alliance is still a strict no go, as is the rare Muslim-Sikh union. I have been lucky to be privy to shared confidences that tell me that women have started expressing their needs inside and outside the bedroom. It’s still a long way to go, but at least they're asserting their right.

It's a different world altogether where everything has to be within the confines of marriage. Adultery is still frowned upon, and sex before marriage is definitely an invite to 'damaged goods' slur for life if she's missing even for a night without the entire family having been told of the whereabouts. There are no debates happening about what she was wearing the night an assault happened, like it happens on national TV debates because the assault is happening inside homes. Everything happens inside closed doors. No woman walks the streets after dark; no woman exercises her choice to have a night out. Everything is inside, hidden from view. It’s still a fight for career choices, life-partner choices, number of kids to have, wages turned over to in-laws, property rights grossly dominated by the male decisions, to cover one's head or not, to profess religion or not, to stop living after having children or not – meaning those times for oneself, those interrupted studies, those unfinished courses, those daily regrets. 

Where simply falling in love could get you killed physically or if sense prevails, the mere ostracism of the individual can be a mental death, where it’s still a nightmare for a woman to worry about who she'll be married to and what kind of a family it will be, I don't think the video even encompasses the daily choices women have to make just to feel ourselves. Covering up my hair or not becomes a petty issue if the real fight is trying to figure out whether I should open up about the sexual harassment at the workplace, the molestation in the bus. Being able to walk on the street after dark becomes a non-issue if the choice is between telling one's parent about the lecherous Uncle or not. If one can't even tell one's husband that they're not in the mood tonight, sex before marriage argument is not even close to the brutal choices and coping mechanisms one makes and develops to get through the day.