I was a feminist long before I discovered the term. As a child, I felt equal to the boys around me, although books, films and people told me constantly that they were destined to run a world in which I could only be their companion.

I saw few women participating in or driving events around them. Wealth, learning, heredity, nothing helped women to stay afloat in the world outside the home, as men seemed to do effortlessly.

Demands and duties laid on women by their bodies dragged them back into obscurity. Newspapers and history books reflected this reality. And this was what was happening all the time to the women around me.

Yet, like Harper Lee’s Scout, I ran, climbed trees and wrestled as well as the boys. We played together with their toys-meccano sets, spinning tops and marbles, just as they shared our skipping ropes and dolls.

I was determined to inherit the world, but I kept this a secret, silently hidden deep down in the heart. Puberty brought fresh restrictions and prohibitions. Boys rode away on bicycles and motorbikes, which, we were told, were not essential for girls. They took over errands and dealt with the world.

Only one path still seemed open-book learning and passing exams brought me money and made me independent and self-sufficient. Once out in the open, I learned to be self-reliant and confident, much later than my male contemporaries. There were few friends who shared my convictions and I kept them to myself.

The outbreak of feminist thought in 1970s America was a revelation. Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Ms. Magazine and their readers and followers echoed and confirmed my own questions and beliefs. I devoured their ideas and joined the sisterhood. I knew now how women had been excluded by legal and moral disapproval from running the world.

This was the period when history became “herstory”, when the discoveries and achievements of women, which had been concealed or stolen by the men around them, were resuscitated, when women’s studies became normalised, when discrimination, gender bias and the patriarchy were questioned.

Feminists of the 70s also unearthed the footprints of earlier struggles for women’s rights which had been downplayed or erased from memory before they had attained their egalitarian objectives.

Now that I knew that my discontents and rebellions were shared by many across the globe, there was no need to entertain them within a solitary bubble. But, the world around me was not ready for feminism.

I had to craft a method to navigate my personal life and career without abandoning my deepest beliefs. I chose to follow my faith on the issues that arose at work and at home.

I spoke up against discrimination when I came up against it. Replaced gender specific titles with "Ms." and "person". Demanded and got appointed to positions I was entitled to, which had hitherto been reserved, by an unspoken protocol, for men alone, even when this meant living apart from the family for a while.

Collaborated with a friend to publish the first study of gender discrimination within the IAS in the ‘Statesman’ in 1983. Led a signature campaign calling for action against KPS Gill when Rupan Deol was molested. Remonstrated against sexist remarks routinely made in public by bureaucrats and politicians.

Initiated and supported programs for decreasing discrimination against women. Volunteered with Donna Fernandez in her battle against domestic violence, flinching every time I met a badly burnt young girl battling for her life.

I did not, however, move outside the official sphere to combat the innumerable injustices based on gender that lay around me. I was afraid that that way lay madness. How could I summon up the time, intelligence, energy and, above all, the mental strength to look steadily upon every cruelty and unkindness visited upon women?

Personal life was even more difficult to reconcile with my feminist convictions. There was no ‘karva chauth’ or ‘rakhi’ (with its overtones of dependence on men) in my daily life. But, could I avoid the sexist rites of marriages of all religions, boycott weddings where dowries were taken, refuse meals prepared by homemakers to further the careers of their spouses or walk out of discussions where the reputations of women were shredded? I avoided such situations but could not alienate friends and close family members.

The hardest confession to admit as a feminist is that I felt sad when I learned that my child was a girl. I had been lucky to escape many of the restrictions of being a woman. Would that luck hold for my daughter when she relived the same experiences? I did not want to see her struggles.

I chose the way I already knew to bring her up. I rebuilt a bubble around us, within which she was as bias-free as I could make her. She swam and rode horses and bicycles.

In the teeth of opposition and concerns for her safety, I bought her the motorbike she coveted on her 18th birthday. I enrolled her in cricket classes when she wished to be trained. I lobbied with school managements to admit her to courses on mechanics reserved for boys, instead of sewing a fine seam.

And, when she moved away from home, I trained her in self-defence methods that would bolster her confidence and perhaps keep her safe. We also avoided families and environments which promoted notions of the inferiority of women and their duty to be submissive and subordinate.

I know today that this was not enough. A feminist in her own right, my daughter tells me how I have failed. I was used to being charged with being too much of a feminist. To my daughter, however, I am not feminist enough.

She lists battles that I had avoided, occasions when I had not openly opposed sexist notions so that I could skirt controversies. When you don't call out a wrong notion, she insists, you gradually endorse the same belief. And if you don’t rebel against ‘karva chauth’ and ‘rakhi’, things will not change and sexist traditional practices will never be replaced.

I cannot counter her logic. I remember other defaults which she knows nothing about. The girl cousins in Palakkad who had not been educated, who had been married away with dowry or been abandoned by spouses for whom I had not intervened.

I had winced but not protested when asked to endorse ‘kanya daan’ and the sexism of the ‘bidaai’ ceremony. But, I console myself with the thought that both of us had resisted the call for a male heir to perform her father's funeral ceremonies, even though I had not opposed the practice when my own father died. She had also retained her maiden name as I had not done.

There is another insight too. She tells me that her upbringing had not sufficiently prepared her for the sexism she would encounter outside our bubble. I should have sat her down and described the difference between the easy equality encountered within her home and the ideas that would batter her outside it.

She had discovered some of them at school and university, but did not know how powerful they were nor how to handle them. Feminism is not enough to navigate a world that is still patriarchal.

There are other areas that continue to defeat me in the constant effort to live as a feminist. The feminist way is focused on individual choice and fulfilment. But, the illusion of choice is particularly dangerous when applied to women, who are incessantly subject to societal pressures.

Choices may be meaningless in environments in which much is presumed, hinted at or promoted through emotional blackmail. I can only be ambivalent, when I am told that a woman has “chosen” to stay at home and bring up her children.

I am also disturbed by the compromises that couples make to accommodate two careers. Arrangements in which women become camp-followers, moving in the wake of spousal success and glory. Lying patiently in wait, till male ambitions are met and childbearing done before they can revive their own dreams. I cannot vibe with Michelle Obama and occasionally even with Hilary Clinton.

Above all, I am tormented by the demands of equality. Should women work to replace men in top jobs, or ask for special privileges? At the workplace, I had sought arduous assignments, even if they took me away from the family, when I could have found ways to avoid them as a woman.

Women’s welfare departments appeared like traps to confine women’s careers, for nobody paid them much attention. One could better promote the equality agenda from a position of power, held earlier by men alone.

Politics is the last minefield of gender equality. Women have successfully risen to the top on their own in many developed countries. Mamta Banerjee and Mayawati have shown that this can happen in India too without dynastic connections.

But, the silos remain. Even newbie parties, like AAP, are stuck in the same groove, ghettoising women in “women’s wings”. Campaign experience proves that voters accept and welcome women candidates, invite them into their homes and confide their concerns.

But, party leaders are routinely patriarchal and discriminatory while picking candidates and allotting portfolios to victorious MLAs. Not much has then changed in my lifetime of feminism!