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Johannes Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c. 1664, National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection

It seems, for now at least, I find the motivation to write only when provoked by others’ writings. The latest is Tripti Lahiri’s essay, on the India RealTime blog, entitled, “Why does India hate women?” For an Indian woman, the title demands a read and, from an opinionated one, a response.

Ms. Lahiri writes on social evils that plague the Indian woman – child marriage, child labour and the thankless and unacknowledged toil of the Indian woman. While I agree with the overall drift of her disquiet, I do not agree with the conflation of criminal acts like pedophilia and modern day social problems like teen pregnancy with traditional social ones such as child marriage and pregnancy in married teen mothers. The unnecessary enjambment of these issues confuses and muddies already fervid waters, taking us farther away from appropriate and sustainable solutions. The primary grouse of the article is child marriage (I am assuming the high teen pregnancy ratios since reported in the context of child marriage are related to it. The author does not break the figures down) and the narrative sticks to the ‘beaten-to-the-pulp’ orientalist belief of chronic social abuse of women and children by Indian society. The ease with which sociologists, historians, journalists etc., spit out the same tired narratives smacks of intellectual laziness. Social history is best recorded by its own people. The colonial interpretation of our society has left us permanently scarred. I have rarely come across any other people that are as driven to self flagellation as the Indian. We excoriate ourselves and our past; deny our own histories and unquestioningly absorb, like sponges, the ‘other’s’ perception of our own selves. By this, I do not mean that we disagree with every record not suitably flattering to us. I instead suggest that it is high time indigenous interpretations of our texts, culture and religion are given the due intellectual scouring they deserve. From such an exercise, a more balanced picture of our past might emerge.

Clearly, I disagree with the author’s take on social tradition and might go so far as to argue that in many of the cloistered communities in which child marriage is still practised; it is a continued tradition of a well meaning parental/societal elder intervention to stabilize the child’s future. It comes from a good place even if out of step with modern times and thoughts of liberated freedoms for women. Many of these social ‘evils’ (as they are called; I would use a more morally neutral term like practices) such as child marriage and dowry were simply aimed at protecting the finances of the girl, giving the new family a resource to dip into when times got hard and attempted to ensure a stable future for children in an unpredictable age. These fundamentally sensible practices (for their time) were distorted and abused as political and economic change spun society into a more rapid dynamic churn than, customs or thought could keep step with.

The struggles of today’s Indian woman, whether that of the urban working woman who has had the liberty of choice or the voiceless subaltern still subject to ancient stifling traditions, is largely due to the inability of men to evolve suitably with the times. The modernization of society brought on by social reform, although necessary, unwittingly ensured the loss of traditional safety nets for women. Industrialization and the consumerism that followed, further eroded traditional dignities of mutual gender respect. Add urbanization and the advent of the nuclear family to the cocktail and you have the perfect petri dish for modern day abuse like prostitution and sexual abuse. Regulation and the law cannot fully solve the problems even though they have tried stepping into the space vacated by tradition.

From this culture of motley reasons, arose a virulent bacterium, ‘the predator male’. Every 20th century gender crime whether female feticide, child marriage, sexual abuse or dowry deaths, can be traced to this root. Of course, it is not hate that drives this treatment of women; but Ms Lahiri knows that already and as an occassional writer and avid reader, I concede that ‘hate women’ has a potent eyeball catching effect.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Agostina, 1866

I wish it was simpler to define and describe the perception and treatment therefore, of women in India and that I could say with dogmatic certainty that it is this or that. If I had to stretch my mind to find a descriptive word; it would be disrespect, not hatred. But then I know that; that’s not true either. There is a great deal of respect for women in India at many disparate and disjointed levels. India is so steeped in paradox; it is a wonder that 20th century existentialist thought was not conceived here. But I digress. To get back to where we started; confounding questions on sexuality and culture invite convoluted analysis. Difficult though the exercise, it casts some faint light on the subject; enough to pin the following as probable reasons with a good measure of certainty.

  • 1. We are a randy race. While this statement can arch eyebrows for its dogmatic proclamation; any woman who has lived in India will attest to its veracity. There is simply no other way to explain the crude and lecherous behaviour that is rampant in the majority of Indian men like a fulminant disease. We live here in the certain knowledge that, only in this country, for some reason (maybe the one I stated above); the minute a woman (irrespective of class) steps out of her home she feels the predatory assault of men in varying degrees. This is a consistent behaviour pattern of the Indian male. As a true example of a great Indian paradox, despite resounding agreement over the truth of its existence, much of this behaviour is tolerated and suffered. So complete is the acceptance that nary an eyebrow is raised at legislated ‘women only’ seat reservations on public transport. Mind you, this is not on account of any religious or moral objection to the co-mingling of travel amongst the sexes. We frame transport policy in India as a protective measure for women in complete acknowledgment of the raptorial attitude of the Indian male. Sadly, civil society that should be taking cudgels against this desecration of fundamental decencies puts great pressure (in fairness, some of it is self-imposed) on women to cope and to resort to silence as one of a host of adaptive responses. Most often, the Indian woman with the wired-in understanding that she is her own best defense, routinely employs her own creatively devised stratagems for survival and self-protection.

 

  • 2. Mainstream cinema, the prime entertainment resource for the masses, revels in the disgusting and vulgar degradation of women and in the depiction of them as titillating stereotypes further fueling lasciviousness. Sexual and otherwise humiliation of women in the guise of a hero’s machismo is the casually accepted norm in Bollywood and its sister industries. And the common cinematic response of the heroine? Either burst in tears and exit stage left, or heave chest suggestively in mock anger (a response soon tamed by the man with a teasing song filmed with him jabbing violently at different parts of her body in what is called, the tree chasing routine, or worse, dance!), or heroically accept her lot in stoic suffering. Off the screen and on to the curb; life imitates art and the street easily adopts this hero-like attitude thinking it acceptable and now proceeds to inflict it on unsuspecting and irate woman. It is a farcical tragedy that the same heroes, who don’t think twice about their public image in the portrayal of abusive behaviour towards the female sex, are thronged in their public ‘appearances’ by screaming women fans and this is interpreted by the man on the street as a condoning of the screen abuse. ‘If it’s ok there, why not here?’ And, can we honestly say the thinking is flawed?

 

  • 3. If a woman can pick up her sandal as response to vulgarity on the street, why not in the cinema halls? A sandal lashing on the screen will surely right perceptions on how we would like to be treated. The influence of cinema cannot and should not be underestimated. Unwanted attentions and lewd comments or vulgar songs sung in cinema style are so commonly rained on traveling women, that we even have a name for this behaviour – Eve Teasing and for the pavement predators – Roadside Romeos. In typical Indian light heartedness, the criminals and their acts are given mild, even humorous, sounding names totally belying the enormity of the agitated anxiety they provoke. Both phrases, aptly descriptive of the local culture, are unique Indian-isms. The more serious assaults are what we read in the papers everyday, register for micro-seconds, before we turn the page. While the law might make distinctions between degrees of sexual abuse; a very faint moral line exists between a lewd remark and actual assault.

 

  • 4. Even in educated and professional circles; the imprinting of gender roles is strong enough that an unconscious acceptance of status inequality exists in both sexes. A married woman and her family still see working as more of a privilege or as a measure of feminist independence and less as a right that is automatic and does not need to be fought for. I am reminded of a scene in the movie, ‘Made in Dagenham’ – a dramatization of the real life story of the fight in the late sixties for equal pay for factory women workers in the UK. In a defining moment in the film, Sally Hawkins, acting as the protagonist, is confronted by her husband about her neglect of their household which from his perspective has been brought on by her activism. Husband and wife get into a quarrel wherein he makes a comment on things having gone too far and of how supportive he has been of her up until then. She turns around in hurt rage and says, ‘that’s just as it should be’. This sentiment of the normal case scenario, of ‘should be’, is not felt strongly enough by women to protest the burden of multitasking that they solely bear. Multitasking, at is best, is an exercise in distracted inefficiency. Instead of calling its bluff and in a bizarre twist of the narrative that does not work to any woman’s advantage; we are now gauged (and, in all fairness, gauge ourselves too) on our multitasking skills.

 

  • 5. The pampered relationship that sons have with mothers is so characteristically Indian as to be almost unique. For even those Indian mothers and wives who do not think of the pati as paramesh; the son is definitely paramesh. Every generation of men is brought up on this belief and have an innate sense of superiority and entitlement. Not a small part of the blame for this is due their mothers. This peculiarly possessive relationship does not admit to itself the entry of an outsider, laying the ground for future tussles with daughters in law. Reams of print have been dedicated to the unhealthy relationship between mothers in law and daughters in law, the seeds for which were sown many decades before. Women are culpable in festering and fostering these cultural memes.

It seems imperative that Indian women accept the roles they unconsciously have played in engendering modern societal attitudes towards them. Change then, might flow faster and more furious, coming as it will from the very victims of the abuse. In most conflict situations; finding a solution especially for complex social issues, lies in the accurate definition and description of the problem. Legislation alone cannot change or solve society’s evils. Reformation of thought is paramount to the development of a strong reconstructive social fabric in order that our daughters might reap the spoils of a more equal life.

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