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 (pedophilia) and modern day social problems (teen pregnancy) with traditional social ones of child marriage and pregnancy in married teen mothers. The unnecessary enjambment of these issues confuses and muddies already fervid waters and takes the debate farther from appropriate and sustainable solutions. The primary grouse of the article is child marriage and the narrative sticks to the ‘beaten-to-the-pulp’ orientalist recant of the chronic social abuse of women and children by Indian society. Social history is best recorded by its own people. Colonial interpretations of our society has left us permanently scarred; the residual effects of which are visible in our unparalleled propensity self-flagellation. 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 suggest that we disagree with every record not suitably flattering to us. I merely believe that that it is time for indigenous interpretations of our texts, culture and religion. This exercise’s outcomes will walk in tandem with available knowledge will present a more balanced picture of our past.
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 practiced; 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 the movement for liberating the freedoms of 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, converted to oppression and abuse, as political and economic change spun society into a more dynamic churn than customs or thought could keep step with.
The struggles of today’s Indian woman, whether those of the urban working woman who has had the liberty of choice or the voiceless subaltern still in the grip of ancient stifling traditions, is largely due to the inability of men to evolve suitably with the times. Modernization of society brought on by social reform, although necessary, unwittingly ensured the loss of traditional safety nets for women. Rapid urbanization and the advent of the nuclear family stirred into the cocktail and created the perfect petri-dish for modern day ills of prostitution and sexual abuse. The Law has stepped into the space vacated by tradition but its encroachment into the personal space of citizens has boundary lines.
This culture of motley reasons, has produced a strain of virulent bacterium, ‘the predator male’. At risk of generalization it will not be too fare off the mark to lay much gender crime and abuse at the doorstep of this infectious agent. It is not hate that drives this treatment of women (but Ms Lahiri knows that already and as an occasional writer and avid reader, I concede that ‘hate women’ has a potent eyeball catching effect); 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, but it is an impossible task and if I had to stretch my mind to find a descriptive word; it would be disrespect, not hatred.
But that’s not entirely true either. There is a great deal of respect for women in India at many disparate and disjointed levels. India is steeped in so much paradox; it is a wonder that 20th century existentialist thought was not conceived here; but that’s a digress. Retracing; 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. This statement will arch eyebrows for its dogmatic proclamation; but any woman who has lived in India will attest to its veracity. There is simply no other way to explain the crudity and lascivious behavior that is rampant in the public arena. It is like a fulminant disease. We live here with the undisputed fact that, only in this country, for some reason, the minute a woman (irrespective of class) steps out of her home she feels the predatory assault of men in varying degrees. As a true example of a great Indian paradox, despite resounding agreement on this fact, much of this behavior is tolerated and suffered. So complete is the acceptance that nary an eyebrow is raised at legislated ‘women only’ seat reservations on public transport. Note that 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. In response, the Indian woman with the wired-in understanding that she is her own best defense, routinely employs 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. Sexual (and other) 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? A bursting into tears followed by an exit stage left, or a suggestive chest heaving 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 a heroic acceptance of 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 with its star sanction and proceeds to inflict it on unsuspecting passer-by women. It is a farcical tragedy that the same heroes (who don’t think twice about this portrayal of gender abuse) are thronged in their public ‘appearances’ by screaming women fans. This is interpreted by the man on the street as female sanction of the screen abuse – ‘If it’s alright there, why not here?’ And, can we honestly say the thinking is flawed?
- 3. If a woman can pick up her footwear as response to vulgarity on the street, why not in the cinema halls? A sandal lashing of 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 behavior – Eve Teasing and one too 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 gender on the street, are unique Indianisms. We read the more grievous assaults in the papers, register the horror for seconds, and turn the page. While the law might make distinctions between degrees of sexual abuse; the moral distinctions between a lewd remark and actual assault are blurred.
- 4. In educated and professional circles too, the imprinting of gender roles is strong enough for an unconscious acceptance of status inequality that both sexes demonstrate. 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 one that 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 sixties era fight 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 wrought by her activism. Husband and wife get into a quarrel wherein he angrily states that he has been very supportive but that things were now getting out of hand. She turns around in hurt rage and says, ‘that’s just as it should be’. This sentiment of the default normal, of what‘should be’, is not felt strongly enough by women to protest the burden of multitasking that they solely bear. Multitasking, at its 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 their mothers is yet another reality. 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 and prepares 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, therefore, that Indian women accept the roles they unconsciously have played in engendering modern gender dilemmas. Change might flow faster, and more furious, if it comes from the very victims of the abuse. In most conflict situations; finding a solution lies in the accurate definition and description of the problem. Legislation alone cannot change or solve society’s evils. Reformation of thought and the enlisting of women in nurturing gender values 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.