No Country for Women

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The last month of last year brought us a dark incident, which triggered a mass reaction. A reaction that questions the very core of our social and cultural being. It is not about the rape of that unknown woman. It was not the first, and sadly it will not be the last of such incidents. This incident has touched each and every individual and family. Even those of us who typically watch such news like outsiders, with indifference. A rape or molestation, is something bad that happens in some other world to someone we don’t know. We are not concerned for it in our day to day, safe, sheltered lives, right? It is something to be read in newspapers, and seen on TV, and rarely, heard in gossip grapevines, and discussed in hushed tones.

But dig a little deeper, and we realize that it is an ugly manifestation of a deep rooted cultural phenomenon, that no one has escaped. Not you, not me, nor any girl or boy who grows up in India. A phenomenon which is close to home, and very personal.

I was stalked as a schoolgirl. I was street harassed innumerable times, when I was a teenager. I am very lucky that I did not have to face anything worse like molestation or rape. But I have grown up in the shadow of that fear, of something terrible happening. The youthful growing years of adolescence, when one is trying to cope with the fast changing environment, and one’s own hormones, and societal expectations covered with this constant fear of the worst, a constant feeling of being unsafe, nagging at the back of the mind.

I was not the only one. Almost every girl I know faced this when growing up in the late eighties and nineties in a small growing city.  Nothing was expressly taught, but as we grew, and experienced harassment, we instinctively learned to ignore the stares of the lechers, lewd comments from strangers on streets, and creepy shadows following behind everywhere.

Society and surroundings offered no assurance against these unpleasant experiences. Instead, we (boys and girls) were fed with an image of an ideal girl from good families that we must conform to. Directly and indirectly the signals we got placed blame and responsibility of any unpleasant happenings on the shoulders of the girl instead. For example, a personal experience comes to mind. Seemingly non-controversial, non serious. But needs to be analyzed for the hidden message it gave me, a child, of impressionable age.

We used to walk to school in a group when in high school. A group of friends, chatting and giggling, going about their lives as girls would do. One fine day, we were reprimanded in school by our teachers for this behavior on the road. For the way we move around in groups, the way we talk loudly when walking on the road, the way we laugh and attract attention, and even for wearing our hair short. Because of this behavior, we were being talked about, and stalked.  Some teacher overheard a group of boys talk about us on the road in a ‘not very nice’ way. This is not what girls in good families do. They put their heads down when walking on the road and do not talk back to “eve teasers”. Behave in such a manner that you don’t attract bad attention.

That incident left me shaken at the time. I did not think of asking the teachers if they confronted, stopped, and counseled the boys who were saying bad things about us? It did give a feeling that it was my fault that I was being stalked and harassed. And so as we should, we trained ourselves to put our heads down and not make eye contact, as a defense mechanism.

I did not confide in my parents at first about the stalking, because of peer pressure, and a weird feeling like I was letting them down. Thankfully, eventually I did, and they took care of the unwanted attention, thus, strengthening my confidence. I was fortunate to have grown up in a healthy environment at home that enabled me to bloom and flourish as a person, in spite of being surrounded by bigotry and such poison outside. I wonder how many were as fortunate?

Simple pleasures like going to the movies, or eating joints, or participating in school and college cultural festivals taught us all innumerable lessons in unpleasant ways. Those who managed to block out, filter out this muck from their minds were the ones who managed to enjoy and gain from this exposure. I wonder how many girls were scared to participate? How many thought it was better to remain invisible, unknown, in the safety of their own “decencies”, than to expose themselves to being ogled, commented upon or talked about? Did we lose many a great singers, artists, dancers or dramatists because of this?

How many young and talented minds were suppressed, driven into shell, without an opportunity to freely explore and express, and learn and grow? Isn’t it a shame that there are generations of women who grew up in this environment? I agree there are many stories of success, of triumph, of women I know who grew up with me and have achieved great heights. But this, unfortunately, is the exception. Not the norm.

Through the growing years, we (boys and girls alike) have been subjected to a lot of propaganda on how a girl should be. How should she behave, what she must do, what she must not do, what constitutes her honor and what defines her limit. We have been brainwashed by teachers, by elders, by media, and by cinema.

The unfortunate thing is, in all this frenzy of raising good girls our society neglected the boys. Nobody told us how boys should be. Broadly, the boys could be identified as one of two kinds in our small conservative town. One kind was the good boys, who would never interact or talk to girls, other kind was the troublemakers. There was no recourse or structure in families, schools, institutions and workplaces that will guide the boys into behavior of compassion towards the opposite sex. A behavior of camaraderie that is mutually beneficial and enriching without any sexual innuendos to it. They were only guided by cinema, media, patriarchal pecking order in their homes and law enforcers to believe in the misconceptions of “true masculinity”. A belief, that led them into thinking that a woman is not a person, but either a goddess, or a symbol of honor for the man/men she is associated with, or an object to be possessed. That the only way to woo her is by stalking and harassing. That when she says no, she actually means yes.

As young children, we watched melodramatic movies, where a molested or raped woman had no other go but to end her life, because it was her honor that was robbed. We were convinced that one has to die, if one was raped. What a twisted and sick mentality this is. There was no other way to know that it is just a heinous act of violence, and that the survivor has the opportunity to heal, and aspire to a normal healthy life.

I am 20-25 years removed from that time today. And I, and many others like me, live in a safe private bubble. A bubble, which we have worked hard to create, a place where we can feel free, liberated and empowered. We survived, and flourished in spite of this environment, by growing up, moving out, and by surrounding ourselves with likeminded people. I wonder how many managed to do that? And how strong is this private bubble which shields us from the reality?

One generation later, things are no different, but uglier. One generation later, it took the sacrifice of a young unnamed woman to stir a delusional society into introspection. Into questioning the ugly reality that has been hounding 50% of its population, through many generations.

I say shame on all of us, young and old, men and women, who at different points engaged in loose talk, tongue wagging and gossip, in blaming and victimizing even further any girl or woman who may have faced physical or emotional abuse. Because of the dress she wore, company she kept or any unfortunate incidents she had to face. Shame on us, who witnessed girls and women being harassed in public spaces, and did nothing about it – other than discussing and finding absurd reasons why she was targeted – like her dress, or her looks, her “free” behavior, or simply the fact that she is out in a public space at a particular time.

Shame on our collective thought process, that first questions what the woman was wearing when she was molested, what was her “reputation”, what was she doing out at that hour, or who was she with, whether she is aware of her “Maryada”, instead of questioning the perpetrator, who made the conscious decision to violate another human being and took the action to actually hurt that person.

Shame on movie makers, entertainers, stars, politicians, law enforcers, and any other public figures who in various ways endorse and encourage misogyny, and mislead the younger generation. Shame on us all who shy away from discussing and addressing this issue in our own public or private lives.

And a hope that things will change for the better, mindsets will change, not just in pockets of private bubbles, but far reaching. Transcending through class and caste, through cities and villages, in India.

Hope this becomes a better country for its women, and hence its men.

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13 Responses to No Country for Women

  1. Bravo for the well written opinion. If only the media coverage the incident received (not to mention the pundits opining through a haze of crocodile tears) had been half as sane as this piece!

    I really don’t have much to add to what you said (and agree completely with your take on it), but I felt I should cite two additional “big picture” causes that contribute to this mess but don’t seem to be getting mentioned very often.

    1) Everything is economics – yes, even this! One of the factors contributing to this social issue is an economic one, because the wider income inequality in India goes hand in hand with a women’s liberation inequality. It allows the “mardaangi” stereotype to survive and pollute popular media, despite its patent crappy-ness.

    While no women in India are truly “equal” regardless of class strata, some are more equal than others. This bubble you refer to where you are relatively free to live on your own terms is literally a hard-earned, upper middle class one. One need only contrast the cultural differences in the way rich/ urban hipster co-ed schools and colleges operate with urban but poor schools. Contrast, say, Oakridge or Meridian with any ZP school in a not affluent part of Hyderabad.

    To be clear – I’m not saying poor people have bad values or that only poor men have less respect for women – I’m saying, poverty and inequality don’t help the situation at all. Complex (even subconscious) jealousies and desires do get amplified by the economic gap.

    Consequently, every relatively privileged person living in India is subconsciously living in fear of considering “What will happen when that less privileged mob 5 minutes from my gated community goes raging mad?”. Whether it is a mob coming to take away your shiny car or smart-phone, or six men thinking they could molest a girl and get away with it, there is almost certainly economics at play in the background.

    2) You can’t ignore geography or demographics. Women are objectified, lusted after, and “taken” because across the board rural India has a female deficit! Female infanticide and preference for a male child have imbalanced the gender balance for this generation. If you’re not growing up with healthy interaction with the opposite sex, and if your chances of (forgive the phrase) getting laid or married are significantly reduced, it only encourages twisted thinking.

    Again, this doesn’t justify what the six men did (or men in general do) but it provides causal context…

    Anyway… I’ll pen down because I seem to have rambled on. Great piece again!

  2. Girish Gogte says:

    A very apt and thought provoking article. Would make every reader sincerely introspect.

    • Poetmamma says:

      @Girish Gogte: Thank you for your comment and thanks for reading. If this piece makes at least some to think about this issue in a different perspective, then it was definitely worth writing.

  3. Parikshit says:

    @hrishi – i don’t quite agree with your causation altthough it could be linked just because such social issues are so complex that they can never be explained by a single cause.

    The most important cause me thinks is male upbringing. Boys are conditioned to think that they are previledged, only the degree of conditioning varies with classes, castes, urban/rural, education etc. It is this male ego and either the frustration of looking at a successful woman or a sadistic pleasure at ‘taking’ a weak woman which may be driving crime against women. So its actually a hate crime and should be thought of that way.

    Second cause is lack of fear. Of society or the law. Civil behaviour can also be brought about using fear. Currently these sadistic men know that its very difficult for them to get caught, let alone convicted. Take Singapore (its too small so not comparable to India but mentioning here just for the law). Rapist are compulsorily caned (read about how horrible caning is) and imprisoned for 20 years. With cctv’s everywhere and justice delivered within months if not weeks (never mind other problems with the justice system, caning is inhuman etc.), I think the roudiest minds would not dare try. We should do something similar. More than the law, its law enforsement which is lacking.

    • Poetmamma says:

      Parikshit, Well said. Cannot agree with you more.

    • But I’m not saying they are primary causes (as I went to great length to point out) – I’m saying they’re contributing causes, and I think that much is undeniable.

      Enforcement/ punishment doesn’t solve root causes, but only acts as a deterrent. To be honest with you this “balanced upbringing” you speak of is a luxury most cannot afford!

      The crime rate dropped in the US drastically in the 90s and oughts… and as you likely know, the closest correlation to the steady decline was found to lie in the legalization of abortion in 1973 via Roe v Wade. Closer to home, India had to abandon a very principled (if badly implemented) socialist license raj in the face of economic reality. Heck, Alexander had to give up his ideal of conquest of the world in the face of frayed supply lines, disease, and lack of fungible plunder 🙂 My only point was the solution is never obvious and justice is never easy.

      Final point – good god man! Singapore sounds like a freaking police state or something out of an Orwellian 1984! I’d rather have chaos and some crime than live there! Also I don’t want my government – any government – to basically operate like Dawood Ibrahim. Bhai se panga liya to thok daalega…

      Let me also ask an effectiveness question – does the law of caning mean rape never happens in Singapore? Or does it have more to do with a largely technocratic immigrant populace that values its economic goals more than getting into trouble with the law (say by spitting on the street, let alone raping someone)

      Does the threat of losing your hands from the wrist down prevent all theft in Saudi Arabia? Or is it more likely that because everyone gets a slice of the oil pie, there’s reduced economic incentive for petty theft in urban areas? 🙂 Think about it!

  4. Venkat Raj says:

    There is lot of chest beating going on about this topic and lot of pseudo-psycho analysis. I don’t think any child (either boy or girl) did not achieve what they want in life because of this. To blame this is to not acknowledge once own limitations. While I want a safe country for everyone, my advise to my own daughters would be to use commonsense while going about the town. I won’t blame them if something goes wrong but I will urge them to not take any chances. we live in a society where there is a huge group of people who are not educated and don’t have the same sensibilities as us. Being conservative in our actions is not a bad strategy. Some how the discussion on this topic needs to shift to the role of parents.

    • Poetmamma says:

      @Venkat Raj: Thank you for reading and for your comment, and welcome to my blog.
      A few things come to mind.

      “There is lot of chest beating going on about this topic and lot of pseudo-psycho analysis.”
      I wonder why is it that so many people are beating their chests, especially those who would typically not be so vocal about any other social issues? That was what I was trying to analyze, what is it that makes this issue personal, that has invoked such strong reactions?

      “I don’t think any child (either boy or girl) did not achieve what they want in life because of this. To blame this is to not acknowledge once own limitations.”

      I am not linking personal achievements or failures of individuals ONLY to this reason. There could be multiple reasons for people not able to achieve what they want. What I am saying is, the environment was not completely conducive for girls to freely try to express themselves in a social setting. On the contrary it was hostile. I don’t know about large metros, but in smaller cities and towns, in semi-private, government or even some private co-ed schools, the ratio of girls participating in extra-curricular activities as compared to boys was tremendously low. Why would that be?

      I understand and agree to your point of being cautious. I am an advocate of using sound judgement and wisdom in taking decisions which may risk safety. But the sad part which we are all reflecting on is that going to a movie and returning home in metros around the world at 9:30 pm with company in most cases will be considered good common sense, but the same is against common sense in our own capital.

  5. Dhanashri says:

    That was a very touching article! I can’t express in words how much I can relate with everything you have written. I am not sure how I can contribute to changing the entire society or the country, but I am very much determined to raise my own kids differently. They will not learn the same sick ideas that most of us did. A liberal mind, freedom of expression, equality, respect for all; values that are basically part of our culture but are always forgotten in the interpretation of it.

    • Poetmamma says:

      @Dhanashri: It is interesting to see that so many of us can relate to what I have expressed.

      “A liberal mind, freedom of expression, equality, respect for all; values that are basically part of our culture but are always forgotten in the interpretation of it.”

      I think this conscious thinking and acknowledgment, is in itself a very big positive step. Good thinking and wish you the best.

  6. Liked the article and agree that this is a collective problem . Here is a poem is a similar vein . Hope you like it.
    I wrote this after listening to a rather pathetic interview where the interviewee kept exalting the status of woman and I wondered if this constant comparison to the Devi had turned into a whipping stick, to extol women to demanding and probably impossible expectations an thereby deny them basic status as human. Hope you can relate .

    Downfall of the Devi

    Exalted to the status of divine in the scriptures
    As she struggles to be treated as human in society
    Rejected in the womb, by parents who prefer a boy,
    Dismissed and silenced in childhood, as she sacrifices her education for her brothers
    Living in fear of censure, blame and sexual violence through youth
    As she is held responsible for a dignity defaced by others
    Trying to command respect in marriage
    As different but equal, a partner,
    Not a convenient maid or a source of wealth on the backs of her parents
    Stepping up to earn and supplement family income
    And asking for some understanding some reduction in demands on her time
    Avoiding the penury of money and affection in her old age
    As children leave her alone for greener pastures
    Is this the downfall of the Devi or the descent of her worshipers ?

    -Shubha

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