Let me at the outset clarify the use of the word rape, lest it generates another controversy – rape here is a metaphor for brutalization, and not the physical, legally defined rape.
I recall an incident from within my family, several moons, or rather full moons ago. My elder sister, then a student of architecture, was insistent on participating in the college bhangra (Punjabi folk dance, generally performed by men) performance. “But girls normally do gidda (another Punjabi folk dance, performed by women) – can’t you participate in that?” queried the female head of the household, whose own upbringing had been quite at variance with the liberal mindset of our paternal side.
It was a stand-offish argument between my sister and my mother – the result of which, as I recall, was my sister not participating at all in either performance as a protest. Of course, there is every possibility that both of them will now gang-up to crucify me for revealing family secrets.
The incident stayed on long enough in my memory – 23 years is a long enough time measurement unit – as it highlighted the variance between the two household heads in our family, my father and my mother. The former, now deceased, brought up in an environment where the women in the household were not the supporting cast but the main lead while the latter, raised in tradition, where only the XY chromosome was fit enough to carry the family legacy.
The death of the 23 year old physiotherapist has raised several questions – safety of women in public spaces is foremost, and then there is the debate about mindsets. But exactly where does this mindset originate? Quite obviously, from our traditions and culture.
We have two epics both of which perpetuate the culture of the male viewpoint being the only one worth upholding. We celebrate a festival in honour of a man who first asked his wife to undergo a fire test to quell rumours that she had been ‘defiled’ by her abductor. Even after she passed that test, she was ultimately abandoned because another man wasn’t convinced.
On the other hand, her abductor, whose effigy is burnt with religious fervour on an annual basis, did indeed commit the crime of taking her against her will, but still did not force himself on her even when she was in his captivity.
There is of course the incident which precipitated the abduction – the cutting off of the nose of the abductor’s sister by the younger brother-in-law of the woman mentioned above. Did her alleged misdemeanour of asking the man to marry her invite such drastic retribution? And can crime against one woman justify another crime of abducting another woman? Yet, we have since millennia perpetuated and glorified these mythological figures as the epitome of an ideal man, husband and son, and celebrated them through festivals.
The other epic, a war tale, wherein one woman is betrothed to five brothers, not quite with her consent is another example of the patriarchal mindset that we are currently decrying. It may be noted that while the husbands in this case went and got married to other women, despite having a common wife – Bhim and Hidimba is one example, Arjun and Subhadra is another – the common wife didn’t have such privileges.
And then there’s the mindset that while a mistake by a man can be settled through a verbal duel or through recourse to law, a mistake by a woman deserves the retribution of a sexual assault. Duryodhana, mocked by the woman above for failing to notice a pool and accidentally falling in it, deemed it fit to disrobe her in public.
Yes, mythology comes in the realm of make-believe and faith has a lot to do with it, but the question that needs to be asked is, just what is it that we are putting our faith in.
We have a festival of Karva Chauth, wherein wives keep a day long fast for the longevity of their husbands – glorified through popular entertainment options like TV serials and movies showing wives going to the extent of touching their husbands’ feet at the time of breaking fast. Really now, just how regressive can one get. In fact, the lyrics of one particular Bollywood movie song, set around this festival went thus: “तेरे हाथ से पी कर पानी, दासी से बन जाऊं रानी (From your hands when I drink water to break my fast, I am so blessed that I become your queen from being your slave/servant). Really ‘blessed’ lyrics.
Why can’t the female and male actors in such serials and movies put their foot down with the film makers and tell them that they will not portray women in a manner that seeks to perpetrate the notion of them being underlings to men? Or is the lure of lucre too much to resist?
We have the tradition of ‘mundan’ or tonsuring the head of a new-born. The basis for that tradition is that a new born’s hair is unclean as he/she was in the womb of a woman for nine months – the womb of course being associated with a woman’s menses, which themselves are considered unclean, to the extent that even today, many households forbid menstruating women from entering the kitchen during their periods as it would ‘defile’ the food.
It’s not just the men, even women – educated elite, who have successful careers – believe that a woman is unclean during her periods and must consequently refrain from even performing daily prayer rituals. If God, in whose honour the prayers are intoned, made woman, as he did man, then surely He can’t consider His own creation unclean.
Reality check, dear all: this humanity exists because of a woman’s periods, so if a woman is unclean, so is the entire humanity.
Mindset change however is not that easy. In 1997, during the run-up to the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, a well-known MNC FMCG company, while promoting its dental care products, produced an advertisement that I would say was ahead of its times. The TV commercial was about a young, independent woman with a career, single and happy in her life and how her father too had come to accept her independent choices. The toothpaste brand connect was with her smile, as a sign of happiness.
It was a great ad, a good concept but was inexplicably taken off the air after being aired a few times, probably because it directly challenged the notion that a woman could be happy while not following the traditional route of marriage and having kids. And I guess somewhere the MNC felt it could lose its loyal customers. Incidentally, that FMCG company is today headed by a woman – a first for the company and the sector in India.
There is certainly no brief that women are to be deified – they are as human as men and make their own share of mistakes. But a mistake or a crime by a woman is no reason to sexually harass her. If you are infuriated by a woman driver talking on her cell, it doesn’t give you the right to call her ‘randi’ (whore/prostitute) – she’s at best an idiot.
It’s not just men whose mindset needs to be vandalized – women too are guilty as much. A senior lady colleague once cast aspersions on another’s character – much younger to her – just because the younger colleague was unmarried and going through some difficult time personally. “This is what happens when you don’t get married on time,” the older XX chromosome opined. With the matriarchs perpetuating these kinds of beliefs, will you really blame their sons when they demonstrate their distinct disdain for women or their viewpoints?
One can only hope and plead that the next time you see your daughter ‘sitting like a man’, or ‘talking like a man’, you won’t admonish her and ask her to ‘behave like a woman’.
PS: And I can only hope I am not arrested for writing this piece, or attacked by a mob of religious zealots.