I can’t bear to watch the news.
Every second piece is about rape, abuse, or murder of females: infants, toddlers, pre-teen, teen, young woman, middle aged woman, old woman, paralysed woman, mentally challenged woman, sick unconscious woman, drunk woman, maimed woman, destitute woman, starving woman, dying woman. Sister, daughter, wife, relative, tourist, friend. Anything with a vagina. Dressed in baby diapers, school uniform, frock, trousers, skirt, shorts, bikini, salwar-suit, saree, burqa. Hindu, Muslim, Christian and any other religion you can think of. In village, in town, in city. In the street, a mall, a toilet, a hospital, a college, a school, a home, an office, a taxi, a private car, a public bus, a train. In the day or at night.
Our society is so full of s*** in mouthing big ideals as if they can be turned into reality simply by proclaiming them loudly and frequently. Barring those one in a million families, the reality at every level, status, or class is that we teach our girls to be less than they are or can be. To reduce, limit and make themselves smaller. We teach them to be independent, but not so much that they challenge a man’s ego; to be ambitious, but not so much that they hurt a man’s ego; to be successful, but not so much that they threaten a man’s ego, to be vocal, but not so much that they injure a man’s ego; to dream, but not so much that they undermine a man’s ego; to compete, but not so much that they wound a man’s ego; to stand up for themselves, but not so much that they damage a man’s ego; to question, but not so much that they confront a man’s ego.
Indeed, a man’s ego is the most fragile thing in the world.
I hate the hypocrisy of those who, instead of working on ensuring safety and security of women, loudly proclaim that we need to teach our girls to be fearless, to dress the way they want to, to go where they wish, when they wish. To learn and expand their horizons by traveling alone. To be unafraid to go out and travel in public transport to get to work or place of study. What will that change? We have an increasing number of women who are frustrated with the society they live in and who have begun to hate the way things are. Do we ‘need to teach our girls’ or do we need to work on the bigger issue of addressing attitudes of a patriarchal society too used to oppressing women?
The reality is that our girls are a persecuted lot. We celebrate our independence day with such fervour, but ask the girl who has to ride her cycle 5 km to get to school for the flag hoisting whether she will risk going alone for the event, and she will likely say no. Or the girl who has to walk from the bus stop three hundred metres from her school if she will go on her own and her response will be, ‘I can, but I’d prefer going with a friend’. Ask the bahu who desires to experiment with those snug-fitting tops to feel sexy for her husband, or the girl who wants to wear that revealing dress for her boyfriend at a party, or the middle-aged woman who is starting to rebel at the unsaid injunction to stick to salwar-kameez or ‘sober’ cover-yourself-up clothing, and they will all tell you that there is little freedom to follow your heart. I don’t know why we create so much noise and sound righteous about the burqa culture in other countries crying about how oppressive it must be not to be able to choose what you wear when we have an equal amount of unsaid rules and directives in the garb of tradition. We wear invisible cloaks that weigh us down, limiting our choices as a result of societal pressures.
I sometimes find it desperately sad that like crores of others, I belong to that ordinary class of women in general in our society who are made to feel apologetic for being beautiful, intelligent, brave, vocal and successful in their own right. To feel guilty for wanting to be sexy, audacious, and independent; for having desires and dreams. To feel shame for being sensual, lustful and passionate. To feel embarrassed about not lowering their gaze and meeting a man’s eyes without being cowed into submission.
I remember, as a university student, the ordeal of traveling in buses. You never knew where a groping hand will land and when. Faceless, sweaty people touching you, leaning into you, rubbing against you…all done and gone in a flash, leaving you with shame, guilt, disgust, helplessness and a desire to cry. I tried to convince myself that this is how it is for every girl, but then, when a man started stalking me from the bus stop to the gate of my housing society for the half kilometre that I had to walk, I could not bear the anxiety. I am not so courageous and in less than a month, I moved to the safety of the hostel in the university campus even though my home was in the same city. My heart still pounds if I take an auto in a strange city and we are passing through a quiet stretch of road. I am apprehensive when I have to go to the crowded local market by myself and avoid it as best as I can. Why? Because there will be someone who gets their kicks out of thrusting an elbow into my breast or squeezing my bottom in the middle of the crowded street and I will only have a fleeting glimpse of a smug face, gone before I can react. I have experienced this even when escorted by my husband. I no longer go to the old city market where we both used to go to make purchases for our business. I expect ugliness and I know it will be there. This is the reality of the free society we live in.
I want to be proud of my body. I have grown up with the firm belief that my body is to be cherished as it houses my intellect and my mind. Even though I often feel detached from it as if it isn’t really there and I am all mind, it is a part of my sense of self all the same. My identity is definitely attached to it. I do want to look good. I like to feel good about being healthy, having a flat tummy, a trim physique, and curves I feel proud of at my age. I work hard to keep it that way. I enjoy receiving compliments and admiring glances. I like to look in the mirror and see a person aging well.
Do I conform to the cultural nuances that I have grown up with? Absolutely. I haven’t worn a skirt outside the house since I left school. And worn it rarely, and then mostly within the confines of my room in a joint family. I stopped feeling guilty wearing fitting clothes and sleeveless tops in front of in-laws and elders when I got to the wrong side of my forties. Not because they objected, but because I expected they would. I just did not want to test that belief. I still don’t wear strapless or spaghetti tops, or cover up with a shrug if I do. Because I don’t want my peace ruined by having my spouse frown at bare shoulders, though he would appreciate other women when they do.
There is this concept of ‘dress your age’ in our society when you get to your thirties and forties. This translates to choosing ill-fitting, shapeless clothing and covering up once you have crossed into married-woman-mother-of-a-teen territory. Also, wear ‘sober’ colours which means wear dull, drab, pastels only, so you don’t attract attention to yourself. I know for a fact that most men in my circle of acquaintances view women who do not conform to the above norms as ‘loose’, ‘shameless’, ‘immoral’, ‘cheap’ and ‘easy to have’. They laugh at them in derision and make off-colour sexist jokes about them. Behind their backs. Though they would be politely calling them ‘ma’am’ as perfect gentlemen when they are in their company and even be hypocritical enough to compliment them on their dress and perhaps ‘free spirit’. For the women who rebel against or even moderately deviate from the norm, the men either ridicule them (if they are ordinary ‘housewives’ or middle class women with jobs), or lust after, desire and admire them (if they are successful, rich or from high society). It is a class thing.
I often see the city girls from Delhi and Bangalore, from Mumbai and Hyderabad and wonder how this brave new breed will establish and maintain personal relationships unless the men change and evolve to match them in attitude, behaviour and beliefs. And then I see village girls and women in B and C class towns and cities and wonder whether it is even possible to change the men in these places to match the evolution the women are undergoing. In a society where crimes against women are committed every two minutes, how do we safeguard ourselves? What kind of freedom do we live with? How do we aspire to greater heights? How do we break out of the stereotypes? How do we teach our men to respect women? How do we teach them to view women as anything other than objects to be used and abused?
Or as a woman, I can wonder: how do I walk down the street alone? Shall I risk going for exercise in the beautiful, but somewhat isolated park close by at 5 in the morning? Is it worth it going to the crowded market in the old city unescorted? Can I bear the lecherous touch of the men in the buses and trains tomorrow again? Can I take the overbridge at the railway station or the underpass at the Metro and escape the lewd comments and lascivious gaze of men? Should I take an auto at 9 at night by myself?
It is a tribute to a woman’s forbearance, fortitude, courage and appetite for life that she continues to smile, find peace and beauty in her existence, give thanks for her blessings, love the good men in her life, and live joyfully in such a society.