From the recent global ire against Donald Trump’s sexist remarks that glorify rape culture to Bollywood’s controversial movie “Pink”, which presents a strong argument against stereotypes, there is a growing consciousness that the reign of patriarchal entitlement needs to be questioned, fought against and ultimately dismantled. We are in an age where the spectrum of the society that had to cower in the stranglehold of the ‘law of the father’, whether it be women or anyone else, are coming out to the fore to rewrite the game for themselves.
The good news is that the space for this discourse has expanded to the everyday news, classrooms and even our very own dining rooms at home. The bad news is that more its supremacy gets threatened, the more forcefully will patriarchal forces crack down on the ‘deviants’. Specifically for women, the prescribed ‘guidelines’ or stereotypes of an ideal existence have made their lives an invisible confinement of sorts. Even after people become aware, it is still a long struggle to achieve a form of stability that resembles gender equality. We have collected some experiences from our peers in Jesus and Mary College which are unsettling in their very ‘common’ nature. After asking the students if they had been discriminated against, it seemed the question was incorrectly put. We should have just asked them, “When?”. The automatic ‘yes’ of all the respondents made us ask whether the nature of this celebrated reformation of society is only skin deep.
(The names here have been changed.)
When Ruth was taking her usual bus home one day, she noticed that the man seated next to her was continually fidgeting with his phone. Due to his odd behaviour, she suspected him of taking pictures of her. Not sure if her instinct was right, she managed to take a look at the phone discreetly and saw that she was right. Not knowing what to do, she impulsively took the phone from his hands and threw it out of the window. Shaken after what she had done, she confronted the man. The man, shocked with what had happened and embarrassed, as everybody had their eyes on him, quickly exited the bus at the next stop without any explanation. “Why does a woman always have to be on her guard like a hounded animal?”, she asked. She finally said that she never sat next to any man in a bus after that day.
Pema and her sister, while returning by metro after watching a movie on a weekend, couldn’t get in the women’s coach. They entered the general coach which was fairly congested. She told us that after a while,they could evidently hear a man standing nearby with his acquaintance pass a comment. “Cheen mein toh bohot sundar ladkiya hoti hogi!” (There must be beautiful girls living in China!) The fact that the northeastern states were very much a part of the Indian subcontinent was a foreign concept. They were astonished and needed a second to come to terms with what had been said. Her sister addressed the man, enraged, “Kya matlab hai aapka isse?” (What do you mean by this?) According to Pema, this confrontation was what baffled the group. She said the mere fact that they understood Hindi was incomprehensible to them. The reply that came after was simply a poor mumble of an excuse. The pressure of the gaze from the people in the metro forced the man to look away and be silent. The attitude of the man which was both racist and sexist, echoed the everyday discrimination they faced on a daily basis. Pema sadly said that they feel doubly discriminated against and a detachment has automatically been formed in their minds as they are always alienated from those around them.
Mariam told us about an untoward incident in an elevator. As she was in a hurry, she stepped into one that was already quite full. There were a bunch of boys standing behind her and very soon she felt as if someone was touching her inappropriately from behind. She looked back and was certain that it was one of the boys. She tried to move away but there was hardly any space to do so. So she stood there and felt the hand again, more aggressively and shamelessly touching her all over her back. She was shocked, humiliated and immediately asked the person before her to move aside and stepped outside the elevator as soon as it opened. There were putrid remarks thrown at her asking her to stay. One of the boys taunted her by saying, “Mat jao aap, mere dost ko aap pe dil aagaya hain.” (Please do not go, my friend has fallen in love with you.) She told us that she couldn’t confront them as she was afraid and embarrassed. She said that the most terrifying thing was that nobody in that elevator said a word.
These incidents are representative of less than a fraction of the countless everyday atrocities that women face in their lives. It makes one wonder that if these fall under what society calls ‘common’, what would qualify as grievous?
Worse still is the plight of those minorities who have been pushed to the margins of society and those who have consciously chosen to live a life that is not in accordance with societal norms. A group of students who worked on a project involving sex workers in a red light district in Delhi narrated this story: Meenakshi (name changed), a sex worker was arrested late one night from the place she stayed on charges of theft. The police told her that a neighbour had registered the complaint. She was taken to the police station and detained for a few hours and released in the wee hours of the morning without a case being registered. According to a Supreme Court ruling, a woman cannot be arrested after sunrise and before sunset. It is also mandated that a woman constable is present at the time of arrest and questioning. When she asked the officers why these rules weren’t applicable, the only reply she got in return was: “You’re a prostitute.”
In another incident, Sharmila ( name changed), another sex worker, chose to flee the torture of the brothel she was working in. From being confined to a dim room with little to no food and water to being repeatedly gang raped by pimps for nearly three months before being pushed into the actual trade, she said the perpetrators would do anything to break the spirit of her resistance. She was bold enough to approach a police station and demand a case to be filed against the ‘nayika’ , the head of the brothel. But she continues to live in the brothel.
Gender identity takes a back seat in these narratives where the ‘woman’ is reduced to an object of sexual gratification and nothing more. Most women end up in these situations without their ‘choosing’ after instances of being cheated or duped on pretexts of love, marriages, jobs and money. In a society where you can be stripped even of your rightful gender identification, the stigma faced by those who choose to live by a gender dynamic of their preference as opposed to what is prescribed is reflected by the current debate on Article 377.
In the heat of this discourse, it is of critical importance that we continue speaking, exploring and reworking an alternative system of gender dynamics and sexual preferences that will be rooted in personal choice. Taking this discussion forward at ‘Literati 2016’ on October 24, the Department of English, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi will be addressed by Gautam Bhan, human rights activist, co-editor of queer anthology ‘Because I Have A Voice’ and a queer activist involved in the founding of Delhi Queer Pride; along with Sania Farooqui, journalist and writer who will speak on women and journalism.
The event will also witness the screening and discussions with filmmakers Samreen Farooqui and Shabani Hassanwalia on their movie ‘Bioscope’. A performative portrayal of gender, ‘Atha Chandbibi Katha’ by Gourab Ghosh will continue the discussion through the medium of art and theatre. There will also be sub-events structured around our theme ‘Unbox the stereotype: subverting gender roles’. Join us if you believe that it is time for a change.