“I do not want my daughters to be ahead of their husbands in any field. I always want them to walk one step behind their husbands.” With these words, a distant relative brought home to me the truth of how entrenched gender inequalities are in society. Before you dismiss these words as stemming from ignorance, I’d like to clarify that the speaker held a doctorate in political science and by all means, therefore, falls under the classification of, ‘educated’.
The UN is celebrating 16 days of activism against gender violence. It becomes imperative to question what forms this violence takes. Physical? Certainly. Domestic violence is rampant all over India and is more or less accepted as part and parcel of ‘disagreements between the couple’. However, is physical violence the most prevalent or is it simply the one identified most easily?
A few months ago, #maybehedoesnthityou began to trend all over social media. The hashtag attempted to bring into focus the fact that psychological violence was as bad as, perhaps worse than, physical violence. It requires very little to kill someone’s spirit. Generations of social conditioning and cultural indoctrination have ensured that even the seemingly most enlightened spirits amongst us succumb to socially defined gender roles and accept the construct as natural.
A few examples may work to make my point clearer here.
An acquaintance who runs an NGO that provides vocational training towards rehabilitating victims of domestic violence once complained at great length about her sister-in-law. The lady in question did not enjoy cooking. Worse, she actively tried to find ways to escape her onerous task. When her husband, the complainant’s brother, interjected to point out that his wife travelled two hours to-and-from work, a staggering four hours of commuting time, and was therefore, understandably tired at the end of the day, the complainant looked rather scornfully at her brother and said, “She will have to cook. Its her job.” She was quite incensed when I politely butted in with the query, whether or not her brother ever cooked. He was apparently too tired after work to slog it out in the kitchen and in any case, it wasn’t his job. Here, I mentally awarded the husband full points for standing up for his wife to his sister. But I also wondered, a woman who rehabilitates victims of domestic violence fails to see the irony in her own words and deeds. Was this not a form of violence perpetuated upon the sister-in-law? Did this count for nought?
Another example might be provided.
The relative who wants her daughters to always walk one step behind their husbands once proudly stated that in her household, girls were forbidden from even accidentally overhearing the Gayatri mantra. Here, readers might insert any ritual and any religion of their choice. A careful study – historical, sociological and anthropological – would reveal that historically, subaltern groups have been denied the right to practice their religion or to take part in the great or little traditions of their religion by those in power as a means of asserting dominance and as a means of denying knowledge. The latter is a derivative of the former.
When we talk of cultural grounding, it becomes imperative to question the markers of that culture. Wedding songs, perhaps are the most obvious representations of the violence inherent in the interaction between the sexes.
A popular song goes, “Bhala hai, bura hai, jaisa bhi hai, mera pati mera devta hai” (He is good, he is bad, whatever he’s like, he’s God to me). Another exalts the divinity of the husband with, “Tum hi mere mandir, tum hi meri pooja, tum hi devta ho” (You are my prayers, my place of worship and my God). Yet another song, “Chal pyaar karegi? Haan ji, haan ji. Mere saath chalegi? Na ji, na ji” (Would you love me? Yes, I will. Would you come with me? No.) So far, so good. What follows is, “Tu haan kar ya na kar, teri marzi soniye. Hum tujhko utha kar le jaayenge, doli mein bitha kar le jaayenge” (Whether you want to say, ‘Yes or No’ is upto you. I will, anyway, lift you up and take you away). Clearly, the woman’s agency matters very little.
Amir Khusro perhaps subverts this beautifully, when in his ‘bidaayi’ (farewell) song, “Kaahe ko byaahi bides” (Why are you getting me married and sending me to a foreign land?) the bride questions why her father has given her away to an alien land and alien people. In a rare moment of questioning, she asks her father, “Bhaiyya ko deenho baabul mehela, du mehela, humko diyo pardes” and in an absolute subversion of ‘kanyadaan’ (ritual where the father hands over his daughter to her groom), sings, “Hum to baabul tohre khoonte ki gaiyya, jahaan bolo bandh jaayein” ( I am, father, a cow in your stable, will stay wherever you ask me to).
As a young girl learning Hindustani classical music, I often wondered why the ‘naayika’ (lead female protagonist) was always so terrified of her in-laws. A refrain frequently heard was, “Saas-nanad mori dengi gaari” (My mother and sister-in-law will abuse me). It took me years of questioning to figure out that the ‘saas-nanad’ (mother in-law and sister in-law) did not abuse the poor ‘naayika’ because they were expected to or because they wanted to, but because that was the milieu they had been brought up in. Many of Premchand’s and Tagore’s stories deal with the violence inherent in a joint family set-up, where the bride and groom are not expected to spend time together.
Indeed, a certain aloofness is required to be maintained. And as for sexual violence, Dharamvir Bharati’s “Gunaahon ka Devta” (God of Sins/Crime) deals very delicately with Sudha’s struggle with marital rape. Ironically, almost a hundred years after Bharti brought the issue out into the open, India is yet to criminalise it. As examples quoted above will demonstrate, due to, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament, India has yet to cover a lot of ground, not just as far as marital rape is concerned, but also in recognising subtler forms of violence, those embodied in speech, and psychological violence, what is known as, ‘gaslighting’.
How many times do we as a society put the onus of staying safe on our girls? We are taught a lot about what ‘good girls’ do and do not do. How many of us also hold boys responsible for their behaviour? How many of us would argue that by propagating the, ‘boys will be boys’ argument, we essentially rob boys of their better judgement and their humanity? Why is menstruation a dirty word? What is pitiful is that by neatly slotting people into defined gender roles, we rob them of their agency.
Khalid Hosseini writes in “The Kite Runner”, that the greatest crime is theft. All other crimes are variations of it. I’d like to take his argument one step further by arguing that all theft is violence. Every moment, we, as a society, are perpetuating violence. Isn’t it time we raised our voices and did something about it?
Sixteen days of activism are all very good, but its the other 350 days that we must watch ourselves and those around us. Only then can we hope to eliminate gender-based violence. The, ‘Bell Bajaao‘ (Ring the Bell) campaign brought physical violence into the public sphere Its about time the other forms were addressed comprehensively too.
As for me, I will continue to ask everytime my proud father, displaying my achievements to all and sundry, says, “Yahi hamaari beti hai, yahi hamaara beta hai. Hamaari beti hi hamaara beta hai” (Here’s my daughter and here’s my son. My daughter is my son).
It’ll take him a while to overcome his conditioning, you see.