It is a small village in Madhya Pradesh, Ratanpur, where one can witness groups of young girls sitting outside their house. These young girls, some of whom seem to be as young as 14, have painted their faces in a combination of bright red, pink and orange colours. This peculiar sight is accompanied by a bizarre reality that this village which is home to the ‘Bedia’ community faces. The Bedia Tribe is notified by the Government of India as a Scheduled Tribe, residing in specific/segregated pockets within north Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, following ‘prostitution’ as a familial occupation.
In the life of a Bedia family, the birth of a daughter is celebrated and hoped for, as it brings economic prosperity and wealth for the family in the future; the girl is the sole breadwinner of the family. A family in the Bedia Tribe with parents, a daughter, and a son, wait for their daughter to turn 14-15. As the girl hits puberty, her virginity is sold to the highest bidder for a large sum of money– anything between Rs 60,000 – 10,00,000 depending on the region and the appearance of the young girl. In this case, the very first payment is used to throw a huge feast, akin to a wedding where the young girl is married to the ‘money’ that she receives. The parents of the girl give away their daughter i.e., perform ‘kanyadaan’ with money that she receives.
If the girl has any brother(s) or a father then they become agents or pimps, bringing more customers/men. This girl would receive 6-7 men on an everyday basis, and most women get addicted to alcohol and other intoxicants. The entire household runs on the money that these women earn, making them economically powerful within their families while they are employed. The hazards of the trade catch on to these women early on, and many of them fall victim to diseases like HIV/AIDS or die in their late 30s or early 40s. After 30, most of these women do not get clients and have several illegitimate children. When they are no more a source of income for the family, they are discarded away and left to die alone in poverty. This is the life of a woman from the Bedia community residing in different northern states of India.
As war takes away several lives, one of the most prominent weapons of warfare is rape and slavery. Iraq has been suffering and living through the ill-effects of invasion, war, civil war and all the possible ghosts that it brings along. One community that was at the receiving end of the war with ISIS was the Yazidis – a small community for whom Yazidism is their religion and ethnicity. Their small but closely-knit community lived a life away from politics, power, and control. Kocho lies at the hem of Syria and Iraq, giving shelter to this small group which is often ostracized and side-lined by the mainstream Iraqi government. The community has lived through the three wars of Iraq with –, Iran-Iraq war (1980), The Gulf War (1990) and the US invasion (2003); but it was the origin and spread of ISIS from Syria to Iraq that blew the death knell for the Yazidis.
Nadia Murad is a Yazidi woman who lived in a small, quaint and peaceful village, Kocho, with her extended family; they built up their lives inch by inch through farming and livestock rearing. It was like any other regular morning in Kocho, the members of the community were already distressed due to the increasing influence of ISIS in the surrounding areas but tried to occupy themselves in their everyday chores. This is when a few vehicles filled with ISIS troops entered their village. Initially, the Yazidis were asked if they will convert to Islam, and the head of the community had to respond to the ISIS members within a few days, or else they will be sent to Sinjar Mountains (this is what they were told). The community reached a unanimous decision and told all the ISIS members that they refuse to convert to Islam, and choose to leave their village for Sinjar.
As Nadia’s family packed the essential belongings, leaving behind everything that they had worked for all their lives – they left a piece of their heart in Kocho. Little did they know that ISIS had other plans; as all community members young and old, men and women, toddler and teenagers gathered around in a public school for ISIS to take their call, no one had predicted what was to happen to this tiny village. All men were slaughtered in the school with guns while women were put in trucks and taken to ISIS soldiers, to be sold as a reward. This was a systematic use of ‘sexual slavery’ as women were bought or sometimes used as ‘rewards’ and ‘incentives’ for good work of ISIS soldiers, and many men were tempted to ISIS through this idea of keeping a ‘sex slave’ or ‘sabiya’. Nadia was bought by several men, raped over and over again, forced to dress up and put makeup, forced to do all household chores and beaten up for no reason. Many of these women prayed for death than the life that they were forced to lead as a ‘sabiya’. Nadia and several Yazidi men and women lost their village, their people, and their identity while the whole world was turning a blind eye to this tragedy. She escaped this tragic fate and became a Human Rights activist with the UN, and became the front runner for letting the world know that this was happening to Yazidis in Iraq. She was the sex slave that survived to tell the tale of torture, genocide, and slavery.
The society has created certain norms and exceptions. Following and adhering to the norms is considered as ‘normal’, and everything else is ‘abnormal’ or an anomaly. Sex and gender are complicated concepts and ideas which are created by society and creates the society at the same time. The existence of heterogeneity is traditionally not accepted and acknowledged by our society, as the world around us has created a binary narrative for everything. This puts the people who fall outside this binary narrative exposed to discrimination, ostracization, and abuse. This is what the people from LGBTQIA go through in all parts of the world – from the most progressive and developed areas of Europe and the US to the poor and undeveloped regions of Africa and Asia.
Nikki Hayden is a 26-year-old psychology student who was born in London. Born in a developed country, Nikki encountered problems related to her sexual orientation very early on in her life. She was around five years old but she never realized that she was not a girl; she was perceived as a boy by everyone else but her. She always felt like the girls, and would often go to the girls’ toilet. At this time, she struggled with her identity as she could not fit in with the boys in her class; and was told not to mix up with the girls, but the people from her gender bullied her for being effeminate whereas the other gender considered her a boy.
While going through these complicated emotions and feelings, she struggled to understand who she was, she was ‘transgender’. And now she has to come out to her parents and her society and is leading her life with all the prejudice, discrimination, mistreatment, and abuse that comes along with it. She will have difficulty attaining an education, making friends, dating people and doing everyday things that heterosexuals take for granted. This is the life of Nikki Hayden residing in one of the most developed and progressive countries of the world, and she is still bound by her gender and sexual orientation.
The three different scenarios present the multiple realities and disadvantages that exist in the world we live in. One underlying theme that these stories highlight is the role of chance in our lives; and how chance limits our ‘choices’. Let’s discuss the above scenarios one by one. A woman born in a Bedia community has almost zero chance of attaining an education, she inevitably becomes a prostitute; though in, some of the Bedia communities, women are given a choice to be a wife or a prostitute. But then asking a child to choose one of these paths at a rather young and vulnerable age is not a choice but merely an illusion of choice. A decision as grave and as enormous as this can only be taken by people after attaining some semblance of maturity. It could have been considered as a choice had the women been made aware of the repercussions of their decision, of the good and the bad side; and primarily if they had a better life offered as an alternative. The life of a wife within the community is also not treated with much dignity or respect because of no economic or social power. The two alternatives are in no way liberating for the women of Bedia community; as there is no provision of education.
There is only one woman within the Bedia community who has ever received education, highlighting the odds of every woman of the community. They have no access to the outside world, living on the edge of cities does not help them because they are capable of thinking and comprehending the reality that they have seen. They are raised in a world with a different world view. As children while we are taught that we must study hard to be able to survive in the world, these Bedia women are taught that they must sell their bodies in order to fend for their family; in addition, their parents highly approve of this and appreciate and encourage it. Which child would not want validation from their parents especially when they have seen all children from their gender following a similar lifestyle; they don’t know any other alternative. To put it simply, if legends like ‘Lata Mangeshkar’ or ‘Saina Nehwal’ or just simply you and I were born in this community as women – there is nothing that we could have done differently to achieve to the fullest of our potential. No amount of hard work or determination or effort would have done anything because one needs ‘opportunities’. A large number of women who are born in these Bedia communities and in many other parts are not given a chance to develop their potential. From the moment that they are born, they are at a disadvantage to the extent that they cannot do anything about it.
In the second case, we looked at the life of Nadia Murad and other Yazidi women. This story highlights the disadvantages that people experience especially when they are born at the wrong place at the wrong time. So, generations born in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Rwanda at the wrong time have been subjected to the injustices of war. Similarly, people born in colonial countries were subjected to slavery, the slave trade, exploitation, and oppression and there was nothing that they could do to improve their standing. War does not just prove to be fatal to the soldiers who are fighting at the front, but it proves to be devastating for the villagers living near the war zones. The stories of occupation, rape, slaughter, and brutality are not uncommon during war. Sexual slavery has become the norm, and Nadia Murad was one woman who survived this ordeal against all odds. Do you think that other Yazidi women or women from Rwanda did not try to escape sexual slavery? Several factors aided Nadia and other women who did manage to escape. If and when you read the book about her life, it makes you realize that it was only ‘chance’ that saved her. There are thousands of Yazidis, millions of Rwandans, millions of Jews, and innumerable Africans and Asians who fell victims to the horrors of war; and they were just born in the wrong continent at the wrong time. There may be a Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela, A K Ramanujan, Maya Angelou or any other human being that may have lived in all these communities and regions; but they never got a ‘chance’, a single opportunity, to develop their potential, and to become the best version of who they are. They could have been the greatest legends but – no one is a born legend, they become one with the right opportunities.
In another scenario, Nikki is a trans woman living in London, United Kingdom. Despite being born in a developed city with stable political and economic conditions, there are gender stereotypes that she must fight. The transgender community faces isolation, discrimination, abandonment, oppression, and exploitation irrespective of the part of the world that they reside in. They have to fight within and without as they must first acknowledge and accept their own identities, and then fight with the rest of the world to understand and accept them. The people within the community did not determine their status in the society as being an exception, there is no amount of hard-work or determination that can change their lives especially when they are not even recognized or acknowledged in several parts of the world. Living in a progressive society also does not ameliorate their lives, they are restricted by their gender and sexual orientation, and there is very little that they can do about it. The lives of the transgender people, of the people from (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual) LGBTQIA, involves a constant struggle to fight for their identity, to be accepted, to not be discriminated and to lead a happy life.
Some people, some communities and some regions put people in susceptible situations, and it is purely determined by where they are born, what they are born as and in what era are they born in? There are certain factors that do not just limit our options but completely leave us at the mercy of our fate, but we are not ready to acknowledge that at all. This only reminds me how a large number of the human species believe that they can achieve anything, that it is only hard work and determination that stands between them and success. And they cite exceptional examples where people overcome disadvantages and discrimination to become successful, but they forget to factor in ‘chance’ and ‘privilege’. I am not denying those stories of heroism, of success and of absolute courage – but they are one in a million, and sometimes one in a zillion. It is only a single individual which means that the system of the world runs on the principle of ‘chance’ and not ‘hard work’ like we are taught.
We still want to believe in a society wherein we can achieve whatever we want through hard work and persistent effort. But how valid is that? How realistic is it? Does a child born in one of the tribes of western Africa have the opportunity to be an astronaut or a lawyer or a doctor? Could women born in some of the most conservative middle-east countries enjoy economic, social or political power? Disadvantages (caste, class, region, religion, country, gender, and time) work in a way such that they reduce an individual’s options. This inherent inequality that is borne out of ‘chance’ is really troubling because a large part of our world’s population suffers from a fate that they don’t deserve or did not choose. This is why ‘hard work’ and ‘determination’ must always be accompanied with the right opportunities, with fate, with meeting the right people.
The idea of chance, of opportunities, and of access made me think and venture into larger questions like justice, equality, and freedom. These terms that we learnt during our history lessons in school seem even less realistic and hard to comprehend in this world of ‘chance’. This makes me wonder if we, as a society, could ever overcome these disadvantages that we are born into. Can we truly implement idealistic concepts like justice, equality and freedom in the life of every human being on the planet? I do not think I have an answer to this, and though my brain says ‘No’, my soul says we must always strive for it. As an evolved species, we could strive to create a society where each and every individual is given an equal platform; and all other disadvantages of caste, war, region, religion, gender, and profession must be overcome. This can be only accomplished when people acknowledge that there is an overwhelming presence of inequality on the planet, and that no amount of hard-work or intellect can ever be sufficient to overcome certain inequalities.
This is when I came across the theories of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. While discussing the role of the government or society, Amartya Sen talks about his ‘capability approach’ where he says that every individual has the right to reach his or her full potential; and shall receive the appropriate opportunities and options to be able to develop themselves – which means that everyone should get food, shelter, water, electricity, quality education, and other opportunities to reach their true potential; and inequalities that are part of us by birth should play a minimal role in our lives and our future. Nussbaum further extends his argument to say that the government in any state must play a role wherein opportunities or options are essential to maintain human dignity; and she goes on to include various other factors in her definition of human dignity like– affiliation, emotions, senses, bodily integrity, health, and life. This idea is idealistic and surreal, to say the least, but it nevertheless seems ‘just’; this is the kind of society where there is equality, diversity, justice and true freedom of choice. This is when all Dalit women or a transgender person from a disadvantaged socio-economic background are given the resources that the privileged class in Delhi or an upper-caste wealthy man would receive in the capital city – that is justice, freedom, and equality all coupled in one society; that is the utopia that I want for the world.