Freedom is an unfulfilled promise for nearly fifty percent of the country who have to constantly negotiate their lives through fear and stigma.
It was a holiday. A holiday marked by fluttering tricolours in each neighbourhood and loudspeakers blaring patriotic songs. A day before in school, I had dutifully stood in line and sang the anthem with the rest of my classmates. On the fifteenth of August that year, I was going with my parents to visit relatives who lived at the other end of the city. The bus was very crowded, people had barely enough room to breathe. We got up from our seats well in advance of our stop so we could make our way through the press in time to reach the gate. Pushing and squeezing between people, I went following my parents. And suddenly I felt it. Somebody’s hand on my bottom. I stiffened. Nothing like this had happened ever before. And then, as I stood waiting for my bus stop to come, holding my father’s hand, hemmed in by mostly men, it started. Someone was now squeezing my butt cheek. I froze. I had this icy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t move. Yes, I had been given the talk about ‘bad’ strangers touching me and how I was to shout for help. But I was paralysed. The hand, perhaps feeling it wasn’t making much of an impression, started squeezing like its life depended on it. Harder and harder. I was desperate. I wanted the bus stop to come. I tried wiggling and pressing forward. But I was firmly held in place by the crush of people. And the hand was relentless. Finally, after what seemed like aeons, we got off the bus. Phew! The nightmare was over. But was it? I felt scared and guilty and somehow defiled, all at the same time. Just the memory of the incident, for years afterward, would bring that icy fear back. I was five.
Where the Mind is Without Fear
Fear and shame: two words that dictate how women–48.9% of the population of India–lead their lives. And, dear reader, if you are fuming remember that I have it quite good. I am one of the privileged few–an only child of middle class, savarna parents, one who had access to higher education and a profession. Quite like Divya Kundu, a DJ from Chandigarh. Divya was chased by two drunk men on the streets of Delhi, one of whom happened to be a politician’s son. Seventy years after independence, this incident has filled Twitter and Facebook and the national press with lively debates along the lines of can drunk, rich boys really be blamed for chasing girls who stay out late in the night? As singer turned politician turned minister Babul Supriyo was quick to point out, stalking is what boys do and as Mulayam Singh Yadav, senior opposition leader in Uttar Pradesh, said not so long ago in the context of rape “Boys will be boys, they make mistakes sometimes.”
But what happens away from the glare of the media, in the lives of those who do not make headlines? In rural Uttar Pradesh 23-year-old Shabana reveals “Before marriage, I used to be scared to go out. Even when I did, I would try to come back early, before dark. My brother had a lot of freedom–he got an education. No one educated me. Just so that I don’t go out and mingle and end up in some trouble. I was my parents’ pride and honour, that’s why they didn’t let me go out. It’s the same after marriage, really–now I have to guard my in-laws’ honour.”
Honour. That which is the property of men but embodied in women. Just a glance from a stranger, and you can bring shame upon your entire clan. Anytime a woman is assaulted you can spring to the defence of the accused with four simple words: she asked for it. Look at her dress, what was she doing out so late, alone?
When I first encountered Shabana’s story through the video made by Video Volunteers Community Correspondent Shabnam, I was horrified. Parvez, Shabana’s husband, thinks nothing of slapping her on camera and openly declaring that women are inferior to men. And for all her regret about not having the freedom to be mobile, or an education, Shabana has internalised the perverted logic of patriarchal hierarchy. She declares that obviously, her husband has a right to hit her. Over the course of the last one and a half years of working with Video Volunteers’ gender project #KhelBadal, I have repeatedly encountered videos where women stand up for the most discriminatory practices. They defend rituals and customs where women fast and pray for their husbands’ lives but the husbands are not required to do anything, they accept that menstruating women are ‘impure’, that purdah is essential for modesty. Why is it that women do this?
Anita Devi from rural Uttar Pradesh, gives the answer when tells Community Correspondent Usha Patel that she is compelled to wear the veil, even though she doesn’t agree to it. “I have to give in to survive. There’s a lot of pressure on me to remain a submissive woman. Else, my family will feel that its honour is being compromised,” she says. Women internalise and replicate societal discrimination as a survival strategy. In a country where women are afraid to report assaults for fear of further harassment and stigma, this is hardly surprising. None of us, no matter how privileged, have the absolute freedom to move freely, wear what we want, marry whom we want to without attracting societal ire in the form of shaming, ire and violence. Instead, there are degrees of compromise: for me, it is the length of the skirt when I go out, for a young woman in rural Uttar Pradesh, it is the length of the veil covering her face.
In that Heaven of Freedom
This independence day, once again, will see the celebration of the body politic made flesh–Bharat Mata, in defence of whose honour thousands of trolls take to Twitter and Facebook daily, anointing women citizens with such colourful terms as ‘presstitutes’ and threatening rape, acid attacks and death. We are a country that worships the feminine–so long as it is asexual, sanitised and bovine. Look at our female politicians. From Mayawati to Jayalalitha to Mamata–they are all behenji, amma and didi. And if you were in any doubt as to how ardently we love and worship our mothers, you need only look towards the gaurakshaks who are killing with timed regularity to save their mothers. Nevermind the mother who was gangraped in a moving auto and had her crying infant snatched from her and thrown out on the highway.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of patriarchy and the daily negotiations through which women have to compromise, comes from a young Jyoti Soren in Jharkhand. An adivasi teenager, she poignantly replies to Community Correspondent Basanti Soren’s question about why she is not allowed to venture out alone: “Kyunki main ladki jaati hoon.” Because I am a girl. A girl who was lucky to be born in a country with a skewed sex ratio, the result of an overwhelming preference for male children that leads to rampant, illegal sex-selective abortions.
Right to equality, freedom of movement—these are our fundamental rights as citizens of India. When nearly fifty per cent of the country cannot exercise those rights, and intersections of caste, religion, sexuality and location progressively make it worse for those who are not cis-gendered men, what kind of freedom are we celebrating? Seventy years since the country attained independence from British rule, the best we can do for gender equality is, apparently, taking selfies with daughters. I call bullshit on the empty tokenism of these ridiculous gestures when the rot of patriarchy has infected every institution from the legislature to the judiciary and executive. Don’t believe me? The government has just defended the ‘institution of marriage’ by arguing for decriminalising rape of minor married girls. CRPF jawans, invited into schools to be felicitated in Dantewada assaulted schoolgirls inside the school premises. The Supreme Court has denied a ten-year-old child the permission to abort a pregnancy caused by rape that is seriously threatening her life.
Despite this, if you want to celebrate ‘freedom’ with tax-free sindoor and highly taxed menstrual hygiene products, feel ‘free’ to do so. Because you aren’t free to do much else. I will continue to wear my ‘angry feminist’ tag with pride and ferocity and keep raining on everyone’s parade till we are truly independent–from patriarchy, misogyny and discrimination.
Article by Madhura Chakraborty