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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Being Female in India: A Hate Story

Blog by Pubali Ray Chaudhuri
Her epitaph should read, simply, without any personal reference: India hates women. For I can think of no greater way to do her honor, the 23-year-old victim of a particularly grisly gang rape who died, after a battle for life that lasted nearly two weeks, in a Singapore hospital in the early hours of December 29.

Jyoti Singh Pandey was attacked with her male companion while traveling on a public bus in India’s capital, New Delhi. Both were savagely beaten, the woman raped and then, together with her companion, thrown from the moving vehicle. Her intestines had been ruptured by an iron rod that her attackers inserted into her vagina; her brain and internal organs had suffered massive damage. I can only honor the supreme horror that she faced in the dead of her night by speaking the supreme truth in the light of our day, by laying it, a funeral wreath, at her feet and the feet of millions of her sisters raped in India. Like the teenager allegedly raped and set on fire by her attackers to ensure her lasting silence, like the 10-year-old raped and her body thrown in a garbage dump, like the woman raped in one city and dumped in another.

India hates women. That is the ugly, unvarnished truth.

It is also what Indians lie about the most, except perhaps our other self-told fairy tale–rather similar to the lies Euro-American society tells itself about “post-racial” America–that caste discrimination is a thing of the past. I can think of no brace of lies more ubiquitously told by Indians to ourselves, and they are often connected, as when the rape of this urban young woman galvanizes national and even international attention, but the rape of a tribal woman, Soni Sori, whose attackers’ tender attentions included the thrusting of stones into her vagina and rectum, is almost totally obliterated from public scrutiny because of Sori’s disadvantaged status as a tribal woman and the fact that her rape occurred in police custody. But both rapes speak to a pervasive, deeply entrenched misogyny whose roots run bedrock-deep in our society and are directly proportional to the extent of our denial of this very misogyny.

“We worship women as goddesses.” Lie. Women are not worshiped as goddesses; goddesses are worshiped as goddesses. What all the vaunted goddess-worship really does is to create an impossible ideal for women, similar to the Madonna-Whore dichotomy of the Christian world. It also serves as a veil, a burka to cover up the awful reality that, far from being goddesses, women are less than even fully human in India.

“We’ve had a female prime minister, a female president and several female chief ministers. How then can we hate women?” One is tempted to ask, in the earthy North Indian idiom: Am I to make pickles out of your so-and-sos, your precious ministers and chiefs? What good has their being in power ever done to any ordinary woman? How many rapes, dowry deaths, beatings, sexual harrassments has it prevented? What has it ever done except to prove that a privileged few women can get status, wealth and power?

“It is getting better; these things take time.” Martin Luther King would have smiled wryly at these words; they are not unlike those he was told by well-meaning Southerners anxious to maintain Jim Crow. “It” (notice, “it” is not even named, it is she-who-must-not-be-named, this specter of the suffering of women) is not getting better. “It” is getting worse. A rape reportedly occurs every 20 minutes in India, and we are carrying our hatred of women right along with us into the 21st century. For, as I have said, the roots of such hatred are deeply Indian. This is no imposition of foreign rule. We can’t blame our old bugbear, the British Raj. This is pukka, indigenous, Made With Pride in India stuff. We came up with it all by ourselves.

And that is why this rape should come as no real surprise to any adult Indian. Anyone who has grown up in India knows about India’s hatred for women. And most of us are guilty of lies, hypocrisy and denial about India’s misogyny–and therefore complicit in this rape and in every other. Our lies are not harmless or inconsequential; they have real, and gruesome, consequences. Our lies helped to beat and disembowel that young woman, helped to send her crushed and bleeding to die. Our denial made that heinous act possible, created a space for it to happen. Each of us could write volumes if we chose on the ways in which India hates women, so to my Indian readers a let’s-count-the-ways-we-hate-women would be vieux jeu. For non-Indian readers, however, a brief adumbration might be useful.

The hatred of women starts in the womb, when we abort hundreds of millions of female fetuses each year. For Indians, girls are a burden; the desire for male progeny is as natural to us as breathing. Even before conception, we utter prayers, make vows, observe fasts, bow before this or that divinity, all so we might not remain childless or burdened with the debit side of the account–the girl child. For burden she is;  practically every Indian, barring a few communities where matrilineal systems still exist, must be familiar with the idea that a girl is “paraya dhan,” the treasure of another’s home. The word “treasure” should not fool us. We are commodities, chattel, goods. Why else would we have to pay the groom’s family a dowry for the favor of taking the girl-child off our sinful hands?

We are a “treasure” nobody wants, and once we are here our interests are often subordinated to those of the real treasure, the male sibling. If there are brothers, they inherit the property; very often, the daughter gets no share in it. Her nutritional and educational needs, like her emotional needs, are made subservient to those of her brother. Often the mother and the father, along with the extended family of uncles, aunts, and grandparents, are equally complicit in this form of abusive discrimination. The male offspring gets the last glass of milk; his are first dibs on the money to study abroad; he gets the house. She gets the second-best, the dowry as a farewell gift, and the push. He is Lord; she is vassal.
Her marriage is a gamble; if she happens upon husband and in-laws who treat her well, she is lucky; if not, too bad, she cannot return to her parents’ home without incurring disgrace. Many Indian parents will coax and even force a woman, perhaps in fear for her physical safety, certainly suffering from stress, emotional abuse and indignity, to return to her marital home because haaa, haaa, for shame, shame, puppy shame, what will the neighbors think? And even though there are millions of Indian women who now go out to work, many of them don’t make enough to keep themselves and their children, should the need arise to do so. And even single women living on their own are regarded with suspicion, and can often be refused rental accommodation by prospective landlords. She could, you see, be a slut! No male protector, no male owner. Wouldn’t you be suspicious of such a loose wench? And getting alimony out of a husband in the event of a divorce is another Sisyphean task in itself, into which we need not go further.

So you see, in the face of such an all-enveloping climate of misogyny sustained by an equally pervasive denial, “It’s getting better,” and “These things take time,” don’t get us very far.  An Indian man, after having offered me a variation on such patronizing bromides, asked me, not very seriously I think, what “we” could do to help “our” women.

Well, I said. For a start, we could stop lying.

Some feminists in India have clearly had enough. Witness the young women out on the streets protesting peacefully against the climate of hatred for women of which this rape and murder, and millions of other assaults, are the inevitable and bloody fruit. It is also heartening to see so many young men with them, who reportedly rushed forward to take upon their own bodies the blows rained on their sisters by baton-wielding police. But the real battle against misogyny in India has to be fought in our homes and hearths, our hearts and minds. It has to be fought in our own families, with our fathers and mothers, our uncles and aunts, our cousins, friends, colleagues. Misogyny–the idea that makes it OK to pray for male children, to save for a daughter’s dowry, to make sexist jokes and pass them off as “humor,” to watch avidly innumerable television sitcoms and movies where courting is essentially coercion and where women are routinely portrayed as “lesser”–is always with us. It sits across the breakfast table from us in the morning. It works alongside our desk in the office. It meets us after work for drinks, goes shopping, clubbing and to the movies with us. Misogyny stares out at us from the mirror.

India hates women. We need to face this fact in order to change it. It is the highest tribute we can pay to the young woman who died a few days ago today. Admitting we have a problem is the first step towards change, towards healing, towards hope.

Photo of candlelight rally in Kolkata against the gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, from Wikimedia Commons licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.