Jan 28, 2009

Chastity belts, next?

So free am I, so gloriously free,
Free from three petty things -
From mortar, from pestle and from my twisted lord,
Freed from rebirth and death I am,
And all that held me is hurled away.

(Mutta, Therigatha, "Poems by Buddhist Nuns", translated by Uma Chakravarthi and Kumkum Roy)

India - a melting pot of beliefs, a melange of faiths, a multitude of languages.

In India, culture manifests itself within the multi-layered and multi-coloured lattices of region and religion. Therefore, any attempt to look at culture as a homogenized entity would be erroneous to begin with. The diversity contained in what is called Indian culture indicates high degrees of interaction, assimilation and integration for all communities in the lived sense. Even a cursory look at daily life of any section of Indian society will reveal the continuities between various kinds of cultures and the experiential basis of these continuities. Culture cannot be viewed outside of a social context. We find across the length and breadth of the county that cultural practices vary according to social patterns that have been historically and geographically determined to a very large extent.

Indian culture - from a strictly ritualitic point of view - has been appallingly male-appeasing. A plethora of 'traditions' and 'customs' existed - and many still exist - which explicitly and emphatically advocate discrimination against females and award them a secondary status in society. These include casteism, widow burning, untouchability, dowry, terminating the girl child. And sadly, quite a few Indians will go to any extent to defend these practices. What's more, there is no guilt or remorse involved, not even a feeling of wrong-doing, all in the name of 'culture'. India takes pride in celebration of womanhood. But again, she doesn’t like it when a girl child is born. We have an unnecessary and completely unrealistic grand opinion of ourselves – a sense of greatness which is completely hollow, an artificial construct so delicate it can burst like a bubble.

Over the years, however, women have begun to realise they have an equal right to live and contribute as an active member of a society, and that they too enjoy fundamental human rights like men. The emergence of the women's movement, popularly (and condescendingly) called Feminism, concentrated on changing the intellectual fields for women. By and large, it began to play a major role in directing women’s feeling of themselves as the other sex.

In many ways the Indian women’s movement has far outstripped the women’s movement in the West in recognizing the wide range of issues that impinge on women’s equality and emancipation. In India, religious fundamentalism and sectarian nationalism have additionally become obstacles to women’s advance. The women’s movement in India analyses how desecularisation of polities has affected societies.

Culture in India, considering the multiplicity of our social fabric, has little to do with religion. Mixing the two is merely a dangerous strategy adopted by extreme-right groups to capture political power. The obsession to identify Indianness with religion leads to the violation and erosion of the rights of Indian citizens, and to collate religion and politics thrusts forward an obsolete and injust patriarchal ideology in the guise of 'Bharatiyata'.

In the name of tradition and culture, there is active recreation of old social evils so vociferously fought against for decades by the women’s movement. These include some absolutely abhorrent practices such as untouchability, suppression of property rights, child marriage, sati, veil, and restricting women to the home.

Misula*, an adivasi from Gujarat, recounts her very identity being challenged and suppressed, terrorized into declaring herself as part of the majority community. Urmila*, a dalit activist from UP, underlines that although she belongs to a caste where women and men are treated with some semblance of equality, extremist forces make incursions leading to observance of social evils. Similarly, Vaishnavi* from Jharkhand narrates the struggle of adivasi women over land rights, and their heroic stance to safegurd and protect their life pattern and sources of livelihood. Intimidating tactics adopted by right-wing parties in UP include the harassment of and discrimination towards the minorities in their daily lives. While they make a big noise about the film on Benares widows by Deepa Mehta, they show utter apathy for the thousands of women abandoned by their families during the Kumbh melas.

Religion has always been used to suppress women’s rights and to sanction women’s oppression. The religious texts also make women a party to their own oppression by creating and endorsing definitions of the ‘ideal’ woman. These definitions are largely penned around a misogynist and patriarchial image. Women, they say, are essentially mothers. They are also defenders of tradition and bearers of the family honour. These descriptions aim to keep women backward and divorced from the mainstream, even as real-life situations force them to come out in defence of their rights.

And that is why the mayhem that unfolded in Mangalore certainly angers us but does not surprise. It is yet another dagger through our broken hearts. It was once again a brutal reminder that as a country we have decided not to grant protection to half the population. Those who carry out the assaults are unabashedly bold and unrelenting, because they know that there is a political and judicial construct that will help them get away with their crimes. That explains why after the attacks and the outrage that followed, they have been freely intimidating the victims and also the brave young man who came to their rescue.

So what next, after no holding hands with men or even no talking to them? Chastity belts?

* All names changed to protect privacy


Indian Home Maker said...

I prefer the term widow burning to sati!
This post had me seething. I hate right wing for everything they have done including what they are doing to the position of women in the society. They are shamelessly hypocritical.
Let's all write and create whatever awareness we can. I feel if we can create awareness and be a support to any victims - we have achieved something.

Surbhi said...

IHM, here's something else someone said that makes me want to blast them into smithereens.

Just read these gems on the Mangalore shame, and esp. the comments of the readers:
1. http://www.hindujagruti.org/news/6204.html
2. http://www.hindujagruti.org/news/6218.html
3. http://www.hindujagruti.org/news/6223.html

And once you've read them in sequence, you're welcome to share your thoughts.