Once the initial shock wave of the gang rape in the capital had passed, hushed opinions started to be whispered behind closed doors and within close groups – “What did the girl expect going out with her boyfriend at night?” “It is the mistake of the parents; they should keep girls in tighter leash.” “Oh that is sad…Did you say she was with her boyfriend?” When the victim of lust passed away, these whispers stopped for a while. Now, they are no longer muted. They’re blaring over television, loudspeakers, cameras and public gatherings.
The agricultural scientist’s statement a few days back not only generated wide-eyed horror, but clandestine nods of approval as well, in more quarters of the society than we’d like to acknowledge. And then started a smooth flow of opinions so far suppressed, becoming bolder and drawing strength from each other. They’re coming from religious gurus and political leaders opposed fiercely in ideologies but united in the age old ‘culture’ of a patriarchal India. Yes, we are a male chauvinistic society. But many of these comments on women’s enforced ‘modesty’ come from women themselves. So what are we to call them? Male chauvinistic females?
The status of women in India today, especially in the growing middle classes, is in a strange transitory state between the modern and traditional, cultural and progressive. Most parents educate their girl child, encourage her to go out and do a job but still restrict her independence to choose a life partner or even choose the clothes she wears. It is empowering women, but in the limited sphere of society’s convenience.
This has resulted in many unforeseen complications, especially where the arranged marriages are concerned. The educated girls, more aware of their rights and what kind of boys they want, are no longer blindly going with their parents’ choices. Though they’re given the choice to select the proposals brought in by their parents they’re not ‘allowed’ the independence to find a partner on their own or fall in love. It is interesting to note how our culture suppresses the most advocated of all feelings – love. And then we sigh on what our society has come to. The parents are finding it more and more difficult to find a suitable match and this is resulting in the marriages shifting to late twenties and early thirties.
On my recent visit to Delhi, when I was invited to take book reading sessions in schools, there were a couple of international schools that I visited as well. At an international school in Gurgaon, one of the most chic schools I’ve ever been to, I had a long conversation with the senior secondary headmistress. She told me about the issue she’d to deal with that day. A girl in the 8th standard had started to chat on internet with a boy in the 10th standard. The girl’s parents came to know about it and stopped sending her to school. The headmistress had to call the boy and take assurance from him that he wouldn’t ever speak to that girl so that she could continue her schooling. These were the issues, said the headmistress, they’d to deal with more rather than the academics.
I remember my co-ed school, The Study, in the town of Udaipur. Our uniform was compulsorily above the knees and we were not allowed to sit separately in the classroom – girls on one side and boys on the other. The seating had to be alternate with one boy and one girl. The boys in The Study never misbehaved or stared down our legs. We had to face giggles, wide-eyed stares and comments only when we were sent to all boys’ or all girls’ schools for inter-school competitions or other functions.
I am amazed that people are so shocked about the gang rape in Delhi. It is not a state of shock but denial. We are blaming Bollywood, television, politicians, Biharis, anti-social elements and all other possible avenues when this should be a moment of introspection. Why does our society shun the families of the rape victims? Why doesn’t anyone come forward to marry a rape victim? The police, Bollywood item numbers, the politicians and even the culprits themselves are our own reflections. They are a part of our regressive society, an extension of ourselves. Like the micro environment of The Study, we have to teach them early that the respect of a girl doesn’t equal the amount of clothes that she wears but the equal status that she gets. The western culture that we blame for all our evils boasts a much more protected status of women today, achieved after years of struggle that brought about a change in the very fabric of the society, not just the laws.
Right now, the women in India are in transition – caught between the darkness and light, when it is neither day not night for them. It is the most vulnerable state, in which even an immortal king like Hiranyakashyapu was killed. The transition is painful and let’s see if it finishes in our lifetime. Yes, we pride ourselves of our culture and tradition. We say we’re different, not like the ungodly west. But in a culture where killing a girl infant is not considered a crime across religions and slaughtering a cow or pig at the wrong place may result in communal riots, we need to introspect where we’re going wrong and how we’re setting our priorities. This is what happens if a country measures its growth only by GDP. Indeed, India is different, but let’s try to make it different for the better. Let’s try to measure the progress not just economically, but socially as well.
I remember the headmistress of that Delhi school where well-educated parents, with stronger financial muscle and high standing in our society’s food chain send their children. The headmistress told me as she got up to go to meet the girl’s parents in her office, “The boy kept insisting that girl was just a friend. I made him sit and told him there is nothing criminal in speaking to a girl. I said if you were born to western parents, they’d think you’re abnormal not having a girlfriend at this age. But you know, India is different.”