Two years ago, the headlines were about a brave young woman fighting for her life in a Singapore hospital after she was brutally gang-raped in New Delhi. The news now is about a BBC documentary “India’s Daughter” that shows one of her five rapists speaking his mind to pervert morality itself.
Jyoti Singh deserved to be raped for being outside her house at night and she deserved to die because she resisted her attackers, says Mukesh Singh, the driver of the bus in which she was raped.
The Indian government banned the film on the grounds that it gives airtime to a convicted rapist and has the potential to disturb the peace, among other things.
As these things go, the outrage over the rapist’s mindset and his outrageous remarks, as well as the debate about the wisdom of banning the documentary that now dominates public discourse, will die before long.
But the bitter truth will remain: While malls and mobiles have been the easy get in India’s march to modernity, there is an internal rewiring that remains incomplete.
Growing up in India, I have been witness to some of these beliefs that hobble India’s daughters. The stories I am sharing here are personal and they mostly have happy endings that Jyoti did not have.
One tale is about my mother who demurely and dutifully draped her head with one end of her saree when the in-laws visited. You could have asked her, although I am sure no one did, why would a well-educated woman feel obliged to recede into a veil and step into the background in her own house. She might have replied, reflexively, it’s a tradition and it keeps the family elders happy. Something that Singaporeans could perhaps understand as akin to filial piety.
The puzzle is that she is of a generation that came of age after India’s independence in 1947, when the leaders of the nation and the shapers of public opinion were men and women with outlooks as progressive as could be found anywhere in the world. But obviously the attitudes did not trickle down far enough.
In my mother’s case, she was denied a chance to realise her dream to become a doctor - it wasn’t a profession dainty enough for women. Nothing too unusual in her day. But she fulfilled herself in other fields she fancied: a post-graduate degree in child psychology, another in education and a diploma in Russian. The veil, at times covering her bobbed hair, plucked eyebrows and sleeveless blouses - the tiny symbols of modernity in India then - has long slipped from her head.
My grandmother, for whose sake the veil was worn, was a pathbreaker in her own way. Growing up in the largely rural Indian heartland, she was among the few girls in her village who went to school. She would turn up for classes, I have heard, in the company of three male servants who would occupy the seats behind and beside her. They ensured that “proper distance” could be maintained between her and the boys, and tradition could survive another attempt at reform.
As a mother, this grandmother of mine sold gold and family farmland so that her eight children, including four daughters, could be educated. But seeing a daughter-in-law without a veil was not a step she and her generation could take.
There is another tale of an aunt who grew up in Gwalior, not far from New Delhi, when it was India’s largest princely state. Her father was a judge who had sentenced to death a dreaded dacoit in the Chambal Valley, its ravines and badlands made famous later on in a Hollywood production Bandit Queen. The family lived with the consequences - the threat of a bloody revenge from the dacoits hanging over their head.
My aunt was given lessons in self defence and she learnt to ride horses and shoot a .303 rifle. But she rode side-saddle wearing a saree, with her head always covered. She went on to earn a master’s degree in Chemistry and work as a lecturer before becoming the principal of one of India’s largest schools for girls. I have hardly ever seen her without her head covered.
Rewind a century or so and there is another tale of a woman in the family who committed Sati, a tradition that sanctions a wife burning herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. The practice was outlawed nearly 200 years ago and has died out, although one incident was recorded as recently as 1987 when an 18-year-old, dressed in bridal finery, chose to perish in this way. When it happened, I was in school and the headlines evoked nothing but horror.
Some years later, I was stunned to learn from a cousin that in some sections of my family, blessings are still sought at weddings from the ancestor who committed Sati.
India has been giving conflicting messages - summed up to me in the education and the veil - and a raw deal to its women although it promises them equal rights in law. Women in India did not win equality, as did the women in England a century ago, through chaining themselves to railings. There wasn’t a violent overthrow through a revolution, like in China, of mores that shackled women. Nor is it like Singapore where the leadership leaned in to minimise the gap between ideals and practice.
For the confused state of affairs in India, a historical narrative is often trotted out as though it’s explanation enough. In sum, it says that in the middle ages, the fertile Indian plains were periodically attacked by plundering, raping hordes from Central Asia. Women, the physically weaker sex, therefore, needed those layers of protection from the invaders, whether in forms of veils or restrictions in movement.
What I don’t get is the wilful blindness to a parallel narrative, every bit as authentic, of brave queens, clear-eyed and valiant, leading troops to battle. There have been many - one is immortalised in statues at public squares, atop a rearing horse, sword in hand.
There is an economic narrative that explains the unfairness. In a poor family, the boys who carry on the family line get the privileges, whether that’s better nutrition or a chance at education. This is the convention that Jyoti’s father challenged when he channelled his hard-earned savings into his daughter’s education, hoping she would lift the family from their poverty trap.
There is a cultural justification. Sita, the heroine of the epic Ramayana, is among five “ideal” women in Indian tradition. One of their principal virtues is chastity. There have been alternative interpretations of these five ideal women through the ages. One of the non-traditional takes has surfaced anew in beautifully illustrated books that can be found in India’s thriving bookstores. These books retell India’s epics from the heroine’s point of view and seem to sell well. I read one on Sita in which she is presented as an articulate woman with independent views.
By no means are the examples so rare that they can be dismissed at the margins; many other women make appearances in sacred, ancient literature, brow-beating learned brahmins in philosophical debates. School-children encounter them in textbooks.
Nor is this only an elitist narrative. There is an element of subversive content even in the ballads and the folk songs that women sing at festivals and weddings that take potshots at the unfairness of men. Many are yet to be translated into English.
Outside the textbooks, beyond the pale of lax laws and under the gaze of patriarchs who uphold with a peculiar pride some archaic traditions that would not survive one hard look, grows a generation from which spring the rapists like Mukesh Singh. Which part of his heritage did Singh absorb? What cues do the girls in his milieu get?
These are the corners of history, popular culture and psyche ripe for excavation. There is scope for many more documentaries about India’s daughters and India’s sons.