Last year, a friend told me that as feminists, women are sisters and we need to help each other as much as we can. I was a little taken aback. Where I am at, very few people even help a person lying bleeding on the side of the road. Over the years, I have learned to keep my mouth shut as stray expressions of feminism or agnosticism only invited looks of hostility from women and men in my world.
Far too many women are like that young woman who popped up on BBC a few days ago during a debate about film-maker Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter, now sadly, but quite predictably, technically banned in India. The Indian woman panelist was aggressively patriarchal, pouncing on anyone who didn’t agree with her, accusing them of betraying their country for criticising the ban, repeatedly questioning the channel for defying the Indian ban, and asking why India was targeted when rapes happen in other countries? She also kept reiterating a common refrain we hear bandied about in Indian families: “this is an internal problem, and we need to deal with it internally”. I wish someone could have pointed out, for example, imagine all those years ago if South Africa had said Apartheid is our internal problem, go away world. Well, probably they did, as does every country when the rest of the world imposes sanctions on it. When the young panelist termed it an internal problem, she was speaking the language of patriarchy, and often you need interpreters to understand its skewed and stilted phraseology.
In a territorial, still feudal society where lines are so strictly drawn between groups, castes, families, powers-that-be known in government parlance as VIPs (Very Important Persons), non-group members or persons newly arrived into a group are treated as lesser beings with low status, even unwelcome pariahs, who are not allowed to opine, forget criticise. In this case, the Indian woman panelist had marked out Udwin as a pariah, hence her hostility towards the white feminist; at one point she crudely cut in saying, “we should not be slaves to whites”, in a bid to disguise her own supercilious manner by dragging in race. She had earlier tried to argue that India’s Daughter was fundamentally racist because a white woman from Britain had made a film about Indian misogyny. Perhaps, a black woman should have made India’s Daughter to nullify the charge of racism, the BBC anchor quietly suggested. More often than not, it is those we dub outsiders who perceive our misogyny before we do.
The debater on BBC had stamped Udwin an outsider, therefore lacking the patriarchal assent/authority needed to comment on Indian matters, the matter here being the average Indian attitude toward Indian women. What the woman debater couldn’t understand was that this attitude began with the kind of posturing she had brought forth to display on world television. Leslee Udwin was never the problem. The problem, instead, is how very often the local sisterhood defends local patriarchy before it chooses to help or side with the just cause of another woman, whatever colour or race she may be.
It is easy to spot people with patriarchal inclinations, man or woman, as they share a few common characteristics. They are territorial, often lacking in humility and are so wrapped up in ideology or self they find it difficult to empathise, they are easily affronted, and hate being dethroned, feeling the need to quash or cut down the lowly de-throner. They do not share easily, though they themselves claim to do so or believe they do so. They carry grudges, but identify as very good, family-oriented, self-righteous individuals.
Misogyny runs deep in our part of the world, it’s a hidden underground stream rising up in places to feed surface wells, ponds and even large rivers. There are many grades of misogyny like the truly hideous in India’s Daughter to the casual misogyny expressed by both men and women in our daily lives. We experience it from our families and friends, and on television news tickers, when they carry tags like #nirbhayainsulted (Nirbhaya was the name given by a newspaper to the young woman brutally raped on a Delhi bus in December 2012, the subject of India’s Daughter). The concept of a woman’s honour or insult is deeply misogynistic. To many, this may sound implausible. How can a wish to protect a woman’s honour or save a woman from insult be construed as misogyny? Honour and insult are ideas with feudal lineage accompanied by the baggage of ownership, possession and social ranking. Remember the woman in distress trope. Women were not designed, but conditioned to be weak. They are suppressed both inside and outside the home, and this makes them easy to manage. This is a process called objectification. As objects they can be controlled, possessed or owned, sexualised in Hindi-film dance sequences known as item numbers watched by millions; and the management of these objects becomes equated with family honour.
When a female child is born in India, there are a few things she can expect and it doesn’t matter what kind of family she is from, rich or poor, upper class, or low caste. She is taught to be submissive to elders, hold her head down, and the lowered head to be kept preferably under a cover. She is the family’s fetcher and server of teas, coffees etc, it is considered polite for her to eat last after everybody else. Fathers tell her, her job is caretaking, mothers worry that she needs to learn cooking. When she is sexually teased on the streets by boys, a parent is there to tell her it is her fault, for looking at the boys. Her parents will keep this up, as she is being prepped for domestic service at her in-laws’. These domestic services are always in demand. In case marriage is not on the cards for her, she can come back home to carry on these domestic services. So you see, misogyny begins at home in a profoundly feudal and religious society. It seems innocuous enough, teaching a girl child to be submissive and respectful, but this takes away her self-esteem. When she learns to be fearful, she can never be free. She is readied for lifelong dependency. Without this dependency, if a woman is truly free, the patriarchs fear they will not be able to control her reproductive capacity or domestic service; and society as they know it, will collapse.
Holding her head up high is the first signal to the world around her that she wants freedom, and this is perceived in the feudal world of the sub-continent as arrogance. Slowly, but surely, girls here in India have started to lift up their heads, uncovered. They often bravely contravene ancient sexist norms only to have acid thrown in their faces. They defy parents, in-laws, even friends, to go about making something of themselves. Talking about what happens to her inside or outside her home is a big no-no as the girl is judged ungrateful and it brings shame to her family. This is why you hear the refrain “keep it internal”. Outing misogyny of any kind is understood to be disrespectful, hence the knee-jerk patriarchal reaction to India’s Daughter. In the case of Nirbhaya, by all accounts she had loving parents who flouted stereotypes to let her be independent. The attackers of December 16, 2012 went after this independence—this deemed arrogance of the girl child, and they used iron rods to rape, pull out her guts and put her back in place as an object, a thing born to serve.