I have so many memories of growing up in a small town in India with three sisters and a bunch of cousins. We had impromptu picnics at the Kharkai river near our house, we stayed up all night after exams to celebrate and commemorate with our little parties, we performed plays for the neighbors, and we had weddings for our dolls, long elaborate ceremonies with so much fun, frolic and festivities.
Once, we walked over five miles in the rain and lightning to our aunt’s house and her daughter almost had a heart attack seeing us all wet and shivering at her door but, for us, it was an adventure. The world was our oyster and we were naïve, bold, unafraid and willing to speak our minds. Our parents were not hovering around us as helicopters either.
One vacation , we were going out of town in an open jeep with the four of us in the back, it was just our trusted driver and us, our parents were already there ( I forget the name of the city but it was somewhere not too far) and we were joining them. A car with three or four young teenage boys who had their windows rolled down started following us and somehow it turned into a race. When we would be in the front we would start singing, “aa dekhen zara, kismen kitna hai dum… (a Bollywood song which means let us see, who is stronger)” and then when they would race ahead we would be badgering our driver Kujur to go faster. It was all meant to be in good fun and after sometime we stopped at a roadside store and we were in the lead and happy about it. Their car stopped right behind us and one of the boys came over to me and said in an angry, menacing way: “Don’t act too smart, ladki ho, apni aaukat mein raho (you are a girl, stay within your limits)” That was enough for us to back off and leave immediately and thankfully we avoided any harm or retribution from them.
This incident happened more than thirty years ago and it came flashing back to me when, recently, I read what the Nirbhaya rapists had to say about the innocent victim, how they blamed her for fighting them. It makes your blood boil when you see that these deranged animals have no remorse or regret, they think that a girl should stay within her limits and how dare she has a voice, how dare she stay out late, how dare she have a boyfriend, and, if she speaks up then they have every right to silence her. These comments make me so angry; I did not watch the documentary “India’s Daughter” as I knew I would explode with rage at the unfairness of it all. It is deeply disturbing, disappointing and depressing to see that certain men have such distorted views on women.
This mean spirited, cruel mindset is a result of the way these men are raised, the way our society either elevates a woman to the status of sati-savitri (pious woman) or immediately labels her a slut if she desires to dress differently or act differently than what is expected. Looking back to the Ramayana, Laxman drew a laxmanrekha (line) around the house for Sita and she got into trouble when she crossed the line. Even though Laxman was very well intentioned and he was looking out for Sita’s best interests, there is still something so symbolic about a man drawing a line which a woman cannot cross.
I remember watching the movie “Hum Aapke hain Kaun” and the lyrics to one of the Dhiktana songs reads, “Pehli kiran jab se uge, Bhabhi meri tab se jage, sabka pura dhyan dhare woh, sham dhale tak kaam kare” Loosely translated, the lines mean that the daughter in law of the house wakes up earlier than everyone else, works hard the whole day and makes sure everyone in the house is happy. Our religious scriptures, our movies, they all emphasize how women should be models of selflessness, how they should always be serving others. Sons in law, on the other hand, are treated like God. Women fast for the long lives of their husbands, men don’t. It is because of this inequality that most people want to have sons and there have been so many cases of girl fetuses being aborted.
The sex ratio in India is 943 females per 1000 males. Eventually, women will be really important when there are not enough left to find brides for the men! The tides will turn for us, a change is coming and we are so ready for it.
The status of women is a problem worldwide. Even in America, some men feel that if a girl is drunk, wears short clothes and goes to parties, she is fair game for any kind of violation meted out to her and this attitude makes me fiercely angry. India has been in the spotlight so much but rapes happen with frightening and alarming regularity all over the world.
A lot of men are decent individuals who respect women and treat them with dignity. Many men took to the streets with the women to protest against the Nirbhaya rapists. Not all men, Indians or otherwise are male chauvinist pigs. Recently, Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist from India won the Nobel peace prize for his tireless and selfless work against child labor and he got far less media attention than the bad guys did.
I really feel that women empowerment can happen when women support each other. We have to have each other’s back. You cannot have a chip on your shoulder just because you have a son and you cannot be cruel to your daughter in law. We, as women can be so snarky and judgmental about each other. The stay at home moms look down upon those who work and the working moms sneer and sarcastically quip what the people who stay home do all day! In order to achieve gender equality all women have to be on the same team. Parents have to practice fairness at home by treating their sons and daughters equally.
The new generation does fill me with hope. Most young people today are bright, helpful, liberal, caring and considerate. My daughter, who usually never talks much when she gets home, was so moved by some videos she watched in her AP Human Geography class that she came in the door and started telling me about it. They had heard stories of young girls in Nepal, India, Africa and Egypt and those girls had been through many hardships and dangers and they wanted to go to school and have an education. My daughter expressed a desire to help these girls and she realized that the things she takes for granted like a safe home, food in the fridge, an education etc. are a luxury for so many girls around the world.
My two boys aged 10 and 12 treat their 15 year old sister with respect, they even do her chores for her if she has too much homework and they always make sure she is the first one to sample the foods they cook. One day, we were teasing the boys about girlfriends and my daughter said “Mom, if they find girlfriends who are mean or abusive, I will protect my brothers, I will always look out for them, nobody messes with my brothers!” and my heart was so happy that a sister was saying this about her brother instead of it being the other way around. I am really hopeful about a world when a girl or a woman will not be derided for being smart and she can make her own decisions without anybody telling her what her limits can be.