Saroj is the cook who works in our house. In India, almost everyone has a cook and/or cleaning lady. Without these amazing people, we just wouldn’t be able to function. Days the ‘bai’ doesn’t come resemble the apocalypse. Dishes pile up, the floor looks dusty, everyone eats leftovers or pizza, and chaos reigns. Saroj is around thirty years old, and has three daughters. The eldest is fifteen years old. So yes, she got married well before eighteen. Conversations with Saroj reveal several bitter truths about Indian society, which the rest of us ‘privileged’ lot conveniently ignore.
Poverty forces most of these people into early employment (employment=menial tasks, labour, housework). Saroj is an intelligent, ambitious person. But she is the eldest of four siblings. Her own mother was married at twelve, in her village. Since her father was a useless drunk who took his wife’s income and beat her and the children, her mother decided it would be best to get her children married off at an early age. Though Saroj was keen on studying and making something of her life, she didn’t have a say in the matter.
After marriage, she had three children. Why? This is where it gets interesting. Like many, many Indians, she was hoping for a boy child. This terrible desire for a male child seems hard-wired in many Indians, despite the ruin it wrecks. It cuts across economic backgrounds, religions, and geographical areas. It’s one of the great levelers of Indian society. Fortunately, Saroj’s husband was sensible, and realised three was quite enough, thank you. He feels that a girl is as valuable as a boy.
But Saroj’s relatives, and even other maids in our building, talk to her with great pity. “Oh, you have three daughters?” Significant pause. “No sons?” They make it a point to ask this ‘no sons’ question, as if Saroj is inflicted with some incurable disease. Seen from their point of view, she is diseased, because she’s already worried about how she will get her daughters married and produce a dowry for each of them. Here’s one of the many conversations I have with her.
Armeen: Let your daughters study. They can get decent jobs later.
Saroj (smiling): Yes, I want them too. What I couldn’t achieve, they will.
A: Don’t get them married very young to just anyone. Many men ill-treat their wives. So be careful.
S: Yes. But didi, if they study too much. Then we won’t find boys for them. Our boys don’t study that much. Twelfth pass at the most. If the girls are graduates, then they won’t find husbands.
A (still trying): Ok. But let them study. They can still get married. Everyone has to change to make things better.
S: That’s why people like having boys. Girls are a big load. My sister-in-law has had three abortions when she got to know she was expecting girls. She has five daughters and they want a son.
A: Three abortions? That’s very dangerous for her health. It’s illegal for a doctor to disclose the sex of an unborn child.
S: Yes, it’s illegal. But there are doctors who do it. There’s a clinic in Surat which does just this. Many people go there, get tested and come back. It’s famous.
A: So many of your men beat their wives daily, abuse their children and make their lives hell. You complain about your own father and brother all the time. Why are you all so obsessed with having sons?
S. What to do, didi? That’s the way thing are in our community. I will have to look for grooms among my community people. If my daughters study too much, it will be a big problem. We can’t look in other communities. People think boys are a blessing. But often they are just a headache.
A: Look, now the world is changing. Girls are doing a lot, as much as boys. Let your girls become something. If they work they will be better off in life.
S: Yes, that’s true. But they can’t be better off than their husbands. That will be a problem.
A: If you want things to change for them, then you have to start changing.
S: Yes I know. But what’s the use. Only one person can’t change. Everyone has to change.
A: (gives up)
S (grinning with great pride): But my girls speak English. They will do something. I'm worried about their college. Boys will harass them in college, and on the bus.
A: We all faced that. They will learn to handle it. (Although these days the level of harassment has reached something else. But we can't all sit at home because some 'boys' will harass us, right?)
So that’s what it comes to. She doesn’t believe that changing her thinking or practices will have any positive affect. She’s waiting for the rest of her community to take the first step. And the rest of them are waiting for someone else to change. It’s very hard to alter mindsets. There's no easy solution to this. Her girls are the only hope. They’ve gone to school. The eldest will start college next year. Hopefully, they think different. However, that may not be enough. They will have to be supremely strong to put their foot down to go against the grain, if they want to work. They will have to disregard the enormous pressure on them to get married, and produce yet another boy.
The recent horrific rape of a 23 year-old in a moving bus in Delhi has outraged, angered and saddened many of us. Yet, I am sure that there are huge chunks of our population who think this is much ado about nothing, that the girl may have ‘asked for it’, why was she out so late, for rape is now a sport in India.
Why and when did we become like this barbarian? There is a historical-cultural-religious angle. There is the angle of law and order failure, and a sloth-like judicial system. There is the angle of things changing fast in India, but mindsets still remaining in the dark ages. There is the angle, the most crucial one perhaps, of attitudes towards women, by men and even by women. This rape is not sudden or out of the blue. There has been a steady increase in rapes and violence against women for years now. This most recent rape is just the pinnacle, or rather, one of the lowest points of depravity. Because for centuries, men in India have been taking liberties. They consider it their birthright to stare at women, to sing while passing them, to make passes and comments on them, to brush past them, touch them, to hit them, to rape them.
In many Indian homes both parents and grandparents, even mothers, will openly favour the son. He grows up treated as a demi-god, and probably sees his father beating his mother. This attitude sticks on forever. This man will feel outrage when he sees any woman who is not a demure slave. This man cannot cope with what he sees, and he wants to re-assert his power, and does so by violent sexual abuse. In his weak and probably sick mind, that’s the ultimate and only weapon he has left. His manhood and his brute physical strength.
These attitudes are only reinforced by ancient ways of thinking, religious beliefs and cultural practices. Take Raksha Bandhan, a seemingly harmless festival. It just reinforces that women need the ‘protection’ of men. Dowry favours the male. It puts the female’s family into debt and struggle. Some friends who have had or are attempting to have arranged marriages (even without dowry) describe it as 'the man’s market’. Across class and caste, the male has the upper hand.
In my own alma mater, the country’s premier design school, there are a few faculty/staff who take terrible liberties with female students, especially young under-graduate students. What they do is well known in the campus, and most of these men have notorious reputations that precede them. And if we questioned this behavior, we were told, by female faculty to “let it go, these things happen, you can’t do anything about it.” And this is another strong root of this disease in society. We keep quiet. Women tell other women to shut up about it, and move on with their lives. As a woman, how can you tell another woman ‘it happens’? Does that justify it? That just hands over all power to the perpetrators. And this is how society starts spiraling out of control. Today, it may be extra-friendly physical proximity or a personal remark. Tomorrow, it becomes rape. If we don’t start talking about and discussing these things, they are never going to start being resolved.
And let's not forget that ours is still a repressed society. Driving Audis, drinking Starbucks, wearing Levis and visiting malls does not make us progressive. Most Indians cannot even think of talking about things like sex, gender equality, or even periods. Just go and buy sanitary pads at any shop in India. Even in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai people may look at you strangely. The shopkeeper will wrap the packet in newspaper and put it in a black plastic bag, for what shame it is to be seen walking around with Whisper or Stayfree! We are ashamed of carrying sanitary pads. We are not ashamed of raping five year olds. That is the kind of culture we are. And our film industry persists in showing women as objects without minds of their own, to be ogled, and to be harassed.
The Mayans believed end of 2012 was the end of the world. It definitely seems as if human beings have stopped being human. Perhaps it is truly Kalyug, the age of downfall. We have all felt extreme emotions over this rape. Rage, outrage, sadness, hopelessness. We have to translate these emotions into positive action.
There is not a woman alive in this country who hasn’t been (at the very least), stared at from tip to toe. Most women have gone through much more. It could be groping by a stranger, it could be being flashed at, and it could be being raped by her father and/or uncle. Somewhere in India men don’t want women to use mobile phones. Somewhere else a man locks up his wife’s genitals. These are desperate and heinous attempts by men to stay in ‘power’, what they consider their birthright. There is a Talibanisation of India going on even as we speak. We cannot keep looking the other way. Rape and sexual harassment as sport has arrived on our doorstep. And it’s going to bang the door down unless we do something now.