I am in mourning. No, not for the dead 23-year-old victim of one of the most brutal rapes our woman-hating country, India, has yet seen. To her the cease of struggle, the sleep and rest after unbearable suffering. To us the questions, the self-criticism, the challenge to step up. To her the end of agony; to us, the beginning of agonizing, and, though I say it with no great assurance, the promise of a better tomorrow. We can make it happen. But will we?
She, her entrails torn from her, had yet the courage to fight till her last breath; do we, our bodies intact and whole, have the stomach for our own fight? For it is a fight that we are facing; make no mistake about it; it is a fight. A battle, a war. Against, as I have said before, India’s hatred of women. This battle has to be fought with our own fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends. It has to be fought in hundreds of millions of homes across India. It is a fight that is an ongoing project, a continuing, wearisome struggle. There has not been an ultimate victory in this fight even in the West. It is a fight from which, in India, most of us cringe. We prefer to hide from it, to pretend it is not to be fought. But it does.
It has to be fought with ourselves.
Misogyny stares at us across the breakfast table in India. Misogyny sways and sweats alongside us as we travel in crowded buses and trains to go to work. Misogyny works at the desk next to us, goes shopping with us, meets us after work for drinks. Misogyny shares our bed with us at night.
Misogyny stares at us from the mirror each morning. It is there and everywhere else that we must confront it.
I will not say: This is a fight we can no longer afford to ignore, because the truth is we could never have afforded to ignore it. This rape, this death, represents nothing at all new. Women are raped every day, many women, all across India, in police custody and out of it. The rape of each and every woman matters, whether she be an Adivasi activist Soni Suri, raped in police custody with stones inserted into her vagina and rectum, or a middle-class, probably upper-caste young woman disemboweled at night on public transport. Each and every woman matters, and our response if it counts one above the other is selective and therefore inadequate.
As Arundhati Roy has pointed out, we have a culture of rape. The word “culture” is pertinent. Indian culture is like a lab culture where rapes are inevitably manufactured because they are the natural, organic, inexorable result of our hatred for women. This is not foreign culture; it is not a result of British rule. This is Made With Pride in India. And it’s everywhere.
What are we to understand by “a culture of rape”? Why simply this, that misogyny is as endemic, as indigenous, to our culture as salt to brackish water. It is so commonplace the stench of it has ceased to bother us. And yet one could give example after example, cite instance after instance, easily sufficient to fill volumes, of the relentless, casual misogyny we women are subjected to every day and to which we have learned to subject ourselves and one another, thus completing the patriarchal triumph, forging our own fetters with our own toil.
“Women drivers! Don’t tell me about them! A nuisance, that’s what they are. Ha, ha!” guffaws Father.
“Ha,ha!” we flute back, eager to please Father. After all, it’s only a joke, isn’t it? Father is a nice man, and we must have a sense of humour. Humourless whores are loved by nobody. Smile. Swallow the smart.
“These women should watch how they dress. After all, provocative clothing, you know, and boys naturally . . . ,” says Uncle.
And we nod in agreement. Uncle will be pleased with our womanly acquiescence. After all, it is “not done” to contradict elders.
“You’re a woman, my dear; learn patience!” counsels Aunt.
Quite. Aunt has had more experience of the world than we have; she has learned, in the American idiom, to get along by going along. So we learn patience of Aunt.
“You women! None of you can think logically!” Thus a rational colleague at work. Our response? Silence. For who would we go to for redress of this form of sexual harrassment? Who would call it sexual harassment? The even more rational male boss? The self-rationalized female boss, who might pull an Aunt and tell us to “learn to take things lightly,” “learn to adjust”?
Sometimes it’s just a look. The look of joy when the long-awaited male heir finally puts in an appearance. The look of disappointment at the birth of yet another accursed female. The strained smile with which demands for more dowry are met. The glance, the gesture, the sigh. In such things are our stories told. In such things do they remain untold.
Want to list more instances? Be my guest. Write to me your stories. I bet there are trillions—sorry, can’t think of the next bigger number, but trillions will do to start with—trillions of such stories that you could tell me if you spoke, sister women and any brothers courageous enough to face the truth. So tell them. Break the silence, for one woman at least can speak no more. And though we walk and talk and move and breathe, our continued dishonesty about India’s misogyny makes us more rotting corpses than she will ever be.
Oh, I know that one cannot always take up everyone on their misogynist remarks; if one did, one would be battling all the time, and with one’s nearest and dearest. But wasn’t there someone who said: “In feminism, the personal is the political?” Oh look hoo haa, she actually quoted a Western feminist. We got the green light to dismiss her as a toady of Western feminism. What a relief!
But you know what? As this sister from Lebanon points out, it’s not Arab equality or Indian equality or Chinese equality or Australian equality. The struggle for the equality of women is an inalienable part of the struggle for universal human rights. It is universal equality. And the fight for it is universal, too.
Even if we cannot take up every challenge to our selfhood that is thrown at us each day, sometimes multiple times a day, surely there are times when we can? Surely it can’t be that we have to put up with that misogynist boyfriend because wail, wail, we must not remain spinsters? Surely it’s not necessary to rush quite so precipitately to laugh at Father’s jokes about women drivers? Surely even our silence can qualitatively change, so as not to imply consent? As rational beings, can we not dispute these casual insults to our dignity calmly and reasonably, when time, strength and courage permit? If our minds change, so will our responses.
Of course, we will get blowback for our pains. “Disobedient,” “Rebellious,” “Unco-operative,” “Stiff-necked,” will be just some of the gentler ones we might expect. Suddenly relatives who had come to count on our smiling acquiescence will find themselves met with resistance instead. We might even, horror of horrors, no longer be the most popular chicks around.
Are we willing to purchase popularity at the price of integrity? Are we willing to be Daddy’s little girl—doll, I had better have said—while Daddy treats us as less than fully human? Are we OK with the false peace that comes from an absence of real self-expression, and the false relationships that take the place of real ones, where one is not afraid to stand for the simplest of values—the right to be treated as an equal human being? What do we have to lose? The appearance of harmony? For make no mistake, that’s all we have. If more and more of us speak out, if we talk to friends, band together, make a plan of not shutting up and nodding yes the next time we are treated as lesser, guess what? It will become more and more socially acceptable to speak up. Ten may take courage from the action of one. If we cannot speak up alone, let us enlist the help of a like-minded friend, an ally in this battle for equality and let’s have each other’s backs.
There will be hell to pay at first. And some of us will lose a good deal that we had. That we thought we had, that we bamboozled ourselves into believing we had—popularity, the reputation of being a team player, hassle-free relationships, even safety and security. But the truth is, as women in India, we usually have none of these. None. We only have their false appearance, their simulacrum. It is the other price we pay for pretending we have rights and dignity when in fact, we have sold both to “fit in.”
Are we prepared to pay that price? If so, let us please not go through any further charade of mourning for the dead woman. She and Soni Sori and the teenager allegedly raped and set on fire by her attackers in West Bengal and the ten year old raped and left to die in a garbage dump and the woman dumped in South Delhi and tens of thousands of their sisters mean nothing to us. Let us show how little we really care—a yawn, a snap of the fingers, an obligatory giggle at a misogynist joke, a chilled Coffee Mocha at one of the American-style cafés we adore so much. Let’s stop showing off already, the grave faces, the solemnly shaken heads. It’s tiresome. Let’s forget her.
If we want to remember her, we can start very simply. There’s our home; there are our family and friends; there’s the mirror.
Pubali Ray Chaudhuri is an Associate Editor of Intrepid Report. She lives and writes in the California Bay Area.