A Body of Her Own
'I see my body as an instrument, rather than an ornament'.
I can recall very well my father's anxiety with the incidents of rape and harassment reported almost daily in the morning newspaper. It crippled me-- the thought of being an 'extra' responsibility.
I will never forget my own face….never ever.
Burdwan-Howrah Morning Super
No place to breathe in the crowded space
Then started the pushing, nudging against my body
Ripping apart my modesty.
I turned back but there was no escape
I tried to look at the face of my father
We are sundered by the streams of men
I gasped but could not shout.
I was a kid at that time.
Shrank in anxiety, fear and shame
belonging to the clan of the ‘weaker sex’
I could not let him know.
Jostling against the men with small hands
I choked back the tears and did not spit it out.
I have to be strong and equal.
There are countless such incidents and occasions which made me feel to be trapped in my body and as a part of growing up (and as a strategy of survival with self-respect) I learnt the art of bending the body in the right angle to pass by an 'inappropriate touch' or counter a groping hand and retaliate by equal and opposite reaction. Sanjay Srivastava (2004) in 'Sexual Sites, Seminal attitudes: Sexualities, Masculinities and Culture in South Asia' records that the exploration of sexuality for boys begins with 'touching' or 'pushing' women in crowded places often in an aggressive manner and they don't consider these activities as 'offensive' or 'indecent' rather a large proportion of them overwhelmingly views these actions as a part of 'normal male behaviour' as they find no resistance from girls and presume that women might 'approve' or 'like' such advances. While on the other hand girls were much bothered and depressed by the act of 'being touched improperly' but confessed that they did not protest fearing social stigma, because, it could risk their reputation by drawing public attention to their bodies (216-217).
Women are certainly unsafe outside but also equally unprotected inside home.The teacher who was allotted to look after my homework used to pinch on my bare upper arms and thighs and gestured nastily with a twitch in his eyebrows. I mustered courage to complain to my parents and he was sacked. I can recount similar narratives from fellow students who were harassed in private tuition classes by teachers, male friends or within home by cousins, neighbours or relatives.
There are specifically two categories in which sexuality can be located: Pleasure and Pain/Danger. Where pleasure is solely the men’s domain as they are given a free hand, women are deemed to possess dangerous elements which can thwart the social order. Thus women's bodies become the source of threat and so, they are supposed to endure pain/slight/abuse to preserve the 'repressed veil of composure', maintained by Indian customs and the remedy is to convert women's sexuality into the image of a benevolent wife and a nurturing mother -subdued, curbed and curtailed. A woman's body, to herself, is an 'alien country' which should be explored by the rightful owner, i.e., husband. She should have no knowledge about her bodily functions before marriage, otherwise she is a 'whore' or 'used' by other men. There was a time when women were married in childhood (which is still in practice inspite of being outlawed) and after puberty immediately transferred to marital homes to initiate the process of 'learning' about their bodies and motherhood by an insensitive husband. Are not these marital rapes?
A high amount of prestige is attached to a woman's virginity and so the character of a rape victim is easily assailed. Her 'polluted' body stands as a contrast to the 'ideal chaste maiden' and crimes committed by violators are belittled. So, patriarchal society dictate terms, norms and codes to secure the cloistered integrity and 'honour' of women's bodies by laying down local laws regulating clothing, behaviour (to determine whether it is moral or unladylike), and even restricting the use of mobile phones (which connect women with outer world)!! Perpetrators are hardly cautioned by issuing 'diktats' regarding whistling, taunting, teasing or raping. So it is not unusual when molested women are driven towards suicide, reflecting the systematic social apathy and a rotten moral structure (where such ordeals are the order of the day). The psychological agony of being a girl child is concretely manifested in physical and mental bruises through maltreatment, discrimination, dowry, bride-burning which continue through the changing roles of women as daughter, mother, wife, sister (but she hardly gets a chance and autonomy to be herself). Thus women are largely portrayed as foolish, emotional, body-bound, chocolate like creatures either to be melted under social dogmas or fit to be groped and harassed.
1) Socialization of women by turning them into meek and mute sufferers or spectators (where self-blame rules the roost) even though they cannot travel in public transport without being groped once in a day. It also draws a binary between two types of women:
Good Indian housewife material who does not raise a voice and remain silent observer while active and vocal women are termed as 'uncontrollable', prone to immorality, 'inviting harassment' and 'western'.
2) Indian patriarchal society has divided men further into two categories: Perpetrators and Protectors. There is almost no space for equal standing, amity and friendship --dominant norm is either submission or enmity between the two groups oppressed and oppressor.
3) In a country like India a woman who is focused on the topic of gender, sexuality and sex education is readily assumed as a sexually available 'bitch', a coquette or a 'man-hating' mad feminist (as if feminism is a slur and poses innumerable disadvantages to the predominant 'male culture' giving a a blow to indigenous 'head of the family system')! Though none protests as the female counterpart bears the brunt in silence and plight drowned in daily derogation. They are mocked as 'privileged' section for having 'reserved' compartments or seats inscribed with the red letters as 'ladies' (where men are barred) by completely overlooking the reason behind such systems. It stupefies and petrifies me.
4) Active protests with posters and postcards, glaring pictures and outspoken words soon become history or an 'oblivious memory'.
5) Women are burdens in terms of economic independence, religious doctrines, physical might.
6)Though with the growing number of educated women the binary (that a woman’s place is 'inside home and around hearth', burdened with naturally ordained reproductive responsibilities, without any agency or authority, while a man has exclusive right to enjoy and occupy the public space) is being rapidly deconstructed, the inherent patriarchal traditions reign supreme.
7)The continuous juxtaposition of opposite qualities as 'assertive and submissive', 'active and passive', 'powerful and helpless' affects both genders by sustaining stereotypes.
1) Intensive gender-sensitization in schools from childhood and expert counselling and campaigning by media and national, international and social organizations to remove gender disparity within families and inculcate the sense of social responsibility.
2) Increased police protection in public places and implementing gender-sensitive laws
3) At the same time there is a need to check the 'moral corruption' of such authorities as police department is often thought to be indulging in and directly/indirectly boosting such crimes.
4) Understanding the basic assumption that no victim is morally wrong or a criminal cannot be excused by citing 'moral laxity' of the victim.
5) Empowering Women for equal participation in decision-making both in public and private spheres.
6) Raising awareness about the right to equality and safety under the eyes of law as provided by particular provisions and breaking the personal barrier of shame by encouraging girls to say 'No' to everyday ritual of harassment.
7) Denying gender-specific 'favours' and educating boys as compatriots instead of bosses or masters.None is weak or slave of other's 'lustful desire'.
8) Scrutinizing regressive customs and encouraging free-thinking through debates and dialogue.
9) Accepting women as human beings, women as a whole--- accepting her body and mind, sexuality and sensibility, reason and agitation, intellect and emotion as natural strengths of character rather than ingrained weaknesses.
10) Most importantly, it is needed to respect and treat oneself equally in a gender-neutral way. Power comes from within. No amount of awareness, education or law can 'impose' liberation if one is not self-motivated to fight against the evils of injustice.