1303 AD. It is a thick coagulate of amassed soldiers just inside the massive Chittorgarh fort gates in the deserts of Rajasthan. There are spears, double edged swords,chainmail armour, spiked helmets, regal horses and elephants draped in gold. A little girl in jingling anklets and a swishing long skirt runs up to her father, feeds him a spoonful of the auspicious yoghurt and makes a mark of the vermilion on his temple. In an alcove high above are sitars and shehnais playing the war song as veiled women in saffron saris shower the men below with rose and marigold petals.
The vultures are circling above.
Supplies within the castle have dwindled. There is no more food and no water. Outside, Ala ud din Khilji and his immense army stands waiting. All of it to satisfy Khilji's desire for the Maharani Padmini; the most beautiful woman in all of India. The gates open and in a horrid theatrical moment a motley group of emaciated Rajputs are engulfed in a swarm of steely eyed warriors. The withered arms buckle under the huge gilt swords and each defender is hacked to pieces. Kihilji rushes to the gates within only to find a funeral pyre in the square. He and the others watch in horror as one after other the women and children jump in. The Maharani jumps in laughing. The smell is overpowering; burnt hair, ghee and sacred spices.
And so goes the legend of Jauhar. Of women that would rather self-immolate that let their honour be violated. An so compelling is the legend that to this day it is revered across India. The abolition of Sati and Jauhar along with the introduction of railways has been one of the standard justifications of British rule in India. But such has been my subcontinents' matchmakings between fire and women and it continues till date in places like Britain.
There were at least 2823 honour attacks in the UK in 2011. And this is only from the data collected from 39 of the 52 police forces. The attacks were all amongst the Turkish and Asian community; a community I am part of. There has been a 47% increase in attacks from 2009. It is perhaps ironic that West Midlands which sported the staggering number of 378 honour attacks in 2011 also had the worst record of grooming of teenage non-Asian girls by the same community.
I grew up in the suburbs of New Delhi. Out on the local playground bench we used to see the bogey lady each evening staring at the dust unblinking, head bowed and ruminating. A thin translucent duppata couldn't hide what she sought hidden. A scalded face criss-crossed with canaliculi of mottled skin, mouth wide and permanently agape, naked jaws set with chipped teeth and two tapering crescents where the nose once was. She never smiled. Mum and Dad shushed me as soon as any questions were posed. Years later I would know that she was one of those dowry cases. Kicked out from her home, the bogey lady lived on scraps from the temple. It might just be a false memory but I remember her sitting on haunches one evening in the park watching the crows peck at left over roti. Garrulous ladies in their glittering salwar-kammez pushed their cherubs on the swings as they gossiped.
Many racial epithets dehumanise. For example in colonial parlance Africans were apes, Indians were shrewd little monkeys, Jews were reptiles and ad nauseum ad infitum. But there is something inhuman about a whole subcontinent that even though doesn't condone, seems to birth generations of men that deface women with combustion and caustic. Religion has little to do with it. Hindus do it, so do the Muslims and the Sikhs. It is interesting that Kerala, one of the most liberal provinces in India is also fervently left and socialist; and has effectively rinsed itself of a pan-religion culture of subjugation of women.
There might be an altogether different reason for the subcontinents' views on honour. India, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh; we don't have the square jawed, contact-sport loving, leather jacket wearing version of an Alpha Man. Here an Alpha is he who reigns over his woman. It is not the woman who is chaste, virtuous, clad in yards of cloth. It is the man's honour. His virtue is under the veil. It is interesting that the tribal India, the historically matriarchal so called lower-caste and socially backward have the most liberated women. Tribal women of Jharkhand urinate standing up. Tribes in the North-East are matriarchal. The Kalash women of Pakistan choose their husbands. The benevolent 'namus' of the Pashtun is famous in Afghnaistan. So much for social backwardness.
The subcontinent had her Boudicas and then marginalised them.
I as an Asian man can say this with absolute conviction; we are not savages. Far from it. We have families, customs and a culture that spans millennia. And yet in Gujarat, the most right-wing of all states in India is infamous for infanticide amongst its well heeled middle class provincials. Elaborate public rituals involve drowning the infant girl in a bowl of milk to save the family's honour, for a son adds prestige and the girl none. The same daughter that plucks at her father's beard is set alight by his hands. What makes the hands that cradled the infant hack her to pieces, to wield the match for the flame? Virtue? Religion? Honour? Honour forsooth!
The sad truth is that I have partial-license to criticise because I am Asian. A cooked face is indefensible. Period. The sheer hypocrisy that infests my community when it comes to not treating women as equals is staggering. This subservience of the womenfolk is toted around as a proud alternative to the debauchery of the nightclubbing west. It has its unappetising consequences.
Afghans turn to bacha-bazi ; dressing pre-pubescent boys in girl clothing, making them dance in a harem. Old men in rags high on hashish lie sprawled on faux pillows sample the depraved delights of enforced effete. The richer Punjabis in India buy their brides from the poorer state of Bihar. Tranquillised little girls sold off by their starving parents for enough rice for the month. Young school going girls in pigtails are given away in arranged marriages. A lifetime of flipping chappatis on a hot stove in a poorly ventilated kitchen awaits them.
In closing I can only hope for the day that women in my community shall no longer be viewed as chattels.