'...In the middle of beating her up, he picked up the pan of hot oil and poured it on her head, and that woman ... that Jat woman ... didn't let out a single scream, not a squeak.'
That was a story I heard in my childhood, as the women gossiped and I, still young and childlike, shadowed my mother, nestling against her and absorbing, imbibing... . The women spoke with awe, admiration and approval. The moral of the story being: a Jat woman (Jats are a community in North India), and all other women, should stoically endure pain and punishment if it's visited upon them; a woman should show her integrity by not letting out a single scream, not a squeak.
And yet, as I was growing up, I didn't see such brutality being practiced around me, and therefore understood, as a child does through unconscious experience, that this story must represent an extreme.
The second story I've been haunted by is this one: we're on an ocean liner, travelling to England. There are several other Indian families on the ship, mothers and their children, coming to join husbands and fathers. Perhaps our cabin was bigger than the cabins of others', as I remember it becoming a bit of a social hub. One afternoon, a mother and her two children, a girl and a boy, are with us. For some reason the boy becomes enraged and starts hitting the girl, who tries to escape through the door, but he follows and throws her onto the floor, kicking and beating her as she cries and desperately tries to protect herself. My mother protests to the other parent 'Why don't you stop him?' His mother says 'Men have the right to beat women.'
Decades later, that scene is still indelibly printed in my mind: the helpless girl, the violent brother and above all, the words of the mother 'Men have the right to beat women.'
As the years passed, I often wondered about that boy and girl, and the mother. As the girl suffered at the hands of her brother, the mother must have suffered at the hands of the men in her family, perhaps father, brother, husband. Thinking back to her on the ship, an older me, wondered what that woman must have felt as she sailed towards the husband who had probably used violence on her when in India, and who would probably have violence waiting for her when she arrived. My heart still dips when I think about it. I've hoped the girl didn't suffer too much and in the end, married a man whose ideas were different. For the boy, I haven't ever had any hopes, only dark forebodings for the woman he must have married. It's most likely he had an arranged marriage and it's further most likely his wife suffered at his hands. Because of the ideas he had been taught.
Unravelling the myths and stories, and what we've been taught by all the important people around us, parents, peer groups, history and the media, can be a difficult task. It can be like fighting shadows, because repressive, unjust and misogynistic ideas have been so dressed up in clothes of normality, culture, courage, morality or honour, they've become unrecognisable for what they actually are.
Change is never as easy as it should be. 'Don't mess with our morality,' meaning 'don't mess with our ideas,' is a sign that most societies dig deep into the ground.
Everything comes down to an idea. It's through ideas we shape our societies; it's through ideas we allocate power and powerlessness. Therefore, if everything is based on ideas, we could change our ideas - and change our world.
The idea that a woman proves her integrity and worth by enduring, 'without a scream' whatever violence is visited upon her, the idea that 'men have the right to beat women,' are ideas that need to be recognised for what they are: false and profoundly harmful to all. They need to be ditched and supplanted by a simple, no frills idea: everyone is equal and entitled to safety.
As the advertising slogan goes: 'change your hairstyle, change your life,' I posit the slogan 'change our ideas, change our world.'