BBC's documentary (India's Daughter) on the gruesome gang-rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi in December 2012 has enraged the nation. Some folks are furious that killer-rapists have been given their '30 seconds of fame', while others are filing online petitions against the defense lawyers' despicable comments on womankind and their ice-age ideas of what Indian women should and shouldn't do. In a move that is as predictable as the lyrics of Justin Bieber's next, the Indian Government banned the screening of the film. BBC came up with a solution that was as elementary as it was sublime: They put it up on YouTube! (BBC- 1, Govt- 0).
If I am surprised by anything in this recent episode of collective outrage, it is not the comments of the perp or the views of his defense counsel. I am surprised at the way my countrymen are reacting towards it. As if they were blissfully unaware of the longstanding tradition of systemic misogyny and debasement of women that is seamlessly woven into our vibrant Indian cultural fabric. As if the good folks at BBC revealed to us a Horcrux that was unkown to us up until the day it released this film.
In my line of work, I share my living space with men from all corners of the country. Folks from small pockets on the outskirts of Saharanpur and Meerut, places I wouldn't be able to point out on the map a few years ago growing up in the plush enclaves of South Bombay (yes, we elitists still use the 'B-word' to describe what remains, of our once beloved city). The stories I hear from the Indian hinterland make my skin crawl.
Sometime back, one lad narrated a tale of how a "village elder" from the upper caste accosted a 'vaghri' woman, who was in the area gathering firewood. The old man took her to the shed and violated her. The narrator's caricature of the vaghri woman coming out of the hut howling had his co-workers in splits.
In another story, a girl studying in secondary school was raped by three boys in the fields on her way back home. The family and village elders decided on an "honourable" solution: they married the girl off to a ''respectable boy'' in the city, where nobody would know about the ''shameful incident''. Many years later, the narrator was at a wedding in Saharanpur, when he spotted the victim. She was ''happily married with kids'' to a distant relative of his in-laws. He cannot remember what happened to the perpetrators, but he didn't think the matter ever reached the nearest police station, let alone the Indian courts. The fact that the modesty of a lower caste woman can be violated with complete impunity is common knowledge in these rustic parts. For every story of egregious crimes against women committed in our metros, hundreds go unnoticed and unreported in the hinterlands.
The answer to why these heinous acts of depravity against women occur so widely and frequently may be found in our cultural paradigms. A Rajasthani co-worker once told me, that the women in his house always have their faces veiled. Especially around the older men of the family. They dare not speak unless spoken to, he said with an air of pride. When a man like that comes across an independent, well-heeled woman in urban India, (let's say for example, an accomplished career woman, travelling alone in an 'Uber cab' she just summoned on her smart phone), symptoms of extreme cognitive dissonance begin to manifest in his medieval mind. To him, this woman is the archetype of the pernicious cult of liberalism and female emancipation that he secretly abhors. Acting on his depraved carnal impulses is perhaps his way of quelling these vexing symptoms.
Another worker mentioned that his second cousin recently brought home a "pahadi" (slang for people living in the hilly regions up north) bride for thirty thousand rupees, because his wife had problems conceiving. Polygamy may not be openly encouraged, but stories of someone getting another bride from 'the hills' are not uncommon either.
Perhaps I may be accused of citing anecdotes to make a generalised conclusion; of course all Indian men must not be tarred with the same brush. However expecting women to be subservient & treating them as objects, is very much entrenched in our glorious Indian culture.
A culture that judges the content of a woman's character by the length of her hemline; a culture that treats all her aspirations as secondary and inconsequential to the all-important objective of 'getting married at the right age' (and then providing a male heir 'at the right time'); a culture wherein the men of her family assume joint ownership of her sexuality, and consider it intrinsic to the immensely fragile "honour" of her extended clan; where khap panchayets let off rapists with a mere slap-on-the-wrist, while putting the blame for such crimes on the prolific use of mobile phones and denim jeans; a culture wherein ogling at women in public places (and very often groping) is considered as "natural impulse".
(Here's a satirical piece by Anant Jha on that last point. My favourite social experiment is to ride the public transport in Kowloon. The Indian and Pakistani men on the bus have their gaze fixated at oriental legs under micro minis & hot-pants, like a starving Somalian infant pining at a bottle of milk. The Chinese and Brits never look up from their smart phones during the whole ride).
What this country really needs is a cultural revolution. We have exorcised worse demons in the past: we no longer allow the burning of our widows on their husband's pyre, or marry our pre-pubescent girls to old men, or murder infants for being of the wrong gender (at least not after they are already out of the womb). It is now time to change the way Indian culture defines a woman and shackles her sexuality to its hypocritical dogma.
Until such a time, the depraved 'Shiv Kumar Yadavs' & 'Ram Singhs' will continue to crawl out of the proverbial woodwork, while semi-evolved minds like ML Sharma will continue to defend their repugnant misogynist psyche.