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Monday, January 31, 2011

Liberated women?

One of my older ex-students was telling me, with shock and disgust in her voice, that she had encountered a married woman of 22 who died in a government hospital in Kolkata recently. She had been burnt alive by her husband and mother-in-law, and lived only long enough to accuse them of murder. I hope the law will exercise its full majesty and wrath in punishing the criminals in this instance, but that is not what I wanted to say here.

We know that the law now tilts heavily in favour of the wife and her folks when it comes to cases like this; in fact, it is no joke that a lot of in-laws actually live in terror of their sons’ wives, and we even hear now and then about women who are taking unfair advantage of the law to lord it over their husbands and in-laws in a way that even other women find objectionable.

How then, in the same social landscape, do atrocities against married women still occur with such disturbing frequency? We can’t even blame illiteracy and poverty here, because such things keep happening to urban, educated women with well-off parents, too, and, though it takes some believing, even to women who earn their own (and quite adequate-) incomes! Doesn’t it all boil down, however politically incorrect it sounds, to the fact that even in supposedly enlightened families, most parents of daughters are still not only desperate to get their daughters married off to ‘suitable’ grooms (and suitable always refers to age, caste, looks and pay, never character), but equally desperate to keep those marriages from failing in the eyes of society – no matter how horrid the in-laws make life for the girl at home? And isn’t it true that most girls are so brainwashed and terrorized that they keep trying to ‘adjust’, and thus encourage growing atrocities – it being one of the most rigorous laws of human nature that the docile are always abused by the powerful – until it sometimes ends up in murder?

Let’s face it; murder outright shocks enough sensibilities to have become newsworthy, and to draw the might of the law upon the perpetrators, but don’t many women who have not been and are not likely to be killed by their in-laws/husbands actually live lives so miserable that death would be a welcome release (tragically, even women who married for love, pretty often, as I happen to know)? Isn’t it a fact that a ‘moderate’ amount of wife-beating is, if not openly condoned, at least winked at and ignored by ‘society’ which prides itself on an enlightened Constitution that guarantees basic human rights for all? Isn’t demanding dowry just short of universal (I have actually heard a girl student saying her father would get back twice what he would give for her when he married off her two elder brothers)? Isn’t it a fact that a lot of women are taught to be happy if only their husbands don’t beat them, and give them money for shopping now and then, and restrict them to obsessing over their looks and kitty parties and children’s examination scores – no greater independence is either sought or granted (my wife has been told by jealous friends that they cannot dream of their husbands allowing them control over money, so that they pick their husbands’ pockets routinely and without shame)? Two decades after Paroma  and eight decades after Tagore’s most ‘daring’ works, don’t the vast majority of our educated males and females alike accept it that married men flirting or even having an affair now and then can be tolerated with a bit of regretful clucking, but for ‘good’ women it must be an absolute no-no? Except when they are dolling up for parties and feasts, aren’t most married women simply living lives of unpaid sex-slaves-cum-domestic helps: and not only okay with it, but insisting that their daughters become exactly like them, so as to uphold ‘family honour’ and ‘respectability’?

For whom did women’s liberation occur in this country, and how far has it really gone? Leave alone men (most of whom are understandably scared witless by the prospect), how many of our ‘cultured’ women can think of liberation in all its dimensions without a shudder?

And if they cannot, what is wrong with things as they are – just so long as husbands don’t actually kill their wives?


DEBARATI said...

Firstly, thanks for expressing every anguish and angst in this post that I could not when I wrote the mail about the burnt girl.
Secondly, I don't remember having ever heard a groom burnt alive by his in-laws! No matter whatever 'empowerment' or 'freedom' or 'liberation' women achieved, nothing seems to have changed over years. This deadlock will never be removed, come what may. No matter how deplorable we find the state to be, we do nothing to make a difference. All people can do is lecture about the steadily degrading situation of disdain in almost every household and then sleep over it. Every time we encounter a situation like this, we forget that this thunder-clap is rather a reminder that it's time. We are so used to accept and 'compromise' with every nasty and spiteful 'norm' around us, that we have lost our soul in the run. What a shame! we embellish people who put their heads down, ever ready to accept any s**t because we are 'social beings' and it's our moral duty to abide by these norms!!
Bottom line is: no matter what, if you want to be happy and survive peacefully in your society, be ready to be beheaded in the name of rules and regulations, 'chakkhhu lojja' and all that!!

Rakendu said...

In India women's liberation is a mirage in the horizon. I once met a couple from England in poush mela. I had just asked them to state their take on Indian societal structure.

The most bizarre thing that they had noticed on their 15 days stay was the plight of Women in India...

They cited an example-

A woman was being cursed and ill-treated on a bus they were travelling in. Not understanding the language and the reason of such a brazenly attitude, they went upto an "EDUCATED" young guy and asked what the problem was.

What the foreigners made out of it is as follows-

"The man is cursing his wife for not bringing up the child well enough as you see.. The man is very angry that "her wife's child" has puked in a packed bus and is now feeling humiliated."

Later the man was very embarrassed when some co-passengers told him to relax and refrain from shouting at his wife. Finally he ceased by accusing his wife on various ground, while the woman had started taking care of the child by then.

The foreigners later added on-"It seemed that the man was from a well to do and educated background as long as he was quiet"

Women's liberation is a rich man's Fantasy in a poor man's hut..

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

Unequal treatment of males and females sadly is a reality all across the world. Though it is more prominent in all Asian countries but in reality abuse of women as well as children is probably as a big a problem in West as it is with India. West tries to deal with it with very strict law which is implemented fast but in our cases we hardly ever see justice being done. I have heard situations in other Asian societies are as grave as it is in India but for some strange reason (may be because I am more aware of India), I believe Indians can go to the worst extent and with utterly primitive means when it comes to abusing women in their daily lives.

There was a time in Delhi, when I stopped reading the front page of the newspaper. Every morning the newspaper reported brutality in one urban home or the other. I had serious self-doubt about my neighbourhood, the society where I belong and even my colleagues. In West Bengal, at least you see beasts in closets but in Delhi they are all over the place, talking non-sense about the women in their families. A trip to a Haryana village with a colleague (who loved his mother!) was such a shocker to me to see women being treated literally as slave. Worse is, the women in such families have adjusted themselves to such treatment.

I do hear that the legal system is now (albeit lot late) in place for crimes against women but we certainly do not implement it with utmost honesty. Evidence, hostile witnesses, crooked means to preserve the mighty prevents our judiciary to deliver justice. Even prominent lawyers and judges are saleable commodities these days. So the law is abused in all corners. On one hand atrocities against women go on and on and on the other some women manipulate the law to serve their own purposes at workplaces etc.

Problem is aggravated in most cases because we don’t have high amount of trust on our public institutions.

I wonder if we cannot trust police, doctors, lawyers in a democracy, then whom should we trust.



Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

Interesting timing of this post Suvro.

The story of an Indian diplomat in UK beating his wife is still hot.

a diplomat! we are not talking urban, rural, educated, illiterate here. dude, your strength and job is supposed to be diplomacy :)

debotosh said...

our schizophrenic views regarding the west have been able to change a few things in the society(both for the good and bad) but this is one area which is still vaguely condoned by the society !

Shilpi said...

It's what you write in that third paragraph of yours, Suvro da, that has bothered me for a very long time - way back to the time when I was in school actually although I had no idea why it bothered me. It's not just poverty and it's not just a matter of earning one's own income or about illiteracy....but what still perplexes me is how so many girls grow up to accept everything that is said and everything that they are told. Are all girls (or most of them) simply brainwashed and terrorized? I know girls can be terrorized and it doesn't always have to be in the form of severe beatings - but still. And I've seen a bit and heard a bit - enough to make me throw up....but I still cannot get over the feeling that if individuals don't change - and one person at a time - where is the hope or the light? It has to be in the form of individuals who go a little bit further and question every stupid thing that they have been told - hopefully with some help but still....maybe a single individual cannot change a society - but surely these things have to happen at the level of the individual at some point - don't they? Laws in place can only help so much. They need to be there but how can people's consciences change without something else?

I don't think that those women dolling up and going to parties really think that there's anything wrong...and a bit of beating up is never really seen to be wrong either - not even in literate families; just as forced molestation by relatives or family members is never really protested against although having a boyfriend or many boyfriends or any relationships out of the set and seemly social boundaries will mean that the girl is a slut or abnormal. And more often it's girls and women themselves who put the noose around their own necks and then scream 'blue murder'. That comment by the girl regarding her father getting back twice the amount disgusts me...what sort of creatures are we, it makes me wonder.

As for liberation...good heavens, Suvro da. For I'm wondering now what sort of liberation you are talking about in this instance. I'm reminded too of your essay on Freedom and Responsibility (and also of what Fromm said about freedom) and about progress and development in your other essay and of Virginia Woolf's words in that book that I finally read last year after that Penguin Post of yours.

There are more thoughts that are running around - but I'll write another day. There is one thing that does disturb me greatly though about a previous comment. How exactly would things be better if we did hear that boys and men were burnt and beaten and killed by their in-laws? Would that settle the scores somehow...?

Take care, Suvro da, and many thanks for this one.

DEBARATI said...

I had written a statement earlier on that I have never heard a groom being beaten up by his in-laws, as referred to in a previous comment here. But that definitely doesn't mean or suggest something like this to happen in order to settle scores. After all, there is a basic difference between me and those monsters out there. My statement here was out of frustration and all I tried to emphasize here was on the point of girls and women being 'brainwashed' (and even terrorized may be) since childhood to live a life like this. A guy might be pressurized to be a doctor and/or an engineer at the most. I am not saying that it is justified but the the extent to which women folks are traumatized are way past description. And, if I may add, shamefully it stems down to the thoughts of the girls too, who are programmed to consider this 'normal' or 'okay'.

Be a member of the herd and you survive, if not, you are not only an outcast but also ground to death!!!


Suvro Chatterjee said...

You are quite right in pointing out how very odd it is that grooms are rarely heard to have been beaten and abused the way wives are, Debarati! With a lot of husbands I have seen, I sometimes think it mightn't have been a bad idea...

On the other hand, you know you are wrong in saying 'nothing seems to have changed over the years' and you are grossly exaggerating when you make the last comment about the "need" to stay with the herd. If you compare how much things have improved (at least for women in educated urban families) since the time of Sharatchandra or even Ashapurna Devi, you will see that very often today it is only lack of high aspirations and the desire to stay comfortably anonymous in the herd that is holding our women back. In an age when women are holding the highest jobs both in govt and the corporate world, there can be no excuses but the fact that most 'educated' women don't want to exert themselves. Besides, you should know, living in a metro city, that lots of not-so-extraordinary women are doing well despite having chosen not to go with the herd... unmarried, doing social work, writing books, never dressing up and going to parties, and they are certainly not 'ground to death'! Melodramatizing a bad situation is not a good idea: you are only depressing yourself!

DEBARATI said...

It's depressing, yes. But I wasn't melodramatizing, but was just frustrated with the current scenario. Because it is not easy to remain outside the herd anyway. And so far doing well is concerned, I do agree, but my point is, it's a shame that even in this century with so many women being so successful in almost every field of life, such terror exists for them. It's a disgrace!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Such a serious, persistent problem involving almost everybody, and yet how few people (especially girls/women) have anything at all to say about it! The same kind of people who are always chattering away to glory about nothing at all...

Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,
Debarati has raised a very important issue here.
This post indeed helps one look at liberation of women in all its dimensions and 'most' cultured women would indeed shudder realising it.
I had a few points to discuss-
1.I believe women hinder their own liberation in many ways.For example,Indian mothers 'guard' their daughters by snooping on them day in and day out.It is they again, who 'drill' into the minds of their daughters that no matter what,they should always 'adjust' with their in laws.Patience and endurance would help them wade through the sea of verbal and physical abuse, unscathed.Women need not have any dignity and self-respect especially in their in-law's home.These women supress their anger,celebrate the birth of their son only to do the same injustice to their son's wife.
2.As you have so aptly said, most Indian marriages which almost entirely depends on societal norms (the perfect groom,marriageable age,the never-say-divorce rule etc.) are one of the main reasons for the frequent occurence of atrocities against women.As for the dowry system,I know for a fact that in Andhra Pradesh,nine hundred and niniety nine of every thousand girls are sure that they would have to 'sit at home' forever if their fathers do not pay the dowry demanded by the would be in-laws.The dowry amount varies for different proffessions of the groom which is fixed by the 'marriage market' trends.Any girl whose in laws are 'easily satisfied' is considered to be 'extremely lucky'.
3.As for basic human rights not being ensured in India,Sir,isn't it pathetic that girls are considered 'lucky' if,her parents allow her to marry according to her own choice,her in laws don't abuse her,her husband allows her the fundamental freedom of speech,movement and dignity;kids are considered to be lucky and 'indebted' to their parents if they allow them to become anything other than engineers and doctors and other 'respectful' job holders;men are considered to be lucky if their wives allow them to lead an honest and simple life without much money but peace of mind ?
4.The continuing atrocities on women also prove that most people in India do not find any contentment in their lives.Deep within they are insecure enough to let out all of it on the weaker and more docile people.
5.Rakendu's comment tells of a 'tradition' in India which both men amd women alike take for granted. Most Indian fathers shirk their responsibility towards all the 'dirty' jobs concerning their kids (like bathing and feeding the child) and whenever some such 'humiliating' incidents occur,the child suddenly becomes the 'mother's child'.But they would always be ahead to say "my child,you know" when they would celebrate their kids' 'achievements' (like winning a prize or even a compliment).
Warm regards

Rashmi Datta said...

There is a typo in my previous comment. In the second sentence it will be most 'cultured' instead of 'most' cultured. Please excuse my mistake.

Shilpi said...

If I may I'll say a couple of things.

Debarati, There's a good level of frustration that can be channeled. Seeing that you feel so deeply about this issue regarding women, you're probably already working as a volunteer at some women's organization or NGO organization. And then it can be even more frustrating (in one sense) to see the women who come in battered and abused for absolutely no fault of their own but that they are women. But if you're not - you could join one of them (and you will feel the sense of frustration but it will be mitigated too somewhat since you'll be directly involved in doing the good that you can do). I know that 'The Good Samaritan' wanted good dedicated and sincere volunteers (and it did have a section focused on women) and I'm sure there are more organizations which have come up in Calcutta and they are always short of people who care.

On the other hand, if you think about it, there is plenty of terror in the world. And not just for women. And if one contemplates on The Buddha's words: His first noble truth is "Life is Suffering". Now if you connect that to what we see in the world then you'll see why it seems a terrible waste to say that "it's not easy to remain away from the herd anyway" or to observe that educated women (who should know better and should learn to think for themselves) and who also have an independent income put up with being terrorized. I'll repeat my own example from one of Sir's earlier posts. It horrifies one to learn about Bhanwari devi - yet one admires her shining and indomitable courage. And who was she? A very poor and practically unedcuated Rajasthani Sathin worker. There is plenty of injustice in the world but there's no reason to simply feel depressed and frustrated and go loopy in the head. I remember Sir scolding me quite sharply on a couple of occasions for simply feeling a great deal of angry frustration and for hyper-emoting and I realised at one point that he was right about this.

Also, I'll gently point out that boys are not simply nagged to become engineers and doctors. They face abuse of unpleasant sorts even in seemingly educated and seemingly sane and normal families. I myself remember seeing a boy being threatened with a hefty pair of scissors and even a good length of rope for something terribly innocuous - well who knows what.

Suvro da, what you said on the first bit of your comment is rather funny in the way you put it. I'm more with the grandma on this count. I'd like to get one-way tickets to the moon for lots of boys and girls and men and women unless I'm in a mood to hop onto my horse with my sword....

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Yes, Debarati... though Shilpi has pointed this out on the blog, a lot of male readers have spoken to me privately about how wrong you are to think that males suffer comparatively little: being 'only' pressurized to become doctors and engineers against their will. Personally, I do think that on the whole girls suffer much more, but it would be unfair to slight what boys go through: and believe me, it warps them just as much as girls are warped (making money and getting some 'social status' is worth killing for...).

As Shilpi sombrely points out, living is suffering. But we can all, individually and collectively, do a few things to lessen suffering, others' as well as our own. Much of my own work as a teacher has been consciously directed at lessening suffering, if only by opening up young people's minds to possibilities of greater freedom and joy, and by offering them an endlessly patient, sympathetic ear into which they can pour out their woes.

In the process, I have had to learn what penalties one has to pay to stay out of the herd, believe me! Those who benefit most from me have spoken the worst possible evil about me. But so what? One soldiers on...

Why on earth are so few female readers willing to come forward with their views on this vital issue? Is it because they are afraid it will spoil their marriage prospects, or sour up the marriages they are in?

Dipayan G said...

Dear Sir,
I would like to share a link about an article, though this isn't related to India. This article had appeared in the January issue of Reader's Digest.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for the link, Dipayan.

Unlike this girl, who even at such a tender age was bold and sure enough of herself to protest, most of India's 'educated and adult' women from so-called 'good families' are scared stiff, or at least so well adjusted to the safety and comfort and ease and 'status' of the lives they are assured if only they accept the conditions imposed upon them by society ('be a conventional wife and mother and nothing else') that they won't do anything to rock the boat, however much they may crib in private about all the restrictions they are burdened with.

I think this kind of warped and suffocating living makes our women sick, mean and cruel, too, because I see most of them between the ages of 15 and 65 only dressing up, going to parties, gossiping like the most illiterate village women at their clubs, bitching about friends and neighbours, obsessing about their kids' exam scores, and being harsh with their less-fortunate sisters (such as domestic helps), and speaking ill of whoever - male or female - tries to live a freer, healthier life. Barring rare exceptions - whom I deeply respect - it remains true that women are their own worst enemies. All that has changed is that that section of womankind which vociferously foists all the blame for their plight on 'male-domination' has found a very appreciative audience!

Dipayan G said...

Yes, and not to mention the effect of such a living on those who pretend to be "elite" (God knows what "elite" means to them!) by making it clear to everyone in the billing queue at a mall that they have credit cards, and by uttering English words and phrases in a stylized tone at any place any time. (As if knowing English is the only sign of a person being an elite! Ha ha!)

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I should like my readers to look up this newspaper editorial on a deeply serious, deeply hush-hush issue. I leave the link here without comment (for the time being):


Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Both this post as well as Ms. Shilpi's first comment resound with me. Yes I will definitely say that in our society, girls have a tough time growing up with any sense of individuality. We are continuously being told (by some presumptuous busy-body or the other) that we better conform or we might as well throw our "marriage" prospects in the drain. A girl who dares to be different will never get a groom. Forget the fact that this girl might not actually want such "grooms". It is only abut face value, an MS against an MBA, a five figure salary against a six, a Maruti Swift against a Honda City. People expect just what of us, I am not really sure but sometimes it feels claustrophobic. In everyday households boys are still regularly given privileges that girls long for. I have come across households sir where the daughter is "made" to clear the table after a meal while the son just looks on. I am not talking about a fair division of chores between the children, rather the instilling of a false sense of pride in a boy that because of his genetic make up, it is okay for him to sit and belch. I have had people asking me when I am planning to get married since I turned twenty. A very dear friend is caught in an extremely unhappy marriage, the only thing missing is physical violence but her parents have washed their hands off her. They intimidate her into not making any decision which will cause their "standing" to fall in the society. How are such people any less murderous? Women's liberation should begin at the girl's house. She should be taught to be self sufficient, self reliant, should be allowed to form a healthy view of life and the world around her. She should not be made to feel as if every unmarried girl over twenty-five is ruined for life because she will not get good prospects. More importantly, we girls ourselves must be strong enough to stand up for what we believe in, we must make sure that our spirits aren't broken, that we at least do not form half cracked ideas of what is "good" or what is bad by seeing the thoughtlessness and the repressiveness of those around us. On a lighter note Sir, with a million nosey people around to have a constant watch on what I am "up to", I can say with perfect honesty that all of these things I have mentioned above do not come easy. I am blessed in that my parents are no close minded but us girls still have to wade through so many others. There are times when my friends and I have felt like crawling under rocks and staying there. But impressions must be broken. The human brain and heart are fine things. The Maker did not see the need to discern these in men or women. It is a crime and betrayal to ourselves if we do not use these HOWEVER difficult it may be. If you can't live life well, then live it as well as you can. It can actually be that simple.


Shilpi said...


I'm sorry if I wasn’t clear but I have never seen any reason to excuse the lack of individuality in girls growing up in middle-class families in India. Girls in India have remarkably different experiences while growing up (as Sir’s previous link demonstrates!) and for middle class girls who manage not to be physically brutalized and do not live in the threat of being physically mauled and actually go on to make an independent living do not have any excuse for wondering or thinking or feeling that ‘it’s not easy’. I will never see this in any other way. A bit of psychological torment, some neighbourhood gossip, some jibes and jabs thrown one’s way and 'pressure to get married' – as long as one has the relative freedom otherwise to develop one’s body, mind and spirit as best as one is able – never physically maimed anybody and don't fall into the realm of 'problems'.

Maybe it is or isn’t easy to not let some things matter or else maybe I was blessed with an exceptionally thick head & skin about certain matters but I know for a fact that growing up as a girl (and doing household chores and other chores made me neither incapacitated nor weak!) never made me whine or crib or even wail about things not being easy just because I was a girl. And I lived in India until I was almost 27 so it’s not as though I am completely unaware of the problems that girls growing up in even middle class families faced back then – on the roads, in public and at home – yet I will still maintain that girls growing up in middle-class families really should stop whining and being mentally and physically lazy. I can’t say much about anything else but I can safely say that if ever I wanted to crawl into a hole and stay there it wasn’t because I was a girl or a goat – it was because of my inability to live like a human being and nothing else.

And sure, it would be perfectly peachy if girls in middle-class families were taught to be confident, strong and independent human beings within their families or if both boys and girls were taught to be good human beings – but it doesn’t work that way in most households. So what? It’s all very well to say ‘it’s unfair’ but it doesn’t get one anywhere and there’s no excuse for such girls to grow up and whine and crib and complain and become replicas of their mothers and fathers either.

And in the final analysis, who cares what the world expects of me or what the larger society or what gossiping neighbours and relatives or even my blood family thinks of me?! They don’t see me as anything but an abysmal failure. So what? It's what my 'higher self' and 'Real Self' demand of me that matters (in this context you may read the blog-essay ‘On Being Selfish’ if you haven’t already: it’s applicable to human beings). Maybe all things won’t work the way I will them (they don't) but I'm not giving up until I've done everything I can. And yes, it is supremely important in this sense, and I speak from my own experience: girls should become financially independent and independent minded as fast as possible (and both are important) especially if they sense early on that they aren’t particularly likable even to their own parents; otherwise they have to sell more than they expected (self-respect being one) and lose more than they banked on (time being one) before being able to do any good in their lives and in the lives of those who really matter.

In conclusion to this long comment, I leave two links. These are some of the sorts of things that horrify me and pain me, and make me brood over where we are going if I let myself, which I don’t these days. The first one because physical brutality of this sort has haunted me more than I care to admit and the second because it goes to show, first, that money doesn’t make one civilized and secondly, I shudder to think of the kind of lives that such girls have if they manage to escape being aborted.

And Vaishnavi, if you don’t mind awfully, just address me as Shilpidi!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I'd like especially to know what our liberated women think about this ghastly item of news: