The Most Expensive Piece of Property – The Woman

Rape, according to the Indian law, is a sexual act and a violation of that sexual body. The law narrowly defines what can and cannot constitute rape and many of these definitions are limited by its inclusions or exclusions of body parts, gender and acts. And most importantly, the mental state and reasoning behind such an act.

I fail to understand the reasoning behind the construction of such laws. But when you do look a little closer into the fabric of Indian culture and its society, you realise that it perhaps springs from the fact that sex is taboo in our society, talking about it is worse and rape is often a weapon that is used against a woman and her entire family, her caste and worse.

A woman is directly related to the family’s honour. She is like a pristine idol, kept in the depths of a temple, meant to be worshipped and needs to be protected against all invaders. She is not seen as an individual,  and is more of a very important piece of property. And like anything so precious, also a burden.

The easiest and the best way to break such honour would be to aim at the woman. To invade her, physically. To strip her and parade her around (which isn’t considered rape or anything close, according to Indian Law). The reasons could be plenty – a brother saw a woman from another caste/sect/religion; the family did something that the community believed was wrong; the woman chose to see herself as something more than mere property.

By this very definition, once a woman is out of the confines of the altar room, she becomes public property.

While this explanation might seem far fetched (and I’m sure there are detractors who would argue against this), this to me seems quite true.

How else would you explain the stripping and parading of a 40-year old woman, because her son was in a relationship with a woman from another caste? How else would you explain statements like ‘she asked for it because she was out with a man at night’? How else would you explain statements that a woman invited rape because she showed her legs?

Rape is a form of punishment and assertion of authority for all this and more. It could be because you challenged one’s authority by stepping out of your bounds, by questioning things you weren’t supposed to question, by doing things you weren’t supposed to do, by denying someone of things that they believed was their right.

This isn’t specific to men or women. Men get raped too in those little hell holes, but it is rarely talked about.

When the image of a woman is a piece of property, and when that is the image you have been shown through your life and the idea reinforced by people not punishing you when you sample some of the goods… one starts believing that. Perhaps movies do have a role to play… because in our movies, ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and a molestation can easily get the girl of dream into your arms.

Women believe that too… that they are property, meant to be taken care of, tended and protected. They believe it is their right and that their only duty is to look good, stand good and take care of the family. In the modern world, you could possibly have a ‘job’ that would keep you entertained and give you a little bit of spending money, but you do not think you should have an opinion of your own. The only thing you could aspire for is to look beautiful and provide good sex and children. And you use the technology of the modern world… creams that make you fairer, that tighten your vagina so you husband still ‘loves’ you.

Then you step out into this modern world where women do not think of themselves as property. If they do, they choose what to do with that property. And that angers you. What are you supposed to do except hit back at those images and reassert your beliefs? And you do not expect to be punished because you think what you are doing is your right, and nobody ever questioned you when you tested your limits in smaller ways earlier. Nobody slapped you away for pinching a woman’s ass on the bus. Nobody ever called you out for whistling at women on the road. You were just trying your hand at gaining a piece of the property that seemed to be out there for everyone, unguarded.

Is that what happens?

It could explain the statements made by several people. It could explain why the woman was always to blame. But then, this happens to men, women and children.

I don’t know. Perhaps this is a small part of the truth. Because this cannot explain the little things that people do to the ones they know and perhaps love. Is that just sheer perversion? Another twisted way of laying claim? Or another accession of power?

And this cannot explain what kind of animals could beat, maul, rape and do worse to a girl who was just trying to perhaps get home, and then live with it.

We are still looking for answers that creates such beasts.

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That Banked Fire

There is a subdued sense of fury as I drive through the streets of Bangalore. It is quite late in the night, and the streets are fairly empty. But there is just enough traffic and casual laidbackness for the neighboring vehicle to peep into the other car, curious about its occupants. This is nothing new. Particularly since the removal of window tints, there has been a overwhelming share of stares into a woman-driven car.

I thought I had gotten used to it. You practice your blank stare, you practice studiously ignoring the auto driver or the tempo driver staring at your every move, even if it is as mundane as you fiddling with the stereo or lighting a smoke or applying lip balm. You learn to live with it.

But there is a banked fury that has begun to rear its head up at such stares. A intolerance towards that guy who is crossing the road just by your car and leers at you. The overwhelming urge to get out of the cocoon of your car and ask the guy what is so funny, if he has never seen a girl before.

I didn’t particularly relate it to the Delhi Bus Rape.

There have been numerous heinous incidents and they all pass, leaving things just the way they are before.

But, maybe, just maybe, we have reached the end of our tolerance. The latest attack has awakened the constant sense of insecurity that haunts us and we learn to tamp down.

A walk down Church Street – a street located right in the middle of the busy city – a little past 11 PM is harrowing. An attempt to buy cigarettes at a non-fancy store is always a little bit of an ordeal, starting from the 4 bucks you have to pay extra for a pack. Waiting in line at the fuel station a little late in the night is uncomfortable, with the curious glances.

You know that nothing is going to happen, but there is never a sense of ease.

This does not stop us from living. This cannot stop us from doing everyday things because then, we would have to stop living. We would have to sit indoors or be escorted by multiple bodyguards and male ones at that, to have a life.

Perhaps that is the wise thing to do. Not take risks.

But what does one define as risk? Going out with friends for dinner? Having a drink? Smoking? Wearing jeans and standing by the road, hailing an auto? All these things are risky in today’s modern world.

Cultural theorists, women-oriented organizations and everybody else is theorizing why there is an increase in the rape numbers.

They blamed the woman for dressing the way she did and living the way she did. They blamed her for going out with ‘male’ friends. Such an insult to both the sexes.

And if these were the reasons, when would it ever be safe for me to step out of my house? Should I wait indoors for someone else to make the streets safe for me? And how will they do that? By telling men not to rape? And when will people ever listen?

I cannot and will not put my life on hold while others try to figure out a solution for this. The government’s solution is to ask women not to work at night. They figure if there are no women out on the streets at night, there won’t be any to rape.

Perhaps it is foolhardy to travel alone. But I do like to travel. I do like to shoot. And it is hardly realistic to expect company on each of these trips. Why should my art, my work suffer because my country finds it strange I’m woman out on the streets alone?

I appreciate company. I appreciate a friend looking out when needed. But what about times when you have to go at it alone?

If we never stand up and say “I’m going to do this and you better learn to deal with it” how will things ever change?

If women had never stood up and said I wanna work too, where would we be today? The world is not a kind place that will give you things simply because you have a dream. You need to work at it.

Prince Charming on his White Horse is dead. And not needed. Let’s go be our own angels.

The Mother

A mother, according to most of us, is a nurturing, caring, generous soul. She’s always there for you and all that stuff.

Given the challenges of today’s world, a mother has to juggle several roles and many of them do manage that successfully. Of course, sometimes there’s a bigger scanner over her and she gets nasty/judgemental looks from people in the mall when she’s buying the kid a big bag of potato chips just to keep him/her quiet. But for most part, she carries on.

Sometimes, she has help. In the form of grandparents, neighbours, best friends or a nanny. They all need a quick back up when there’s something important and urgent.

All this is something I knew.

Then you see those movies like The Nanny Diaries or better versions of it where the children are primarily raised by nannies or their counterparts. The mother is more of the overseer rather than the doer. Those movies always end in a happy ending where the mother realises that she needs to spend more time with the children and the nanny goes off to find an awesome job (and subtly hinting that it is something ‘greater’ than nanny-hood, though that is fulfilling) and of course with a handsome companion by her side.

The daddies are completely absent from the scene – be in the movies, or as I realised today, in real life.

Till today, I was living under the illusion that mothers in India, for some reason, were well, taking care of their kids with the nannies being an add-on only. It perhaps sprang from my own experience when my mother would be my side or within calling distance, no matter how glitzy the party was.

But that was the last illusion of my childhood. Today was a strange awakening for me… I saw real-life nannies, dressed in uniforms and being all that I saw in movies.

Why is this so disturbing? Have I grown so judgemental that I would scorn at a woman for not herding her own kid?

No… I probably wouldn’t have commented if it was a business do and mommy had to go away for a little while to talk big stuff and the nanny entertained the child. This was a party, meant for children. And where I expected sexy mommies dressed in jeans, having fun with the kids. I was shocked to see majority of the kids in the care of other people while the mothers supervised and ordered.

Logically, I knew this happened. I had heard stories. But it is disturbing to see it happen. At a party, are you so busy with your socializing that carrying your kid on your hip is trouble? I overheard one kid yell at his mother and rather nastily. And he was all of 7 years old. The mother tried to soothe him instead of repriminding him. Really? The use of that word would’ve earned me a kick on the ass and privileges suspended for a year of my life. And my mother isn’t the kind to slap.

And where were the fathers? Sure, it is a kiddie party but hey! they are important too.

Of course, I’ve seen parties where the daddies are present… but with all that was happening, it was quite stunning to see that they weren’t present.

I know I’m being judgemental. But my little self found something bizzare in this. There was the nanny-crowd and the non-nanny crowd. Why I found this picture wrong is something I cannot put my finger on and I’m not completely comfortable with that.

I try not to be judgemental about other people’s lives and actions. But this disturbs me.

Baby, I’m fat!

Most mornings, the newspaper these days carries at least one article about dressing Aishwarya Rai for Cannes.

The major issue here is the baby weight that she apparently still hasn’t lost, months after she gave birth to a girl. So everyone is out to hide that extra weight or make her wear things that would have her appearing thin and sexy.

Generally, I wouldn’t really give a damn about her… She’s been a fashion disaster on the Cannes red carpet from day 1 anyway. But suddenly, today, I got sick of reading all those bloody fashionistas going on about how she hasn’t lost weight yet, so she needs to wear a sari to drape it away, or a loose gown etc.

And contradicting those ‘fashionista’ statements were photographs from a favorite photographer of mine who gave birth to a boy recently. She is celebrating her curves, is in no hurry to lose weight and is just enjoying spending time with her baby and partner. She also photographs a lot of pregnant women, in the peak of their pregnancy, full tummy and all.

I’m not going all gaga about the power of womanhood and all that stuff here. But isn’t it your basic right to have some space to breathe after giving birth to a new creature? Why should you rush off to lose that weight and look ‘glam’ instead of enjoying your space, the baby and the family?

So what is Aishwarya Rai has puddles of fat around her waist and is a little more chubby? Why should she shed all that weight or wear tummy tucks simply because the society defines ‘sexy’ as thin?

Ironically, there were a ton of pregnant women on the red carpets in the past couple of years. I don’t hear all this fuss about them.

And all this, when there is an ongoing debate about how young girls are already dieting to death because they are supposed to be thin to look good.

Empowered & Affluent

So it is International Women’s Day. The day when we are supposed to respect women, pay attention to their needs and celebrate their empowerment. I don’t think the first two make a difference if it happens only on one day and the last one… I’m a little confused about that.

What exactly does empowerment stand for? I’ve been flipping through a whole bunch of magazines the past few days and all of them have made the March issue for ‘women’. And so they feature ‘strong, beautiful’ women who have made it.

Except, all these women who have ‘made it’ were already there.

Only one magazine mentions that these are women who are daughters of rich CEOs and such. The rest of them, when you look at their family tree, you realise they come from economically powerful houses. Is that what empowerment really is? Using the opportunities you have got, coming from a household that has absolutely no issues with you working, where you do not have to juggle bills and a growing family every day?

I believe that would be called being not stupid and taking the opportunities at your doorstep.

Increasingly, I read about wives of well-known actors as ‘having their own identity’ and mostly, these identities have a ‘designer’ attached to it. I’ve not seen any of their work and cannot comment but on the other side of a magazine’s pages, it just seems a little lame to me.

Empowerment is not only for the female labourer on the street. For those people who struggle to make ends meet. For the woman who was abused and had the courage to walk out on the abuser and made a good life for herself with the children. But that is where the challenges in empowerment lie.

Does India even deserve to celebrate Women’s Day when we still face a huge amount of moral policing? When a woman, no matter how she is dressed, can walk down her own street at night and be assured she will not be harassed? Where she won’t be called names because she dared to take a drive one night with friends and got raped? When she will not be harassed more at the police station when she goes to register a complaint about an eve teaser?

Several readers will say that I’m just being a wet blanket and way too cynical. But if we are going measure things like empowerment, then maybe we should look at the real picture. All I’m saying is there really hasn’t been enough progress for the amount of hoopla that surrounds the issue.

‘Women empowerment organizations’ often turn moral police. Their version of empowering women is to ask women to leave their husbands and build a life of their own. Teach women about self-respect, about not insulting another woman because she dresses cheaply or made choices that do not go down well with you. Teach women to be independent and give them life skills. That would perhaps be a step forward.

SlutWalk… People know ‘slut’?

In the past few days, as a part of research for a story, I have been talking to various people about how effective SlutWalk is in India.

The responses I received have been quite stunning. The first thing I realised was that nobody really believed that SlutWalk would be effective in India. They believed in the cause, and knew what it stood for… but nobody really believed that the campaign would be worth more than yesterday’s newspaper.

Women’s abuse is not a social cause in India, it is a cultural one, one friend said.

“We are brought up where we read about female infanticide, honor killings, dowry killings and even the practice of dowry every single day. There is so little respect for women,” she said.

A lot of other disagreed. Some say that women do not dress vulgarly in India, so there is no question about abuse. As a woman, I disagree. But that’s a different point.

What does matter though that people continue to believe that the way you dress has something to do with abuse. Really? So a woman in a burqa does not get ragged ever? A woman in a sari – which is considered the most dignified of the Indian dressed – never gets whistled at?

The point of SlutWalk is that the victim is not responsible for the horrors inflicted on them. The victim could be gender-less. The point of SlutWalk is that a woman gets abused and what she wears and how she talks has nothing to do with it.

Ask any girl and she’ll tell you that she has been whistled at, or taken a different road to walk home, simply because she is a woman and there were guys standing at the end of the road passing dirty comments.

Sure, for every guy who saw a woman as an object, there is one who treats her with respect. But in India, that ratio is still slightly skewed.

And yes, for every woman who takes advantage of her femininity, there is one who would rather just be  invisible.

If SlutWalk is not able to get across this message to our very ‘educated’ set, what is the hope that we reach people who do not even understand that a woman has the right to say ‘no’?

A lot of the people I spoke to also protested saying that much of what I spoke about happened only in the rural areas, distancing themselves from the horror of it.

Illusion or denial?

Abuse happens across social classes, cultural boundaries, age and sex. That is fact.

Identity

I’ve probably spoken about this quite often here – identity.

My camera is my identity. When I walk down the street, there are people who do not recognize me without the camera. When I do meet people, they just expect me to have a camera with me and want me to take photos. It is kind of reassuring to see that my ID card is my camera.

It gives me access to places that I probably wouldn’t wander alone. Of course, a little naive that… thinking the camera is also a shield but sometimes, it actually is. People wave you away, frown and grumble but they let you be.

You feel safe with an ID card, declaring who you are and your identity. I feel weird and out of place on certain occasions when I do not have my camera. With it, I stand by the road, clicking away, aware of the glances and perhaps stares at me but they all just bounce off me. But put the camera away and I wonder how to respond to the query “what were you shooting? who are you shooting for?”

***

I recently picked up Reading Lolita in Tehran. I’m barely through half the book and I’m swayed by the quality of writing. It is almost poetical and puts the most mundane thing to the forefront of your mind. The sentences seep into you, haunt you, making you repeat them over and over again, trying to fit the pieces. You try to understand how it works, emphasizing various words.

It makes you more aware of the pieces of your existence by the virtue of its absence in another part. And hopefully learn to appreciate it.

One such thing is freedom.

Yes, we have all read about how bad the situation is with women in the Middle East. They aren’t allowed to drive, not allowed to travel without a male relative. Education is absent and many such things.

But then you think about Tehran, Iran… a place that enjoyed all these ‘freedoms’ and are now struggling under the weight of radicalism. Where wearing  a veil is no longer a personal choice.

Imagine if your freedom to colours were taken away from you. Your freedom of music, of chaos, of noise, of making irresponsible decisions, of living through your errors and learning, of reading what you chose and saying what was on your mind. Of perhaps that is too complex.

Imagine that you could never wear any other colour but black. Nobody around you can live in another colour but black. Everywhere you see it is black. The only splash of colour is that blue book. Or the blue sky that you see from a narrow patch.

But you are scared to look up in public.

A line from the book made me laugh and cringe. “Imagine,” it said, “having such power as to make one lose control of themselves.” It was loaded with sarcasm, and in the context that a stray hair seen on a woman’s head could induce people to such frenzy. You have the power to give those radicals sleepless nights, thinking about that one person who would induce people to revolt and rebel. Not by huge speeches and movements. By just leaving loose one tiny strand of hair.

I imagine such darkness. And I’m grateful for the small freedoms that I do have.