March 22, 2011

Daughters are not for killing

I MET A YOUNG  WOMAN a few years ago. She had come to New Delhi and had found a job as an assistant in a small shop. She was also in love and her conservative family had come around to accepting her adult choice of a life partner. They were coming to Delhi the following month to formalize her wedding. She was looking forward to it, since single lodgings in the city tended to be shabby, solitary and dreary. “Please do come for my engagement ceremony,” she entreated, as her eyes lit up with excitement.

I assured her of my participation and left my phone number with her so that she could inform me about the date and the location. A couple of months went by but there was no phone call from her. Not seeing her on a subsequent visit to the shop I enquired about her. Her employer told me guardedly that she no longer worked there. On my insistent questioning, the harrowing details were divulged. A week before her supposed engagement, her family had marched into the city. Her mother and maternal uncles had forcibly dragged her back to the village with them. She had made a frantic phone call to her employer who offered her support. The phone call was cut short. When the employer tried to contact her again, she was told that the girl was returning to her village and would not come in to work anymore. The phone connection was also abruptly terminated. Meanwhile her beau visited the employer. He confided that he had been knocked off his bike on a couple of occasions and had subsequently received phone calls telling him these were warnings. His family was also threatened. There was no news of the ebullient girl who had wanted to chart her own destiny.

Here was a situation where newspaper statistics had leapt off the page to reveal a grim three dimensional reality. There was no way of contacting the girl and I raged helplessly against a lawless country in which young women could be abducted by their own kinsfolk and treated so shabbily. This was by no means a solitary incident. Something is rotten in the fabric of our country. Something continues to dog and intimidate and brutalise young women. It injures men too in the attempt to settle scores relentlessly and lethally, notching points on behalf of insularity and barbarism and gratuitous gender cruelty. In 2000 the newspapers carried reports that Bibi Jagir Kaur, a Shiromani Akhali Dal councillor in Punjab, had allegedly abducted her daughter Harpreet, subjected her to an abortion, given her an overdose of pills and consigned her to the flames. This was because the young woman in question had married in secret while studying at a medical college. To date no one has been punished and witnesses in the face of muscle and money power have now turned hostile. What exactly was the crime these two young women had committed? What was the basis of their family’s behaviour? How could one even hope to understand this vicious and vitiating practice?

On paper we won our independence in 1947. Our constitution extends the fundamental right to self-expression even to women. Yet, everywhere around us despite the cries of a liberal plural space what we see is the buttressing and endorsement of hegemonic feudal stereotypes. Our republic awoke to Rajendra Krishan’s lyric ( sung by Lata to the strident assertion by Bina Rai in Anarkali ) “Yeh zindagi usi ki hai, Jo kisi ka ho gaya, Pyar hi mein kho gaya” in 1953. Lata Mangeshkar defiantly crooned Shakeel Badayuni’s lyric “Jab pyar kiya tho darna kya, Pyar kiya Koi chori nahi ki jhuk jhuk aahein bharna kya” in Mughal-e-Azam in 1960 for the ethereal Madhubala. Both actors were essaying the life of Anarkali, the slave girl, who received Prince Jehangir’s attentions. The battle lines were very firmly drawn at the very outset of this ill-fated historical romance. Benevolent Akbar, humanitarian and visionary and yet irrevocably the quintessential patriarch ordered that the hapless kaneez be entombed alive.

With apologies to Amartya Sen, there is nothing talkative about most Indian men as far as their engagement with women goes. If talk can initiate dialogue and thereby create a dialogic space, such a history of gender relations has yet to be unearthed. Dasaratha listened very little to any of his three wives. He planned his son’s coronation in accordance with the laws of primogeniture. Rama, the product of a levirate marriage outdid his father when he actively humiliated his wife. He watched her undergo a trial by fire and banished her to the forest without flinching in the face of scurrilous gossip despite supernatural certification of her purity. Gautam Buddha hastened to attain Nirvana but a discussion of this life-altering choice with his wife was never part of his itinerary. In fact, there are few narratives in which the gods, demigods or humans are shown as treating women fairly or as equals. Anarkali’s tale, the trauma and tragedy notwithstanding, spun out its course at the extreme end of the sixteenth century. Yet, well into the twentieth century in socialist, democratic India, with a poor track record on gender sensitivity and gender equality both in myth and in history, old mindsets continue to dominate gender politics, and subject women who dare to love to indignity, ignominy and death. The unofficial version of the Anarkali story softens our anger at the king when we hear that he gave orders to rescue her from her untimely death and transported her in secret to the outskirts of his empire. Our modern day dispensers of the death penalty do not give themselves any room or time for reflecting upon their decisions. The possibility of self-doubt does not arise and reprisals are swift and bloody.

Oddly, despite a Dowry Prohibition Law enacted in 1961, from the 70s North India was gripped by an epidemic of bride burning which added to the number of dowry related killings all over the country. This public enactment became so routine that in 1995 a youth congress leader allegedly shot dead his live-in partner Naina Sahni and disposed of her hacked remains in a restaurant’s tandoor. Possibly the public outcry over this murder most foul resulted in a go-slow on the burning of brides. Other forms of dowry deaths and harassment of course, continued. The singer from Ek Mahal Ho Sapnon Ka (1975) who fondly declared, “Dil Mey Kisi Ke Pyar Ka Jalta Hua Diya, Duniyaan Ki Aandhiyon Se Bhala Ye Bhujega Kya” had little or no idea of the blitzkrieg that the real world could unleash.

Some form of punishment, torture or cruelty has always dogged the lives of women in our country. Women are pushed off trains , murdered in their apartments and have acid flung in their faces by rebuffed, would-be- suitors and spurned lovers. The bodies of women have always been marked as sites for acts of violence. There has never been any let up on this. The process of extermination begins in utero with the female foetus. Those who survive can be subjected to any of the following : infanticide, paedophilia, molestation, harassment and rape. This could be followed up with domestic violence and marital abuse, withholding of property rights, denial of access to money, mobility, work and so on. A recent addition to this gruesome list of horrors which can be inflicted upon women is the spate of khap killings in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Bihar where young women who have married outside the community are made to let down their guard and then brutally silenced. Womens’ lives are well represented by that popular board game called Snakes and Ladders. Only in their case, there are venomous snakes at every turn and the ladders often turn into straws that can barely be clutched.

In the past few months the newspapers have repeatedly reported the killings of young women and often enough, the killing or harassment of their legally wedded husbands. In many cases, the girl’s side of the family seems to be an active orchestrator and implementer of the act of murder. Mothers and grandmothers are flanked by a bloody personal army that goes all out to butcher daughters (who in most cases have chosen suitable men from similar economic backgrounds or interests, not princely scions). In some cases it is death to both (conspirators against caste and gotra) the young woman and the man she has married. This in parts of North –West India is being validated by the Khap panchayats which are finally unelected bodies reinforcing hideous codes and demanding compliance to stereotypes, that are completely out of sync with the times. This is a travesty of the Panchayat Raj that Gandhiji dreamt would ensure ethical, judicial and social welfare to every little corner of India. The possibility that elders from varied communities could authorise the barbaric and heinous killing of daughters and their young men could have never crossed the mind of this practitioner of ahimsa. Ironically, this is the violent terror that stalks the hinterland currently.

If one were to take recourse to older stories, disowning daughter Desdemona after she married secretly as Brabantio did in Othello and the cold estrangement lived out by Barrett Senior when Elizabeth Barrett eloped with Robert Browning in the 19th century seem in retrospect to be extremely civilized ways of communicating a sense of betrayal and loss of control, emotions that understandably both men experienced. Brabantio died of a broken heart and Barrett Senior, I would like to believe, died of a frozen one. The rancour and bitterness which resulted in th outright rejection of their daughters by both men is a preferred means of communication in a flawed world. At its worst no bridges connected the generations and outraged parental sensibility was never assuaged. The daughters did leave for other lands with their husbands.

In stark contrast we have elders from different communities besmeared with the blood of their young. We also have an elected MP empathising with the sentiments of the Khap elders. Their perspective forms the axle around which he will steer the vehicle of governance. By doing so he has consigned to the garbage heap not only his responsibilities as MP but also the aspirations of another set of elders, Gandhiji and Rajagopalachariji who cemented inter-community ties and strengthened bonds through marriage between their wards.

How is it that daughters are allowed an education, freedom to travel to the city, pursue careers of their choice and live alone but cannot choose the men they would like to marry? Each one of these available options is a breaker of caste and gender prohibitions. All inroads made by the brave new world are stonewalled the moment women’s sexual freedom comes in for scrutiny. The MP’s choice reveals allegiance to an older world view, one in which women were sexually monitored and guarded and viewed as moveable assets in a world owned and run by men. In such a world, tokenism over a notional freedom assumes greater significance than the individual’s right to live or to love. Small matter if countless young people are hacked to death because they loved incorrectly. As long as the right to fly the national flag in individual backyards is endorsed, apparently all is well with the world.

This unfortunately is the cold truth that every young adult woman lives with. Tradition is not interpreted as being on her side although both swayamvara (choosing a groom oneself) and gandharvavivah (marriage by mutual consent) formed part of older cultural practice. Newly-written laws will take time to impact the collective’s consciousness, especially when the upholders of laws themselves are rather reticent about implementation. Such phenomena, wherein a separate set of codes come into play, circumscribing women’s sexual lives is part of cultures around the world. A report in the July issue of Time magazine online drew attention to the fact that in Afghanistan, 103 women had attempted to burn themselves between March 2009 and March 2010 as a way of escaping from their sorrows. Sakineh from Iran was recently rescued from being stoned to death for adultery because of the pressure generated by Awaaz through the international community. Patriarchal societies usually function through double standards and continue to exercise the power of punitive action against women, declaring them guilty and never to be proved innocent. Women cannot desire and do not have any sexual freedom. This conviction is relentlessly hammered into women along with a sense of their innate unworthiness.

I ran into the young woman in my story, a short while ago. Escaping from rigorous confinement in her natal home, she hopped on to several buses to reach a destination far away from her home. From a pay phone she established contact with her young man, and married her shining knight without any armour. They worked and lived on the run in various small towns for a while before shifting into the anonymity of New Delhi. The silence on the part of her family is ominous and she is rightly fearful that news of her little world of happiness may somehow come to the notice of her family. So here are two young adults, living out their lives, small ordinary citizens of this country, who have engineered all by themselves a precious, precarious peace. Their journey has been fraught with all manner of dangers and obstacles and continues to be so. This is too harsh a sentence and an extraordinarily difficult price to pay for love.


This article was first published in Hard News.

11 comments to Daughters are not for killing

  • Thank you for this. Even though the next couple of generations are sure to see the crumbs of this social paradigm, every article and every story written about it helps to actively create a revolution in our social fabric.

  • Alas, some things not only seem to not change but actively get worse. The year was 1983, when a friend in our engineering college eloped with the love of his life, (he was Kayasth and she was a Thakur – words I came to learn only in Benaras) and few Hindi movies would have captured the drama that ensued. Within two days her brother appeared in Mumbai (at a close friend’s house) and in Chennai (my own contribution) till they tracked down the couple on run. While no lasting physical damage was wreaked as threatened on either of the two young ‘uns, it was amply clear to all parties that such dreams that any freedom pertaining to choice love that would mean transgressing caste or gender roles was mythical. And in this case all involved were not only economically well placed but well educated. In Bangalore I am beginning to see the glimmer of some boundaries being crossed at least for love across such barriers – may their tribe increase!

  • Ish Chowdhury

    Thank you for bringing this up again for conversation. I just wish this article would get exposure to where it matters most. In the villages and towns of South Asia where right this minutes some innocent life is at stake as we talk about this horrible thing.

  • […] Raman at Ultra Violet describes how many women in India are subject to some form of punishment, torture or cruelty in their lives […]

  • […] Raman at Ultra Violet describes how many women in India are subject to some form of punishment, torture or cruelty in their lives […]

  • […] Raman at Ultra Violet describes how many women in India are subject to some form of punishment, torture or cruelty in their lives […]

  • Amber

    My goodness. I had no idea that things were so difficult and backward in India these days. It seemed as if India had become a much more modern and prosperous nation known for high technology and rapid economic growth.

    I am so sorry that barbarism and ignorance still run amok. Things will change, of course, with time, and I hope that young people have the strength and ingenuity to escape. It is sad and infuriating that young adult women are denied the most precious of gifts: freedom.

  • rikkitikkitavi

    Is it just my impression or are things actually getting much worse for women in India? In the India I thought I knew, young women faced great violence from their husbands and in-laws, but generally not this level of brutality from their own families, especially their own mothers and grandmothers and aunts. I wonder if something has changed – if all of this violence is a misdirected backlash to what many people probably feel is a rapidly encroaching globalization. Or has it always been around, and we’re only now hearing about it more?

    In my own family, my cousin, a Hindu Brahmin, married her Muslim classmate in the 1970s. While there was great furor in the family – and my aunt refused to talk to her daughter for several years till my father finally managed to broker a reconciliation – it never approached anything resembling the actual physical violence mentioned in these stories. Can we really have moved that far backwards in 30 or 40 years?

  • Sandhya

    I think that was an excellent article — and an important one. Thank you for writing it.

    In response to the comment above: No, I don’t think matters have regressed in the past 30-40 years. What we do need to realize is that our Indian subcontinent is not a monolith — it’s made up of many smaller Indias. Such standards of pro/re-gressiveness as may apply to an urban middle-class family (even one as far back as in the 70s) in India are, I would imagine, quite different from those that may apply to a poor family from a rural background, as the one that your young woman is probably from. This makes it quite difficult to draw a moral mean through the heterogeneous plurality of our nation.

  • Dr Paul

    I wonder if these types of attacks are getting worse, or if it is case of their getting more publicity.

    I wonder if social development of India has led to a situation in which the number of young people who wish to live their lives by modern norms and wish to choose their partners on the basis of mutual attraction has reached a point where the conservative types who traditionally have seen their offspring as counters in property deals, etc, feel increasingly threatened, and wreak their revenge against the modern world through these attacks.

    Maybe, because relationships based upon attraction cut across their authority in such a sharp manner, the conservatives see them as a personal slight against both their parental authority and the idea of parental authority in general. Hitting out at the ‘disobedient’ son and (especially) daughter, subjecting them to really nasty physical and mental abuse and often a very painful death, makes me feel that there is a very deep wish not merely to hurt but to humiliate, and to teach a lesson to anyone thinking of doing the same. I’m reminded of the cruel, humiliating treatment of a gang member who transgresses the gang’s rules and gets caught.

    I don’t think that this is a problem that is going to go away. Indeed, the lop-sided development of India, where old customs and the conditions that produce them sit uncomfortably alongside modern norms, and where cultural norms lag behind social changes, means that such awful things will continue to occur. I hope that progressively-minded people will give support to people wishing to break away from peasant customs and live a modern life, although what practical support can be given from, in my case, Britain, I don’t know.

  • Ratna Raman

    I’m overwhelmed by the responses to my article and would like to thank every one who has felt involved enough to respond. Thank you, Sandhya for so ably responding to Amber and Rikkitikki’s queries. While the article uses a lot of actual incidents to construct a narrative, it also examines mindsets with regard to women and the tradition of curtailing their freedom. Despite resistance, women have been policed in all societies all of the time. The method of monitoring and controlling women has differed from culture to culture. This has been changing and will continue to change in the face of opposition so what we can do is to celebrate precarious personal protests and regularly reexamine and revisit assumptions that we usually live by, wherever we are located.

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