All about my mothers
Monobina Gupta | January 5, 2013
We must find a new language of defining women because they can never be free, or safe, if we persist with old patriarchal notions of looking at them, says Monobina Gupta.
Driving to office the other morning, I heard a government commercial against sex selection on the radio. It urged us not to kill female foetuses because men would soon be hardpressed to find wives. A few days ago, at the protests in New Delhi‘s Jantar Mantar, some among the protesters were heard using the widely prevalent mother and sister curse words to abuse the rapists;blithely oblivious to the vulgar dichotomy of their words and actions.
In that recent outpouring of rage and sorrow on the streets of the Capital, we heard repeated invocations to this land of ‘mothers and sisters’. Indian men, we were told, should learn to respect their ‘mothers and sisters’. But in cases like this, the redressal is also the malady. It’s part of our collective failure – starting right at the top of the political order and percolating down to every societal nook and cranny – to treat women simply as human beings. We are unable to think of women outside of their roles as mothers and sisters. This is the reason we keep reverting to that ineffectual conventional script.
The mother-sister platitudes, in more ways than one, convey a fixed patriarchal notion of women. Women are always perceived as existing in relation to somebody else, more often than not to the men around them. Seldom are they seen or portrayed as autonomous agents. Strangely, this perennial invocation hasn’t prevented us from coining abuses in the names of mothers and sisters. Some of the crudest parts of our mainstream culture of abuse, particularly in north India, hinges around our mothers and sisters. Consider the irony of singing paeans to maa and behen while stringing out abuses in their name.
You hear these abuses on crowded streets, in packed buses, inside homes, in casual conversations and during heated arguments. Public and private spaces are replete with the words. In fact, so common are these epithets, bandied about in day-to-day conversations, that they have almost been stripped of their poisonous misogyny. The curses have been transformed, as it were, into benign admonishments.
Take the latest case of the 23-year old paramedic student whose gangrape and subsequent death sparked off the nationwide protests mentioned above. The youngest rapist, a juvenile, asked the victim to board the bus, by calling her ‘sister’. That familial address must have evoked a sense of security.
There are countless cases where defence lawyers and even courts or traditional bodies have asked rape victims to marry their rapists. The implication is that by marrying the victims rapists perform an act of atonement and salvage the woman from sexual humiliation. Then there are numerous cases of domestic sexual assaults, sisters raped by brothers, daughters by fathers, wives subjected to marital rape. The last one isn’t even legally recognised as a crime.
In a society where rape occurs within families, violating the very relationships held up as symbols of sacred dignity and pride, we must find a new language of defining women. The absence of such a discourse is especially jarring when even our political class seems to make these relationships the reference points to condemn violence against women.
Such discourse valorises women as daughters, sisters, and mothers. Wives, though, are rarely mentioned in such invocations. Consider the manner in which our top political leaders expressed their anguish in the recent case of Delhi gang-rape. “I and my associate (Minister of State for Home R P N Singh) have three daughters each. . . we are concerned about their security. Such incidents can happen to them too, ” Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told reporters. Days later, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “As a father of three daughters myself, I feel as strongly about this as each one of you. “
This problematic imagination of women is adding to the present crisis. There is a clear refusal, deliberate or otherwise, to take into consideration the radical choices women are making in terms of relationships and how they live their lives. For instance, though the law has now recognised livein relationships as legally acceptable, our political classes and society still mouth regressive ideas. The victim of the Kolkata Park Street rape case, a single mother who was out at night, drinking in a bar, has been portrayed as a sex worker by West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress. Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, a prominent party MP, has gone to the extent of saying the incident was not rape, but the result of a misunderstanding between the victim and her client. Do sex workers deserve to get raped?
Women are tired of being boxed into traditional roles. They are angry at being told what to wear, how to behave and lead their lives. Along with the maa-behen abuses, the streets of Delhi recently also reverberated with a revamped version of “Azaadi, ” one of the strongest legacies of the feminist movement of the 1980s. As women and men sang “din mein bhi azaadi, aur raat mein bhi azaadi, ” they helped break the barricades of patriarchal language. Its time to ensure that women’s freedom be guaranteed because they are women, not because they are mothers and sisters of men.