It was several months ago, sitting in the dentist’s chair, something I look very little forward to… that I heard the question. “Why is it that your culture treats women so badly?” Now, I must tell you the question brought a rather odd sensation within me. Have I ever been treated badly as a woman by my culture? What exactly would that mean anyway? A version of the “ when did you stop beating your wife?” Question: “When did your husband stop beating you?” I was asked, as I sat there clawing the arms of a chair with anxious anticipation, mouth gaping, not just with surprise but with an uncomfortably sweet foaming gel, no less.
I am sure people of all kinds have faced difficulties, injustices. So have I. The picture of society my culture, my family, my mother and grandmother related to me was one in which everyone should strive for a measure of justice, be able to strive for happiness through their difficulties; one in which one learned to act with respect, and find a way to receive it. My culture taught me one should exercise one’s prerogatives thoughtfully, as well as respect the customs and prerogatives of others. My father often said this to me as I was growing up: “Be independent. Earn your own income and never be dependent on anyone else for your living.” That was the way my culture and my family treated me: as a capable, responsible and self-driven person who could and should take responsibility for their own growth and well-being.
If there is anywhere I have faced difficulty, injustice or discomfort as a woman, it is in the West, where I receive the message daily, that the only way I can be happy as a woman is if I am dating a worthy man. That the only route to be happy as a woman is to be thin and pretty. Even my seven year old daughter is fed popular culture filled with these ideas. Essentially, being a woman in the West involves giving up the right to self-respect, to individual happiness. It means to conform to some airbrushed picture off the cover of People magazine.
I remember well watching a news mag show on the Oscars last year. An older actress, considered a beauty in her day, Kim Novak, I think, showed up to present an award. Her face was lined with age, as I am certain she is well over 70 years of age. The news show host declared that such an old woman should really not present herself in public. I’m not sure now if the word ‘hag’ was used, but it may as well have been. Mind you, an actress spends an entire lifetime producing a body of work that everyone lauds. And at the end of that career, this artist, this public figure is expected to purdah herself because she is no longer a 22 year old?
At the Filmfare awards last year, Kamini Kaushal, a daughter of India who was a leading lady of Indian films in the 1960s, on the other hand, stood up on a stage graceful, natural, her hair grey, and while receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award, described the joys of her professional life, the colleagues she had lost, and the work she had done creating puppet shows for children. She was greeted by a standing ovation. And in the mark of respect so characteristic of my tradition, actors of the generations that followed her bent their heads to touch her feet and obtain her blessings.
Essentially, being a woman in the West involves giving up the right to self-respect, to individual happiness.
If you ask me, I would rather come from a culture and tradition that allows a woman to age gracefully, to pursue the fulfilment of her life’s work without regard to her appearance, instead of feeding her with so much personal insecurity that she behaves as though her only real worth lies in how pleasing she is to the eyes of men. I would rather come from a tradition that allows a woman to remain natural, real, rather than one that shames her into pumping herself with so much Botox and tissue expanders that she appears plastic, and still needs to feel ashamed to show herself in public. I would rather come from a culture that respects a woman’s experience and accomplishments, rather than discarding or dismissing her because of her age or her looks.
As a woman, I would rather come from a culture that told me stories of women warriors, like Queen Laxmibai, of defiant queens like Rani Padmini, of women freedom fighters like Sarojini Naidu, and celebrates powerful goddesses like Mata Kali. I would rather come from a culture that does not see a woman as a doll, a plaything for the use and benefit of men. Yet, that is how I hear women treated all the time in the West.
Let me relate a conversation over cocktails. Some friends and acquaintances of mine gathered at a hotel lobby after a charity event. The women, accompanied by their husbands, were dressed in fashionable, glittering and in some cases low-cut clothes. A woman dressed in a tight bandeau dress accompanied a man in a suit to the Registration desk. Two of the guys saw them and started muttering to each other. One of them is a friend of mine, a family man and a responsible father. The other I don’t know too well, and furthermore, he’s a politician by profession so I hesitate to vouch for his character. The two men were speculating that the young woman was a prostitute. Now this is at 9 pm at a 4 star hotel, in the midst of decidedly upper middle class company.
Surely if my friends in the West are to take the thoughts of a convicted rapist—whom Indian jurisprudence has condemned—as emblematic of societal views, then I can take the word of a decent family man and an elected official as emblematic of Western views on women. From it, I can only conclude that the West as a whole – America, Europe and the lot – view women as “meat”, and nothing more. This must be how you treat your wives, raise your daughters and view your sisters too, I suppose. Someone, fund my documentary and give me permission to tape please.
I would rather come from a culture that does not see a woman as a doll, a plaything for the use and benefit of men.
My point is simply this. Nothing could be more demeaning to “India’s daughters”, of whom I am one, than to suggest that we should understand our grandfathers, fathers, husbands, brothers and sons through the views of a convicted rapist, or his ilk. We don’t take instruction on how to live from people who do evil deeds. That doesn’t make us backwards or repressed. It is a humble sign of a modicum of our intelligence. We take instruction on such topics, well, from our strong and independent-minded mothers. We aren’t going to suggest that you watch documentaries that propagate the rantings of the KKK and serial killers to understand your men either. Because we aren’t disrespectful, stupid or ill-bred. Our mothers made sure of that.
Which brings up another point. To portray the male population of India as inherently rapist (in thought, if not word and deed) is to smear their mothers, grandmothers, aayahs, schoolteachers – indeed all those women who brought them up. If, as this Leslie Udwin suggests, culture is to blame, then how, after all is culture transmitted? Culture is not some abstract entity that insinuates itself somehow in our lives. It is the people who raise us that acculturate us. If there is, in fact a “rape mind-set” amongst Indian men, then how did they arrive at this mind-set? Who fed it to them? Who nurtured their minds? Who reinforced this purportedly ingrained thinking? In India, much like most of the world, by and large, this means women, mostly mothers. They lay down the blueprint. The inescapable conclusion one reaches from Leslie Udwin’s film is that India’s daughters are simply incapable of raising their own children – at the least their own sons – properly. Indian mothers are unable to do what every other human society manages to: raise children capable of being sound moral beings.
If the public interest served by this documentary is to declare all India’s sons immoral and all India’s daughters moral cretins, forgive us demurring to say that this film isn’t instructive to a lot of us. Rather, it denigrates us en masse. It isn’t “the-rapy”. It’s just another form of rape. It’s just “rap-y”.
If we want to keep women, or anyone else safe in India (or anywhere else), we should strengthen families and traditions, police the streets, and display zero tolerance for any kind of disrespectful behavior. Let’s teach women and men in urban areas about self-defence, to walk home together for safety. Let’s increase the penalty for transgressions. Let’s strengthen security at every urban corner. Guess what, the people of India – men AND women, because our men care equally about the safety of their mothers, sisters and daughters- have already responded to the horrific crime that this documentary purports to portray by making just these kinds of demands.
The Indian populace of Delhi took a tragic victim of a horrendous crime at the hands of depraved sociopaths and turned that into a movement, a demand for actual change. They christened India’s daughter “Nirbhaya” (which means fearless). THAT was the story they decided to script for their own society. They resolved that India’s daughters should live fearlessly: demanded that the police and the judiciary create circumstances that allow Indian women to flourish in safety. That was how the convict portrayed in this documentary ended up in Tihar jail on Death Row well before Leslie Udwin decided to offer him a microphone so he could presumably exercise “the right of free speech” he forfeited upon committing this horrific crime. Surely, given these circumstances, it is fair to ask precisely how this film is supposed to further the interests if the Indian public? Let me take you back for a moment to that dreadful dental chair, where I sat startled by the odd question. “Why is it your culture treats women so badly?”
Clearly, the question was intended to be rhetorical. Rhetorical in two senses: firstly, my dentist could not possibly have expected an answer given my state; secondly, she clearly had already formed a conclusion about my culture that the question merely begged. My interlocutor had already decided upon an answer. In that sense, this was no honest question. Perhaps that is why I felt speechless, (never mind being physically speechless given the circumstances). Horrified AND speechless. And perhaps speechlessness is the only possible response when someone is, after all, only pretending to talk to you, while actually enjoying a conversation with themselves.
The director of “India’s Daughter” claims her film should be viewed and debated, even by those who might not agree with her. On the surface, this seems such a reasonable stance. Until you realize that her film is merely a full-length movie version of my dentist’s question. This film only concludes what it has already presupposed. There is no scope for a conversation or a debate in these circumstances. There is nothing to learn. In fact, there is less than nothing to learn.
Just in case some of my well-meaning and wonderful friends and acquaintances in the West are interested in an actual conversation: no, I did not become an educated, professional woman through my tradition’s mal-treatment. Rather, I grew to become an educated, professional woman, with an independent intellect and a refined conscience through the care and nurture of my culture, and due to the knowledge imparted by the men and women who are my ancestors, who gifted to me my heritage through my parents, which heritage I will impart in turn to my own daughter, who will also thereby be another one of India’s fearless daughters. And that, ultimately, is what Nirbhaya’s ordeal will mean to India and her daughters.
And another thing: the fact of the matter is that, even if America manages to elect a woman President next year, the older democracy will be 50 years—a full half century—behind its younger counterpart in according political leadership to a woman.
Satya is a physician who was born in Delhi and lives in the US. She has a 7 year old daughter, enjoys watching documentaries that are edifying, and is learning to get over her fear of dentistry.