“One of the most enduring clichés about India is that it is the country of contradictions. Like all clichés, this one too has a grain of truth in it. At the heart of the contradiction stand Indian women: for it is true to say that they are among the most oppressed in the world, and it is equally true to say that they are among the most liberated, the most articulate and perhaps even the most free. Can these two realities be simultaneously true?”
I muse about getting this quote tattooed on me or perhaps printing it on index cards, a handy giveaway for all the people I meet as I travel the world. I am just one person, one in a country of one billion and multiplying. I often find myself in rooms and places and unexpected conversations where I become the unwitting and often unwilling representative of my country. I am not sure my country would want that – after all they have little use for a non-religious feminist, who sees no shame in having an opinion. I used to be churlish, I used to punctuate every beginning and end with ‘this is my opinion’ as if drawing a legal Lakshman Rekha around me. As with life, I have become more at ease when called upon to talk about trivial issues such as the state of women in India or corruption or the global favourite of cows and traffic. Who am I to claim ignorance?
I never know for sure and probably never will, what to tell people about women in India. This is my current spiel and I make no promises that this is what it will be. I remind them that ‘women in India’ isn’t some homogeneous category, as if in that term lay a clear definition of what it means to be a woman in this country of mine, intersectionality be damned. I remind them of all the categories of classification that exist and matter: rural and urban; rich, poor and middle class; educated and uneducated; working or not; in the formal sector or not. The list is endless, I try and keep it brief, to not lose my audience too soon. After all, catchy soundbites are the norm now and I have always aspired to be everyone’s favorite glib Indian. If I talk too much, people will tune out and decide that Slumdog Millionaire is how we all live.
A woman in Vietnam once asked me, morbidly fascinated and horrified, about ‘all the raping’ in India. I cringed, wouldn’t you as well? All the raping. What a way to be known in the world. But she was right. So I tell people, that yes it is a deeply patriarchal society that hates its women in ways known and unknown. I remind them of the term ‘no country for women’. They are already very aware of the gender violence, the sexual assaults, the dowry deaths, just like we in India are very aware of the gun violence in America. Other people’s problems are a good opiate. Occasionally I rope in Amartya Sen and talk about all our missing women, some from the workforce and others from life itself. But we have no regrets, unless there is a shortage of brides. But only from our caste please and no mangliks.
I remind them that wealth and education buy you certain kinds of safety – perhaps you don’t use public transport, perhaps you have access to the Internet – but they don’t make you completely safe. I tell them about my conflicted feelings about all the young women who are getting an education but proudly disavow feminism and careers. The illusion of choice is a powerful one in our society. I tell them about ‘eve-teasing’ and our obsession with Bollywood, with its heaving bosoms and stalkers and item members and obsessions with the ideal women.
But there are so many things I don’t tell them and perhaps never can. How do I deconstruct the intersection of religion, culture and patriarchy, which has self-servingly made a woman’s body a vessel for righteousness and honour? Especially when people view India through a mystic lens of yoga and Diwali that lends itself well to a certain kind of tunnel vision. I am tired of it, I now call out what I see as the romanticization of outsiders, it does no one any good (except perhaps the tourism industry?). I have always existed in a relational category: as a daughter and a sister and as a future wife and mother (it doesn’t matter what I think, what happens; that is the inevitability of my fate).
I can never explain to them how the good girl, bad girl divide is alive and flourishing in the brains of men and women across the country. I try but fail at describing how the word shame is slowly and invisibly tattooed on us. I don’t know how to explain how I was able to explore cities at night and somehow make it back home. How do I tell them that moment of epiphany in ninth grade, where I realized that if my menstrual blood leaked out of my skirt no harm would be done, no one’s life damaged. It would all be fine. How do I tell them about the invisible boundaries I draw around my behaviour, when I can’t even acknowledge them to myself. So instead I end with my standard catchphrase: it is a country of contradictions, for everything that is true, there is an equal and opposite reality that is true as well.
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