Monday, 31 December 2012

Stupid India.

The farther back in time one goes, the better a woman's position in India seems to have been - relatively anyway. In the period of the Rigveda, about 1500 B.C, we were among the first to allocate a fairly respectable position to women in society. Although always subordinate to their husbands, women were allowed to attend tribal assemblies, their presence was essential in religious ceremonies, they could choose their own spouses and could remarry if their husband died or disappeared. Practices like child marriage were unknown. Greatly learned and highly intelligent women sages or ‘Brahmavadinis’ like Vac, Ambhrni, Romasa, Gargi, Khona came from this era. The very influential Indian female philosopher Ghosha, whom part of the Rigvedas have been attributed to, was a result of this ancient period. The ancient Hindu philosophical concept of 'shakti' the feminine principle of energy, came about as a product of this age.

During the later Vedic period the status of women was already on the decline, with the interpretation of the Manusmrtis[1], the Islamic invasion of Babar and the Mughal empire and later Christianity curtailing women's freedom. Men welcomed the 'Purdah' practice (veil for concealing women from men) that came with the Muslim conquests in the subcontinent. Nicely hidden, her face remained shrouded. Uncovered only for the perusal of her owner. By the medieval period, Sati was in place, child marriages were rampant, a ban on widow remarriage was enforced, Devdasis[2] were being sexually exploited in temples, Rajputs practiced Jauhar - honorary self-immolations of their wives and families to end their lives with 'respect' before the men marched off to the battlefield. A variety of influences were happily in play for the Indian man to state and maintain his control on women. Systematically building a system around it to enhance and preserve his grip. A grip that tightens, further restraining with every sign of revolt. Designed to painfully remind and reprimand.

We have expressed shock at the brutal gangrape of 23 year old Damini. Confused and pained about ourselves. Questioning our culture, our values, our morals. What have we become? Look what we have done! Why all the surprise though? How different have we ever been since say, 500 B.C? The bigger question is, are we ever going to change? We have grown into a culture that have lost practice with questioning and reflecting and reacting through reflection. Prone more to an obedient stupor. We are formed rather by influences and impulses, flowing with the tide rather than directing the tide. We celebrate the Smrtis[3] and it's verses, some of which are full of prejudice, hatred and discrimination against women, rather than question them. The Moguls showed us how to control and restrain our women, and we learnt how to with glee. Then went ahead and imaginatively improvised with our own additions. The Christians came with their restraints for women and we applied those too.
Damini could be one of the countless nameless and faceless women of modern India. A culture that we have nurtured over the centuries is now augmented with the given socioeconomic conditions. She's holding a mirror to us. How many Indian men can claim to respect their wives, sisters, mothers? I'm not talking about equality, much of the industrialised world is still struggling with that one. I'm talking about respect! How many of our fathers or brothers see and accept their women as individuals? That is where the learning starts - at home. Like Arundhathi Roy said 'We are having a very unexceptional reaction to an event that isn't very exceptional'. And she is right, how sad is it that such a tragic event isn't exceptional? Sure there exists a whole lower financial layer of Daminis whose lives comprise of such incidents. That's why a meaningful trigger is important, one that has been pulled now and hasn't fired into the air. That's why it is exceptional this time around, because we have reacted. It is exceptional because we are reaching a tipping point as a people. We are not nodding in the usual ‘Kay kare?’ - ‘What to do?’, defeatism. We are saying we object! 
We are stirring out of a numbed apathy. Like we did for Shaheen Dhada and her friend, the Facebook girls, and now again for Damini. This is the second time in a few months that a woman has unleashed a rage for change that will be multiplied a thousand times in the coming days and weeks and months. There is a resounding call for action across the country. A call for accountability and change that cannot be suppressed. We are standing up for what is right, fighting for it, protesting, getting beaten for it. We are thinking beyond what we have known, beyond what we have been taught. We are thinking. 
Author Chetan Bhagat famously wrote about the Great Indian Stupidity in ridiculous routines and bureaucracies of every day life and why we accept them. Because we are too stupid to think beyond what we know? The honorable Justice Katju frustratedly said that 90% of Indians (not all) are fools. Obviously not meant as an accurate statistic (phew!) - he Intended in his comment to awaken people to the realities of widespread communalism, superstitions, and other backward traits. I might disagree this time. I think there is an awakening in the process. There are reasons for more optimism in India. In the face of despair and the horror of this incident, hope has emerged. Hope in the people. Hope that we will soon also care enough about female infanticide, about brides burnt, about brides bought, about 'honour killings' of women and rape.
According to Malcolm Gladwell “In the end, tipping points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push — in just the right place — it can be tipped.". 
We are on the verge of tipping. We, not-so-stupid India.

[1] Manusmrtis, The Manusmrtis also known as Manav Dharam Shastra, is the earliest metrical work on Brahminical Dharma in Hinduism. According to Hindu mythology, the Manusmriti is the word of Brahma, and it is classified as the most authoritative statement on Dharma .The scripture consists of 2690 verses, divided into 12 chapters. It is presumed that the actual human author of this compilation used the eponym ‘Manu’, which has led the text to be associated by Hindus with the first human being and the first king in the Indian tradition. 
Some of the comments on women in the Manusmrtis (Source: http://nirmukta.com/2011/08/27/the-status-of-women-as-depicted-by-manu-in-the-manusmriti/),
  • “Balye pitorvashay…….” – 5/151. Girls are supposed to be in the custody of their father when they are children, women must be under the custody of their husband when married and under the custody of her son as widows. In no circumstances is she allowed to assert herself independently.
  • “Na ast strinam………..” – 5/158. Women have no divine right to perform any religious ritual, nor make vows or observe a fast. Her only duty is to obey and please her husband and she will for that reason alone be exalted in heaven.
  • “Imam hi sarw………..” – 9/6. It is the duty of all husbands to exert total control over their wives. Even physically weak husbands must strive to control their wives.
[2] Devdasis, In Hinduism, the Devadasi traditionwas a religious tradition in which girls are “married” and dedicated to a deityor to a temple. Originally, in addition to this and taking care of the temple and performing rituals, these women learned and practiced Sadir (Bharatanaty), Odissi and other classical Indian artistic traditions and enjoyed a high social status.
[3] Smrtis, Smriti literally "that which is remembered," refers to a specific body of Hindu religious scriptures and is a codified component of Hindu customary law. The literature which comprises the Smrti was composed after the Vedas around 500 BCE. Smrti also denotes tradition in the sense that it portrays the traditions of the rules on dharma especially those of lawful virtuous persons. 

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