no books have
the spine to
Last Thursday at dinner, my dad and I got into a bit of a verbal scuffle after he played down marital rape as something women use as a tactic against men to win sympathy instead of justice. Playing the “victim card,” if you will. “They’ll have 4-5 kids with the man and then one day say he raped me,” he casually waved off. The comment did not compute in my head. Didn’t he understand that you can want to have sex one day with your husband, have his kids, and yet not feel like it some other times? Didn’t he understand consent? Was a woman not allowed to refuse sex to her husband? Is it because he owns her body? Is that how he treated my mom in the past?
“What are you talking about?” I demanded, my voice and the color in my face rising. He didn’t look me in the eye.
When I was a kid, my parents would say “We think of you as our son.” and act like they were doing me a huge honor. But it always irked me. Wasn’t that statement inherently demeaning – wasn’t it saying girls were lesser but they were elevating me in their hearts? I grew up projecting a much more tomboyish demeanor and even thinking less of other girls who were more traditionally feminine because of this. I had to rediscover my own femininity as I grew. I had to teach myself that being a girl was okay, that it was good, that it was fucking great. That I didn’t have to be ashamed to be what I was. And that I didn’t have to compete with everyone for approval. As I’ve grown, I’ve had to fight for autonomy in a very different way than most American kids. “Good girls stay quiet, good girls stay home, good girls listen, good girls don’t question.” I am quiet, but I laugh loudly, I’m a homebody with spontaneous wanderlust and I like going out, I listen but I talk back, and I fucking question everything. So it was a struggle. And my parents have grown to be more understanding. But every now and then I see the insecure and unfounded rise in authoritarian stances that are either surfacing because my dad is having to deal with two very independent and capable women in the house (me and my sister) or because I’m now just starting to pay attention to something that was already there. Perhaps both. But what irked me more than my dad’s statement was my mom’s silence.
But, going back to my dad’s point on deceitful women – granted, there may be women who lie and manipulate men for their advantage – human garbage comes in all genders – but most women, and especially middle class and poverty stricken women in India, would hardly see any benefit in such tactics. Women are ashamed to admit when they’ve been victimized and don’t look forward to recounting their trauma to strangers over and over again as doctors and lawyers and gawkers look on to pass judgment on them. The culture in India (though America is not often better – remember Brock Turner?) is so horrible to women who admit to being raped due to concepts of purity, that remaining silent is usually preferred. Especially because police rarely investigate further into the cases leaving the anti-rape laws and justice completely impotent. The women are bribed and threatened until they and their families are silent as the statues of the Gods they adorn their huts with for protection.
Some, will say “she was asking for it” because she wore a short skirt, or wore make-up, or was out in the daylight and had a vagina. It’s like saying you shouldn’t buy an iPhone or nice watch because you may get mugged. No one is asking to be victimized. This dichotomy between the “pure” and “sullied” the Madonna and the Whore, it needs to stop. And perhaps this will change as more and more people move towards secularism and away from rigid religious and cultural traditions derived from a patriarchal world view. Especially because India has a very violent rape problem with women often being gang raped, beaten and set on fire afterward. No one is asking for that.
Why do I blame religion? First of all, I don’t blame all devotees or religions. Not everyone interprets the scriptures in the same way. Sikhism, for example, actually grants women full parity with men in many of the scriptures. However it’s a diverse set of beliefs and I’m also not sure just how consistent this equality is since it rarely plays out in practice, as demonstrated with my father who considers himself a devout Sikh. I personally find Sikh philosophies to be quite progressive and devoted to equality and service and admiring and preserving the natural world. But Sikhism is a pretty new religion, barely 500 years old (and there are many different sects that worship differently). There is a larger cultural mindset that is influenced by centuries of patriarchal Hindu and Islamic traditions that are harder to root out. And Hinduism’s caste system (that was hugely exacerbated by British meddling) creates divisions in society and assigns inherent “worth” to people so some people would naturally be less worthy. Less human. Some believe India’s violent rape pandemic is because of the skewed sex ratios caused by decades of female infanticide (another lovely side-effect of patriarchy). This is an alarming factor, however, China, another country with a skewed sex ratio, does not have this problem to this degree. Though there has been an uptick in violence in China too, the men are not violent towards women in the same way. So why? It’s the caste and communal structures in India. China does not have the same complicated set of religious narratives floating around. Women in India are not seen as people, but something to be mistrusted, used and discarded or kept as property with varying levels of worth depending on their quality. People are all about status and women tend to be on the bottom of the pyramid. The Hindu religious scriptures often depict rape but show no consequences of it to the perpetrator. Not unlike Greek and Roman mythology of the West. Women are referred to as snakes and dangerous liars or tricksters put on earth to be temptations. Not unlike Eve bringing about original sin by tricking Adam into taking a bite of the apple.
Sure, Indians also worship female deities (and actually have some awesome mythology to go with it) and not all Hindu devotees have the same view of the scriptures – However, a large section of the fundamentalists see things differently and they set the standards for a large group. For example, the Brahmin tradition of marrying child brides comes from the desire for purity and virginity – the younger the girl, the more likely she is “pure”.
The goddesses are referred to as Ma or Mata, the Hindi word for mother – so still defined by a biological role. They are providers and protectors and powerful but ultimately not human. They are often cause for fear as well. People fear their wrath and curses and bring offerings to them in order to be spared misfortune. Not exactly warm huggy deities. (Which is a shame because with that many arms, hugs would be awesome) Human women are often given some level of status but only as mothers who produce sons. Other than motherhood, they really have no worth.
“In a society where the national narrative conditions people to think that rape has no consequences; where violence has been unleashed by an imbalanced sex ratio; and where women have little or no cultural respect, 37,000 reported rapes per year is not shocking, or even surprising. It is just par for the course (The Daily Beast).”
And with India’s current PM Modi who is a Hindu Nationalist and is linked with state sponsored terrorism and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Gujrat in 2002 – we are bound to see more of this violent behavior. But with education and technology growing, and groups like the Gulaabi Gang taking matters into their own hands, people are continuing to resist. Women have always been a powerful force in Indian and the world, despite efforts to hold them back. I still have hope.
As for my father, he’s is not a bad man. Nor is he usually mean. But he has a hard time accepting disagreement and I am guilty of constantly questioning his world view and rather aggressively too.
He and his four other siblings were raised by my grandmother in a small village in India. My grandfather died in a truck accident when my dad was in his tweens. He had to take on a lot of responsibility from an early age and didn’t get to pursue an education and I think that hardened him to many things. Being raised by a single mother in India has given my dad some idea of how tough women can be. He’s much less authoritarian and crude about the roles of women than many of my uncles. However, he was still entrenched in that culture where hyper-masculinity reigns and even with direct evidence to the contrary, it’s hard for him to see past certain things. He also doesn’t like being wrong. I do see progress with him. His views soften every time we clash, just not instantly. Many people suggested that I should move out and live a more independent life. And part of me does want to “Cut the Cord”. But I was brought up with an Indian sense of duty and moral obligation to family and that too is very deeply entrenched and I don’t want to leave my family on such tense terms. I do want to fly to coop one day soon, but not because I’m running away. My parents did do a lot for me. They care a lot for me. They raised me as well as they knew how and have given my perspectives I never would have otherwise. They gave me a strong sense of empathy. I suppose I will have to forgive them for what they could not give because I was granted enough knowledge to look beyond their shortcomings. Also, I refuse to run away from my problems. America is at a cross-roads and it’s more divided than ever. Sometimes I think we are on the brink of another civil war. People are not talking to each other. Not even trying to see common ground to begin learning from each other. I refuse to cut people out of my life because we disagree about something, even if it’s as fundamental as this. Because if I don’t stay and talk and learn and teach, what will be left but a bitter emptiness echoing through my childhood home? My dad is not perfect by any means. But he’s also just a hard working old dude who made it through a tough immigrant life the best he knew how and created stability enough for me to learn and grow more than he ever had a chance to. It’s not easy, but I refuse to abandon the big fool. You only get one Old Man. But I’m still working on how to forgive him. (As for my mom, we’ll re-vist her in another post.)
In my experience, much of the conception of children in Indian culture has been inherently competitive starting from the day of marriage. Who marries first, to whom they marry (successful, big family being the highest rank) quickly turns to who can produce the most children — boy children.
My mom was safe on the marriage front. She’d married at the modest age of nineteen, dropping her studies to move with my father to America who at the time was twenty-nine. They hadn’t met beforehand so their first meeting was post-marriage. Shortly thereafter they moved countries. But my father came from a large family having two brothers and one sister. And most importantly he provided an opportunity to move to America, a land of possibility, especially true when you come from a farm village of Punjab where anything beyond milking cows and growing crops counts as special opportunity.
Then she got pregnant when she was twenty-two. Everyone back home was ecstatic. They’d have grandchildren! A hope and dream most elderly Indians hold onto. Actually I could argue that it is the drive to their existence; to see their grandchildren.
When my mother’s water broke and she was sent to the hospital I imagine there was great relief and horror. Pushing a baby out can be nothing short of horrific no matter how beautiful it may be in retrospect. Then the relief that it’d finally soon be over… And then I was born.
A brown Indian baby girl. My mom’s first reaction was to cry. Not out of happiness really but because she claimed my skin was too dark and she was afraid there’d be comments. (After the nurses gave me a good scrub though I apparently came out an acceptable brown and my mother was no longer sad. She just bathed me in milk for the next few months to make sure.)
My family in India was telephoned, surpassing the usual letter-writing route (we were nearing the mid-90s, a time of advancement). My family was overjoyed. Raj had a healthy baby! Quickly questions of gender came. In fact most conversations began like this:
“Raj had her child!”
“Great! What’s the gender?”
Reactions to me being a girl were quite mixed but all had the same undertones back in Punjab. “Ahhhh.” Many would say. Others would stifle their disappointment and front a staged happiness, “It’s good she’s had a healthy baby!” Others wouldn’t even try to hide their true feelings. “Ah by the grace of Waheguru (God) she’ll have a boy next.” (Though by Sikhism Waheguru’s response would be: LOVE YO GIRL CAUSE THEY ARE EFFING AWESOME!!! So asking for Waheguru’s grace is a bit awkwardly ironic.) I think my favorite reaction is that within my own immediate family who had also moved to America. One of my Aunts had also conceived a girl a few months before so much of her family was waiting to see what my mom would get. When they heard girl there was great joy. Not for me but for the fact that Raj hadn’t beaten their daughter in the child conceiving front. They’d both had girls! So they were both equally unfortunate and that they could deal with.
It’s funny. I knew this story from an early age. But, I’d never really thought critically about how effed up it all is. I was always an angry child always asserting my abilities to be just as capable as any boy. My anger was almost a way to show that I was tough and not “emotional” as girls are, of course. But, this way of coping was inherently sexist — why must I prove my worth by acting like a boy? Even my family was confused by my strange sense of assertiveness and stubbornness at an early age: You should’ve been a boy.
The way we valuate different genders in India sends a strong message — females are worth less than males. As a male, you are placed on this pedestal of glory; you’re the breadwinner, the strength and pride of the household. Most importantly, you will carry on the family name which for whatever Buddha forsaken reason females just can’t do… The imbalance of power is instilled at an early age; Girls grow up believing they have wronged their family, only giving them a burden of another mouth to feed and a potential liability to the good family name (keeping girls indoors is not for their protection but the protection of the family pride — they can’t have that tarnished by some girl who doesn’t know better.)
So when we hear that India has over a reported 35,000 rape cases a year(1), I am not surprised. I am disgusted and horrified by the number and the fact that it exists at all, but to me it is not outstandingly unbelievable because rape is essentially about power, or an assertion of it. Indian boys are told they are supreme, they see it in Bollywood where men portray fairly class act sexist characters and they observe it in law enforcement who are unwilling to take cases of sexual assault seriously. In extension, out of the 82,000 police officer in India, only 5,000 are female(2). That really tells you something.
Early on in my life I began to feel these differences; they became a part of my identity. Though my family never deliberately did anything to treat me different — I am so lucky for the mom and dad I am with — these stories and the experiences of the females of my family around me informed me that I was worth less.
But this does not make my family inherently bad. Their way of thinking is a product of an education from their childhood; a process of social norms, institutions, and an environment that nourished understandings of gender as binary, exclusive concepts. And as we’ve mentioned before this does not only happen in India. I started to think a lot about what feminism means and looks like across different cultural contexts because I don’t feel like it can be judged by an unitary or uniform scale. I really thought about this on a recent trip to Punjab, India where I took time to interview a lot of the females (who were essentially all my Aunts #SmallVillageLife).
I went there knowing of the sexist tendencies in Punjab, and the roles of women being very much what I saw as a domestic housewife. So I brought all these biases with me and into a lot of my interviews. I would ask: “So don’t you feel sad for having to cook and clean and be the role that you are in here?” To which most responses were: “???” At first I thought that my Aunts just didn’t know any better — they were raised and breed to be in the role they were in so how could they be unhappy. But, I was still bothered. After all, where was the The Graduate-like-Mrs. Robinson so obvious discontent and sadness that I could pinpoint here?
I had a slap in the face moment at some point in my interviews. One Aunt said this: “I don’t know why I would be sad. We live in the farms. My husband and I both tend to the farms. He stays and cleans up more there and I come home and cook our food. It makes sense.”
I started to really think about how maybe my perceptions of gender and gender roles and what I’d default to be as sexist was actually perhaps a very much Westernized way of thinking — I came from a world where a gRayna number of opportunities exist for pursuing an education, career development, fashion and style…. In Punjab you don’t have most of that. Punjab is largely agricultural based and especially in the small villages like Chahalpur where there are literally perhaps 2 or 3 shops, farming is all they know. Unless of course they make it out to America.
I’m not saying this excuses the behaviors and mindset even in Punjab — they are still so obviously sexist — but it made me check myself more on how I go about understanding sexism and feminism in different contexts because by being angry and imposing a concept I’ve learned in America is not leading to any education or progress; it is only putting groups of people down who have lived different lives. And to me that means I am contributing this oppression. In absence of understanding, we do not progress. Instead, my preaching of “feminism” will be dismissed as “the crazy Indian who lives in America and is privileged to think that these thoughts are an actual possible reality here in Punjab”. My Aunts roasted me, but they also listened. And they began paying attention to other sorts of inequality that happened around them.
At the gurdwara, for example, I note the celebration of gender equality and strength of both males and females in Sikh philosophy. But in practice I saw behaviors very different from what was preached: women and men were divided in the prayer area; men went to eat langar (a free meal served at the gurdwara open to anyone) first while women waited; men as the main or often only priests; women left to do dishes after langar… I became frustrated and confused. How can you so easily recite these prayers and beliefs of equality only to continue living your life so opposite of those? Like literally a minute after you were nodding your head, clicking your tongue in approval of life being meant for service and in search of equality for men and women, but then it was like “Yes yes women equality….” *prayer ends* “Alright women move out the way, men eat first!”
Obviously the above is wrong in all things spiritual and otherwise. It is so plainly wrong to me that I was shocked to see that no one female or male questioned it, until I did (remember I was an angry, stubborn, “boy” child as my rep lived up in Punjab, too). I refused to eat langar when I saw that the men were served first. I urged everyone around me to question what was happening and to see what I saw. It resonated. People noticed. The days after women from my village came and sat with me and my grandma outside in the evening to talk about how lives of Indian women have been, and why they haven’t changed. “It’s just always been like this, child. I had no choice. I couldn’t run away, I had to marry. Where was I to go?” I listened because that’s what I could do — this was their experience. I questioned when I could — “But why has it become to be this way? How can you all believe in Sikhism and still behave so different?” To this they would click their tongues and shake their heads. “I don’t know.”
I don’t know how India has come to be in the state is has with its gross sexual violence against females and its backwards notion of what it means to be female (though it is an accumulation of factors including a history of oppression birthing a need to prove self-worth through power dominance; a culture rooted in obscure class structure divided by caste attributing worth by attacking identities of people; institutionalized religion that dismisses spirituals guidances and instead becomes another means to oppress and devalue; lack of economic opportunities striking deeply at egos and hopes, particularly in places such as Punjab; an irrational expectation of marriage as a life or death situation perhaps partially birthed by insecurity in economic opportunities, thus pushing a patriarchal mindset because marriage in itself is inherently patriarchal in India… Just to name a few.)
But I do more definitely know that this is changing. Rape cases in India have been gaining international attention; women and men have been protesting the gross mistreatment of females; laws, albeit slowly, have been changing to adjust to theses concerns; a conversation at the political level has started; and we have warriors such as the Gulabi Gang that are fighting these injustices. I have hope.
And to those Indian American females here in the states — WE are modeling the great potential we have as human beings on this planet. I know an incredibly strong amount of you. So keep being badasses and keep encouraging each other. Who run the world #Girls #Beyonce #ReallyJustBeyonce
Much love ❤
Check out our YouTube video on this topic here
–More info —
Vice – Gulabi Gang https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMnpnd0T4gE&t=42s
Nishtha Jain Documentary Excerpt https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgnzWyiFmVQ
NY Times – Violence Against Women in India https://static01.nyt.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000002003823