I was in college when I read Urvashi Butalia’s “Other Side of Silence” – a haunting account of people impacted by the partition of India. It was heart breaking and appalling that a disproportionate burden of the tragedy fell on women. When families were trying to escape enmasse to the other side of the border, many women were left behind – dead. They were either killed by their own men or chose to jump in wells and end their lives (trigger warning: the link has disturbing content). While the men and boys at least had the hope to escape to a new life, the women and girls of the family were doomed from the start.
Why? To protect the honor of their families. Better to die than be defiled by the enemy. The horrific imagery the book created in is still vividly imprinted my mind – women jumping in a dry well, one on top of the other, life slowly getting snuffed out of those crushed at the bottom…..
I have often wondered, whether in those last tortuous moments, buried and suffocated under other women, did some of them wish they had risked a rape to get a life in return? And perhaps living was not even a choice they had. All for the family’s honor.
A Matter of Honor
For centuries, it is the women who have carried the burden of family honor and pride. They have become the property of men to protect, to show off, to fight over, to get exchanged or to get rid of, if required.
Our historical stories take pride in jauhar – when women burnt themselves in gigantic community fires if their men lost the war and there was imminent threat of loot, pillage and rape by the enemy army. Remember the pride on Padmavati’s face (in the movie) as she led scores of women to their death in those giant fire pits?
This matter of honor does not stop at rapes by the way – which truly are crimes, that emotionally and physically scar a woman. Family honor also comes in the way of love marriages – marry someone from another caste or religion and you might be running for your life. It happens not only in India – but across the globe and different cultures.
All religions and cultures vie with each other in trying to stake ownership of their women. Mark a married woman with sindoor, bindi, mangalsutra and other ornaments so we know she is taken. Let a man divorce his wife three times and then he is free for life. Stone a woman to death because she was talking to a man who is not a relative. Remember, no religion promotes inequality or patriarchy, but its interpreters over the years have increased limitations on women.
Where and How Did This Begin?
I am not a historian but have been trying to research the origins of patriarchy and sharing one theory that made sense to me. Society moved towards patriarchy as humans started to settle down and progressed from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies. Settling down led to a sense of ownership and passing down of the property. Women, the bearers of heirs had to be protected for the survival of the tribe. Due to high mother and infant mortality rates, and the fact that a woman was bearing a child almost every two years and was in a vulnerable position – she became a possession that needed to be protected and slowly came to be regarded as the property of men. Search the internet and you will find similar, overlapping theories.
The biggest Burden of Hate, War and Strife falls on Women. Always Has.
What perhaps started as a division of labour, degenerated into a system where women became prized possessions and hence the prime targets for the enemy to harm and for the defender to protect. A woman’s ‘honour’ became the battleground on which people fought. The battle itself could be between tribes or villages or religions or castes or even families at times. Women become the spoils of war.
Today, women and their bodies have become both the tools and victims of war and hatred. Hate a community? Want to take revenge? Shame their women – rape them. From rural areas to young urbans – the story is the same. Ever heard that punishment for rape of a woman is that the victim’s brother/ husband gets to rape the perpetrator’s sister or wife? No? Go to rural India, you will find such cases.
But why talk only about rural India? Let’s look at young educated urban Indians. In an increasingly polarized society – shaming women of the community you hate – seems like a great way to exact one’s revenge. Instances like Sulli deals and Bulli bai are shameful reminders of the fact that neither education nor money can help eradicate deep seated biases and misplaced sense of power.
And while I am giving examples from India – this type of misogyny is found across the globe, across the developed and developing world – you just need to search and you will find.
So, Are We Following Something Established Centuries Ago?
YES! Exactly! These systems originated thousands of years ago in a very different context – and went through changes that led to ever increasing subordination of women. But today, the context in which we operate has changed. Humans have come a very very long way and systems that developed centuries ago are outdated and absurd today. Unfortunately, while technological advancements have been rapid – culturally it is taking much longer to shed thousands of years of societal habit.
Behavior change is much faster when it comes to technological advances – the industrial revolution changed the way we lived and even nearer home just see how quickly we adapted to virtual work because the technology was available. But behaviors tied to social norms that go back centuries if not thousands of years are much harder to break or change.
And so, it becomes imperative that each one of us does our little bit to push patriarchy into obsolescence. Remember PATRIARCHY IS OUTDATED!
A Struggle for Autonomy
Over thousands of years, protection turned into suppression and oppression and percolated down to everyday life, everyday decisions. How women should behave, what they should wear, where they can go, what should they study, what can they do. And thus women lost agency on some of the most basic decisions of their life with societal rules defining the way of life for them.
I feel like laughing (or maybe crying) when some people decide that jeans or skirts are not appropriate for Indian girls and then somewhere else, someone decides that a hijab is not the right thing to wear. When politics gets mixed with patriarchy with a dose of religion – we have a very dangerous cocktail – with only one outcome – further suppression of women.
Those of us who sincerely believe that patriarchal norms have no place in today’s society need to up their ante and start pushing back. I know not all of us have the luxury to do that – but in whatever way we can, let us please not stand for any patriarchal value systems. We all start small and our enemy is thousands of years of social conditioning – which is not going away anytime soon.
My sister and I started by refusing some of the patriarchal ceremonies at our respective weddings. We did not change our surnames. And in many small ways we tried to change things around us. Many of my personal and career decisions were far from conventional norms.
When the Sulli bai and Bulli Deals crimes came to light, along with some of my fellow alumni, I started a signature campaign to protest against these kind of hatred crimes. I am also doing a blog hop #breakthebias with 17 other women, each of who will share their thoughts in the next two weeks. All in the hope of raising our voices, breaking the silence.
I am aware that each of us have different circumstances, different levels of support and independence. My plea is that wherever you are and in whatever way you can – push back – little by little – inch by inch. In whatever sphere you have a voice, raise it. Work, home, neighborhood, family – anywhere. Try to break biases you face. Let’s break our silence and tell them that we will decide for ourselves.
Remember that every tiny little voice you raise will affect someone somewhere. Believe in the butterfly effect. Be the butterfly – go flap your wings and cause a tornado.
#breakthebias #breakyoursilence #decideforyourself #chooseforyourself
Thanks so much for reading! Please comment, share and spread the word!
Regards, Sakshi aka tripleamommy
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