|HER WORLD||Sunday, August 11, 2002, Chandigarh, India|
We may write gender equity promises into our Constitution, pass legislation for women’s advancement, and set up commissions and corporations for women’s welfare as proof of our intentions. But none of this makes a difference when it comes to a woman asserting her rights as an individual in the same way that a male does. He still gets away with it, says Sakuntala Narasimhan
ONCE upon a time in India, long ago, there was a prince named Nala who married a princess named Damayanti following a grand swayamvara ceremony. The swayamvara was a practice during which suitors competed with each other for the rich or royal maiden’s hand. At a later point in their lives, this couple ran into hard times. And in the thick of their wanderings through the woods, Nala abandoned the sleeping Damayanti one night — he just walked away. For several months she knew not where he was, or why he had disappeared. Later still, when the couple was reunited, Damayanti was overjoyed.
Once upon another time, again long, long ago and in India, there ruled a righteous and popular king named Rama whose wife Sita was abducted by King Ravana of Lanka. In a bitter battle, Rama defeated Ravana and reclaimed his wife. However, in order to prove that she had remained virtuous and faithful to him during the term of her captivity, Sita was made to go through an agnipariksha (trial by fire).
These two popular tales come to us from times long gone by. But it would be pertinent to ponder over another story — in our times. So, let’s fast forward through a few millennia to the year 2002 and place ourselves in India yet again. The protagonist in this modern-day story is a young woman who lives and moves even as we write about her; in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. About two weeks ago, 26-year-old Sangeeta was asked to submit to an agni pariksha to prove here fidelity to her husband. The reason? She had gone with her friends on a pilgrimage for a few days without informing husband Rajesh.
On her return from Vaishno Devi, Rajesh threw Sangeeta out of their home for the ‘crime’ of going away without his permission. Sangeeta had to go to her parents’ home, and there, her mother decided to put her through the fiery test to prove her innocence. Eleven community leaders of the panchayat, along with several neighbours stood witness to the gruesome ritual. Sangeeta was asked to clutch a red-hot iron rod in her palms. And because no burn marks appeared on her hands, she was thereafter pronounced ‘pure’.
No miracle here! The iron rod was wrapped in green peepal leaves, and she carried it for just a few steps, so the ritual was over before her hands could get scorched. Nonetheless, what emerges is the fact that ‘proof’ of a woman’s fidelity is still expected by audacious husbands — and sanctioned by even mothers. And that fiery, nerve-wracking trials of the kind can still be practised in India, in complete disregard of all the social, economic and cultural changes brought in by the numerous intervening centuries.
Almost everybody in our country has heard the Nala-Damayanti story; but there are no versions available in which Damayanti demands a trial by fire of Nala. It was he who disappeared without so much as informing her, abandoning her in the forest while she slept. There is no narrative, among all the variants of the Ramayana that are extant, in which Sita asks Rama to prove his ‘purity’ through an agnipariksha before she takes him back. Nor is there, of course, any question of Sangeeta herself demanding proof — through a trial by fire or other means — of her husband’s faithfulness to her during the few days that she was away.
One set of rules and penalties for women, another for men. A certain kind of morality expected from females, but not from the males. Whether it is the golden era of Rama Rajya more than 3,000 years ago, of the beginnings of the third millennium AD.
This was not an aberrant, deviant test thrust on the wife by an unusually suspicious husband. A whole crowd watched, sanctioned and justified the ritual. Women of the community commented before the TV camera: "We can do nothing about it." The event was not an on-the-spur-of-the-moment, angry imposition either. It was pre-planned, with enough time for the media to cover the event.
There have been no outraged protests, no indignant uproar in the media except for the usual reportage, first as a small single column item and then a longer story with a photograph. And it wasn’t as if Sangeeta had gone away for much merry-making. She had — quite simply — gone on a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine with friends.
But then, isn’t there a popular belief, according to which a woman need not garner merit through pilgrimages because service to her husband is sufficient to bring her like merit? The fact that women themselves participated in and went along with Sangeeta’s agnipariksha reveals the depth of indoctrination on ideas about female subordination even today.
We may write gender
equity promises into our Constitution, pass legislation for women’s
advancement, and set up commissions and corporations for women’s
welfare as proof of our intentions. But none of this makes a
difference when it comes to a woman asserting her rights as an
individual in the same way that a male does. He still gets away with
Freedom as a privilege, not as a right
EVEN 55 years after freedom, you have a scenario wherein women take freedom as a privilege and not as a prerogative. What makes me infinitely sad is when we click our tongues and term the practice of agnipariksha as medieval and retrogressive. What one forgets is that very often even the most educated and enlightened from amongst us are on trial in more ways than one.
Countless women suffer psychological and physical abuse due to a low self-esteem.They blame themselves and find fault with either their behaviour and bend backwards over to please even the perpetrators of violence.
Women try ever so hard to seek and garner approval that it becomes almost second nature to them to count their blessings when they are treated well. Very rarely is the assumption:How dare anyone treat me like this! More likely it is: I am very fortunate that my husband is a nice person and treats me well. Almost a favour, not a right to be treated well. Or, "my parents do not discriminate between my brother and me" And even: "so what if I am not happy? At least, I am not unhappy. Almost as if actively seeking happiness is a crime or it is a thing they do not deserve. So ambivalent is their state of mind and so confused that it is amazing how much even the confident, educated and aware women tolerate and put up with in the hope that "this is our lot."
Whether it is the young bride desperately seeking approval from a begrudging family, to a woman forever trying to meet the husband’s expectation, to the girl child who is always thwarted by the rigidity of role playing and role expectation. What about the career woman who has no support system and is forever trying to do the balancing act and still receives flak. Not to forget the daily wager whose earnings are snatched by an alcoholic husband or the woman whose bruises are only a visible sign of the mental agony she undergoes as not only her body but her spirit is mutilated.
A relationship at any level is only as good as it is in the present. Take a relationship one-day at a time, and it may surprise you by lasting through decades. The secret, as a friend once told me is to learn not to expect. I did this for you, what will you do for me, makes any relationship in to a barter and while bargaining is great at the bargain basement, it is best kept out of a relationship if it needs to be kept alive.We can transform an ordinary relationship into a partnership that does not end up bitterly or stagnate.
I have asked hundreds of people over the years to list all their important possessions, from top to bottom, and they all invariably come up with similar lists. They all mention t6he house, car or other material Then I tell them that they have overlooked the number one valuable commodity in their life. They usually look at me with a blank stare, because the majority of us do not even think of personal relationships as something to be owned.
One such woman told me "my husband is a good father and a provider and easy-going. I married him when I was a teenager and by the late 20s I already had two children. I wanted to be more than a housewife. I wanted to study art and my husband thought that it was one of my other mad-cap ideas. I felt resentful as I was betraying my self and my husband just didn’t understand me. He did not even try. At a deeper level, my spirits felt suffocated. It seemed as if life was being sucked out of me. Outside, I would be fine but as soon as I walked in the house, I felt oppressed. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I thought of walking out and I did even though I knew I would get flak from all corners. In hindsight, leaving my husband wasn’t about finding a better man. It was a commitment to myself."
Psychologists believe that men tend to seek excitement in their relationship, while women seek commitment. But this particular woman put her own needs first and had the ability to walk away.
However, some other women refuse to disregard their own needs to nurture the relationship or family unit. They concentrate on what the relationship can give them, rather than focussing on what they can put in.
If they appear to gamble with their children’s happiness, it is because they believe that children also suffer in loveless marriages. These women are extremely brave and emotionally ambitious. They will only stay in the relationship if it is really right for them in every sense. So, many people only stay in relationships because they are more afraid of being single. For women who do make the break, the plus side is that there is also the potential of exploring a fuller, richer life. Of course this could be seen as self-centered but at least they are taking responsibility for their own happiness.
Ironically, or not, but we are all sympathetic to a woman who leaves an abusive, aggressive or uncaring man. What happens when a woman leaves her faithful and kind husband, simply because the relationship is not fulfilling enough? Is the quest for personal satisfaction good enough reason or should the responsibility of marriage and children take first priority?
Most psychologists feel that the women who walk out of this arrangement have quite a masculine attitude/outlook. In a secure relationship they will precisely show the same boredom and restlessness that men often complain about. When a marriage is truly intolerable, it must end in a divorce but if it is anything like the case I have mentioned, then on the surface the story reads as though there was not enough commitment in the relationship to give them and their partners the strength to work through their difficulties.
I remember once asking a
client what she needed from her husband. She took a deep breath and
started crying and saying "I just need him to listen to me…to
hear me. I feel he does not love me." As her husband watched her
speak he appeared to go cold. He just shrugged his shoulders and I
could see his wife’s frustration and disapproval increasing. Then
she said to me " See, he doesn’t care. He is telling me that I
am wrong and that I am too demanding". Her husband started
defending himself saying she was wrong about his response. He even
said that he was awfully busy with his company work, working till 12
hours a day. He was waiting for the assignment to get over so that he
could take her out. Her reactions put him off and he started
withdrawing himself. I told them that his wife misunderstood the
husband’s detached reaction. She assumed that he did not care and
was judging her. Ironically, these feelings provoked him in to
actually feeling uncaring and judgmental. Without the assistance of a
therapist, they would have continued to argue. Most of the emotional
tension in relationships arises from misunderstandings.
WHAT does it take to be a man? If someone asks me this question, my answer will be "everything." This may sound cynical to many who perceive the question of being male or female from clearly lined social parameters. These gender norms, which have been ingrained in the social attitudes, cater to the stringent patriarchal formulations. Interestingly gender as an academic field emerged only since 1970s.
I seek to question gender norms from the point of view of identity. This question has been central to me since my early days of childhood. The development of my identity here is contrary to what is generally( believed to be naturally) thought to be standard. Thanks to my parents who have never guided me in the light of social stereotypes, I had the right to cry and have an emotional outburst until the end of my teens. Never had I been tagged "girlish" by my parents. This is one of the most important dimensions to my experiments in realising my identity. Thus the notion that ‘men don’t cry’ does not fit on me.
This approach to myself has indeed helped me a lot in understanding the question of gender better. Long before I was initiated into hostel life, my mother had trained me in every such activity which was considered to be the privilege of only girls; cooking, nurturing, washing, cleaning etc. This was important during those days because when I interacted with my fellow students in the hostel, I found these traits more or less absent in them. Naturally, this opened a pandora’s box of questions regarding ‘my identity.’ Those initial years were very painful as I found myself an odd man out. The characteristics which my peers considered necessary to constitute their identities—aggression, rude and bullying demeanour—were missing from my personality. I did not conform to the socially acceptable standards of what ‘being a man’ meant. My soft tone and feeble physique added to my woes.
This question of gender was not settled until I was initiated into the subject of gender relations in my postgraduation. I strongly feel that the outline society tends to create in order to regulate the affairs of human beings does no good to their development as human beings. I find men and women pondering over the question of their identities until they die.
It was not until the 1970s that women came forward in sports. Earlier this was only the prerogative of men. Even today ‘work’ at home and outside is divided strictly on gender lines, that is, men’s work and women’s work.
I feel that questioning of gender is important to ensure equity and equality. Education, financial security and work participation have emerged as important tools to ensure empowerment of women, which in turn ensures opportunities in the social sphere. There is hardly any sphere in which women can not contribute.
The losers are only a
majority of those men who have not been able to come out of their
cocoons and the traditional gender bifurcation still rules their mind.