Saturday, February 7, 2009

Women as targets


There is no more revolting sight than unarmed women having their hair and their clothes being pulled by a group of brutal attackers, and all in the name of Indian culture. The happenings in Mangalore have sent shock waves through the whole of India. And raised serious doubts about the state of Indian culture. Beating up of women is hardly the norm in a country where the word Devi is used as a national term of respect. There is no need for Ms or Miss when there are respectful, even reverential terms, like Devi. When two gentlemen write to me from Kolkata, they address me as Amita Devi, which is the Bengali term of address for a woman one respects.

It is considered a normal way to address a lady, and every Bengali woman accepts it as such. In fact why only a Bengali woman? Women all over India recognise it as a term of respect. No need for foreign terms of address. One wonders what makes Indian men adopt such accrued attitude towards women, who, they keep on reminding us (even in the present instance) are their mothers and sisters.

In India the highest form of respect for a woman is ma

They seem to contradict themselves at every step. In most parts of India, and particularly the east and the south, women of all ages are addressed in the market and outside their homes as ma. It is the most respectful form of address, because no one commands more respect than the woman who gave us birth, and risks her life in doing so.

In Bengal, where I come from, my father affectionately used to address me as ma. When it comes to addressing one’s aunt, it always has a ma at the end, and becomes mashi-ma or pishi-ma, which makes it even more a term of affection than a plain mashi or pishi. But in the north, mashi remains mashi and pishi remains puphi, and no ma is required at the end.

Not that it does not remain respectful, but perhaps a little less so. After all, the highest form of respect for a woman is ma, whether by itself or at the end of another form of address for a woman. In fact, every Indian woman has the same form of address in her own right. Devi or Debi is much more a personal form of address than Mrs or Ms or Miss. Which is why Indian women prefer to be addressed by an Indian, rather than a foreign term. Just as foreign women prefer to be addressed by their own terms of address. Which is as it should be.

In the ultimate analysis, people have their own norms about what they consider proper or respectful. It is more a question of attitude. And that varies from person to person and even people to people. So let us keep it that way, and in the firm belief that we mean to be correct and respectful, and should believe that, no matter what the situation.