Morality as a Battleground between Women and their Right to Will

Everywhere I go, I seem to be welcomed with the same question: why are there so many rapes in India? I have been harassed to a point where I was forced to accept that there was some form of evil that lived in the uncivilized lands where women drape meters of cloth around themselves as if to hide. Gun-throat force comes all the time, for the belief that our brown skin and an odd English accent makes us characters of ancient barbaric stories rather than humans existing in the realities of 21st century is too deeply rooted behind the questions that come. I have denied and continue to deny all these theories of evil, for I have come to believe through my travels and different encounters that deep down somewhere, everyone is good.

So what is going wrong in India? Going back to my habit of story telling, I shall recount an incident. I found a part of an answer to the recurring question about a year ago, when I took my 20 year old brother grocery-shopping with me in Ahmedabad. We went over to the hygiene section with sanitary pads wrapped in all colors and I asked my brother what they were. He got a bit shy, said it was some feminine thing but had no clue what and how and where it went.

The anatomy of one sex remains a myth to a large number of humans of the other sex. This is true for both men and women, in varying degrees across different regions and culture. India has a particularly sad culture of ignoring sex education (sex-ed). I remember that we completely skipped the “reproductive organs” section in our biology class in 9th grade. And I was in an all-girls school for goodness’ sake! One would want to believe that this would have led to more conversation on the anatomy of the female organs, but we were told to pretty much shut up. As I have written in my previous post, I grew up not knowing what exactly a period was, much after I was already menstruating.

Gender segregation is everywhere. In my mixed-gender high school, girls sat in a separate row and mixing was seen as wrong. I once ventured and sat in the ‘boy’ zone, only to be preached by a teacher about it being wrong and how I had adopted the “American values” while my time in US to shun the “India morality”. Women walk with women, men with men. Men hold men’s hands, women hold women’s. Menstruation is kept tightly hidden along with bras and female panties with odd red stains. Living in the same small house, women are still a myth to men.

To this monstrous myth along with the rising hormones and void of characters to desire comes racing the flamboyant Bollywood. With female presence always translated into nude mannequins with bodies that imitate the desires of the Occident, the Bollywood industry finds it easy to believe that it is the gatekeeper to the great modernity that awaits India at the foothills of Hollywood. For a film to be successful there needs to be an ‘item song’: a semi-nude woman dancing among horny men while saying No to their lusty desires which are to be interpreted as a Yes. All India Bakchod, a comedy group in India, came up with a great satire video for this recently. Consent in India is taught by Bollywood, and it is taught all wrong. If a woman says No, it means a Yes. Sexual harassment and assault to me, with my experiences as a woman, have come to be an attempt to translation of desires as painted by main-stream Bollywood to reality.

The rising value of portraying oneself as a moral being through the obsession over purity has led to women being understood as semi-humans, if humans at all. They are deprived of their right to will: a will to freedom, a will to argue, to express and find equal space in the public sphere. The very act of willing is seen as a sign of moral depravity, as a sign of their lower fertility for some and lower caste for others. This idea that a woman who wills to say no and who has desires of her own is lower in fertility relates in a way to the idea of their “blood” being of a lower value, hence of her being of a lower caste. It goes back to the tradition where men from high caste could take mistresses from lower caste for they were ‘not worth in their blood value of any human dignity.’ This practice continues, with the presence of women in public sphere marking their ‘low worthiness.’ Added to a tradition of myth surrounding the stories of Kali and Durga, the non-understanding of women’s bodies and a culture of pride in this ignorance makes this subjugation through patriarchy rather easy.

To understand this idea of purity that constitutes the pillar to understanding not only the position of women within the Indian society but also the political and social dynamics, I have explored morality in my previous posts “The Odd Rise of Morality in India” and “India’s obsession with purity.” This idea of purity as a signal of morality within the Indian public sphere shall only increase in its importance with the rise of the middle class in India, a class that has never existed before. This birth of a class has needed an ideology, and this ideology has fed and continues to feed itself on women. And no economic development is going to save us women folks.

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About Shreya Parikh

I am Shreya. Project Rethought is my attempt to rethink my own observations as a brown woman of Indian origin. I currently live in Paris where I teach at Sciences Po Paris and Parsons Paris-The New School.
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