Tonight I feel a whole gamut of emotions. Sadness, edginess, vulnerability, pride at the BBC’s commitment to support fearless journalism and gratitude that I live in a country where men and women are, more or less, treated as equals.
Tonight I watched the BBC’s hastily aired documentary, India’s Daughter, about the brutal gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012. The Indian government’s decision to ban the documentary has naturally only served to fuel further interest in its contents out here and, thanks to the grassroots power of the internet, it has still been possible to view it.
It’s difficult viewing, especially when doing so in the country whose entrenched patriarchy is under the spotlight. Even this morning, in the shala conference, we women were warned to walk in groups because there had been a few attacks on western women recently. We were also firmly told to cover our chest and shoulders and not wear tight-fitting clothes around our hips. To dress otherwise is potentially seen as an open invitation to men, as is being out in darkness un-escorted (as I found out recently when I took a rickshaw early morning and was hassled by a driver with sleazy intentions).
As Chris and I went for a sunset walk around the lake after watching the documentary, it seemed the world had changed slightly. My usual sense of open ease and security was replaced by a heightened awareness of danger in the air. I viewed groups of men with suspicion and felt protective worry whenever I saw women walking alone or with a male friend. I felt vulnerable and weak, underpinned by an anger at the injustice of it all. And more than anything, my over-active mind wondered what horrific scenes were unfolding in dark, hidden corners of the city right there and then.
I totally understand the need to respect a country’s culture when visiting, and in fact do cover up – after all, it is not for us transient foreigners to initiate change or enforce our own beliefs on a culture so different from our own. But I have to say there is a feminist streak somewhere deep within me that asks me whether, in pandering to cultural requirements for female modesty, am I not perpetuating a situation which I totally disagree with? The fact that the onus is on women to dress and behave in a certain way to protect themselves from unwanted male attention, rather than the onus being on men to control themselves, seems completely wrong. But the idea that men are more important than women is so thoroughly engrained in the nation’s psyche, women included, that, as yet, it doesn’t seem to be widely questioned. As one forward-thinking Indian lady said today: ‘We have a marathon ahead of us; it will take centuries to change our attitudes and our culture‘.
I know it’s not fair to single out India when discussing this issue – gender imbalance is a problem the world over. Steps are being made in the right direction, but it’s painfully slow. But my puny mind can’t comprehend how the issue came to exist in the first place? I guess it probably just boils down to the unavoidable fact that men are physically stronger than women, so can play the bully and get away with it.
I don’t want to sound like a man-hater/raging feminist – truly I’m not. I just believe in equality, and I guess the documentary touched a nerve. I think India is a wonderful country, exhibiting huge tolerance in many areas; yet it has some entrenched cultural hang-overs that are at odds with its rapid modernisation; there’s a lot of catching up to do.
Anyway, we finished our evening by popping into the corner shop at the end of the road and having a good old chinwag with the lovely man who helps his parents run it – he even rang up his son to bring us some chickpeas from their home when he realised he didn’t have any in stock. And in that small act of kindness, my love of India and its people was fully restored… 🙂
And before bed tonight I will light a candle for Jyoti Singh, whose courage and strength means her death was not in vain; instead, her sacrifice acts as a symbol of hope and positive change for this country, whose great people I have no doubt will rally to the cause, despite the many obstacles that lie ahead.