In Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino delivers a speech in the film’s denouement where he says: If I were half the man I was five years ago I’d take a flame thrower to this place. In this instance, I feel the exact same sentiment – even though I am not Al Pacino, I’m not an Army vet, heck I’m not even a man! But I feel that sense of outrage, fury and helplessness that things can come to such a pass...
However, since I am a writer, I must write, seeking a way out of this miasma, and this is my response. And my question to you: what is yours?
The unfortunately named ‘Ruchika molestation case’ is in the headlines in India again, this time for the release on bail of the molestor. The case relates to an incident in 1990 when the 14-year-old Ruchika was molested by a high-ranking police officer. She protested but no case was filed. Instead her family was harassed repeatedly and three years later she committed suicide. In May 2010, twenty years after the incident, the court sentenced the police officer to eighteen months in jail – after six months he was released on bail. Such travesty of justice is not uncommon in India. It took a senior bureaucrat, Rupan Deol Bajaj, a decade to get a verdict of sexual harassment against another police officer – a sentence of three months in jail.
Molestation of women in India is a routine phenomenon, couched under the faintly Victorian sounding ‘eve-teasing’. The phrase implies a relish on the woman’s part. Yet, the phenomenon ranges from verbal assault to groping to molestation. It is a euphemism for the sexual harassment that women are subjected to whenever they step out of their homes. The eve-teasers hang out in front of girls’ colleges, on footpaths, inside public transport – any public place is fair arena. The victim has been taught to ignore, look the other way, do anything but avoid calling further attention to herself. If she proves to be the anomaly that objects, she is accorded with persistent media attention, public speculation on her morals, infamy for the family, endless rounds of the law courts and police stations, and, finally, a verdict that hinges on the ludicrous.
The cost of a few gropes versus the shame of a public case – should any woman speak out against sexual harassment? But it never ends there. A culture that does not teach its girls to stand up, that vests its women with upholding the family’s honour, that refracts it’s daughters’ conduct through the what-will-people-say prism engenders a society where women become expedient. Eve teasing is hydra headed. It spawns other succinct two-word atrocities: acid attack, honour rape, dowry death.
When quizzed on their notion of the ‘ideal woman’ most Indians recall Sita. She is the wife of Rama, who is the embodiment of Dharma, one’s righteous duty, and the hero of the Ramayana, a Hindu epic. She is the Indian archetype of the woman of virtue, devoted to her husband, self-effacing and pliant. That perhaps is the reason why so many parents name their daughters after her. Very early on I realized she was not my type. Perhaps because I grew up in a Sikh household or because of my parents’ feminist proclivities, Sita never exercised a hold on my imagination. I was more interested in the fiery Draupadi who stands up to the enemy in the other great Indian epic, Mahabharata. Or Rani of Jhansi, the young queen who was one of the initiators of the Indian revolution against British colonials in 1857.
During my school years a Hindi teacher was discussing an episode from the Mahabharata. In a game of chess with the enemy the Pandavas stake all their possessions, and lose. Ultimately, they bet Draupadi, their wife, as a pawn. Aghast at this unseemly turn of events – Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava, is held up as another model of Dharma – I voiced my protest. The teacher looked at me directly, questioned whether I knew better than the great epics and told me to shush. Plucky Draupadi, however, restored my faith. In the same scene she goes on to berate her husbands and the elders seated in the assembly for not voicing their protest.
An examination of the contemporary interpretation of the epics reveals how, in multiple retellings, the characters and stories have transmuted from the original. Modern recountals of the Ramayana close on the ‘all’s-well-that-ends-well’ return of the victorious Rama with his devoted wife to his kingdom. However, the story doesn’t end there. Sita, since she was abducted and spent time in another man’s palace, had to go through a test of fire to prove her purity. When the righteous Ram still forsook her, Sita lived separately from him, brought up her two sons on her own, and until the end refused to return to him despite his pleas.
In the booming India of today more women are stepping out of their homes to work. Do they have the necessary role models for these contemporary times? Simultaneously there is an anxiety as to whether Indian culture will withstand the western onslaught that is concomitant with a liberalized economy. The answer to the twin questions is one: Sita redux. We need to bring Sita back to our popular imagination in all her original glory as a complex, mature, independent woman who could stand up to her avowedly righteous husband’s wrongdoing. A society of one billion people cannot progress if its women are taught to look the other way. If such were the case then the Rani of Jhansi would have cowered in her palace when it was besieged, and India would still be a British colony.