I was miserably sick this past week, for those of you who noticed the blog silence. Antibiotics are being consumed, the appetite is yet to revive, but migraines and blistered eyes no longer conspire to keep the laptop and I at odds. I even read a book last night and it wasn’t shady bed reading. Ok, so that lasted only for an hour before I abandoned it for the pleasures of Diana Wynne Jones, but one of the few joys of sickness is the amount of slush one is permitted to consume.
This is a tentative step back into the daily grind of political comment (however tangential) because I could no longer bear the whine of my stats chart as it plummeted to numbers it hadn’t seen since the early days of june . A friend forwarded me this excellent article, and it reminded me of another essay I was once called upon to present in class. Yet another nostalgia post, this one.
Negotiating the Mohalla.
I spent two terrifying months in Gurgaon, where I was prevented from leaving the gated community I was lived in by zealous security guards. I was walking out to buy groceries on a Monday afternoon, and they suggested I take a car so’s not to be kidnapped. To further deter me from such foolhardiness, they pointed out alleys where goons lurked for prey. (they have guns also, madam, but in the day that draws too much attention. Maybe your husband might go with you?). I had no car that day, and not getting kidnapped/raped/murdered/all was my responsibility and none the State’s. Even on Republic Day.
I’ve never figured whether this incident was fanciful fiction inspired by rivalry between security companies (we check every car and ensure there is no one gagged/drugged/locked in the boot but they don’t) or it was actually feasible for people to be bundled into cars in broad daylight without a thing being done in prevention. The logic I employed that day has convinced generations of exasperated law school women that ‘Rape Capital’ is no cruel misnomer. During the course of our many internships in that unpredictable city, we have been felt up, salivated over, harassed, and lectured about our morals on public transport. A school friend was told by her stalker that no policeman would help her in invading the “sarkari” part of town to arrest him (he was the son of, ironically, a judge). A college mate had acid drizzled on her as she walked back to her PG from the subway. I was nearly abducted in the heart of Central Delhi during my clerkship.
Any lone woman in Delhi will tell you it is better to be safe than sorry, for sorry is a very likely state indeed, and tis only you who will feel any regret. It might not be empowering for the modern woman to stay holed up in the lap of luxury, but I would rather be theoretically oppressed than literally transgressed. I defy you to find me someone who wouldn’t.
When I “responded” to the mohalla article in class, I talked about identity. And community. And how the latter is used to justify construction of the former, even where it is merely a convenient fiction. I talked about modernity and the privileging of the public over the private as the zone of “effective” action; the zone of politics and economics and all the other epistemologies that shape every day circumstances. How the Indian challenge to colonial reality was to solidify “personal” power structures in the name of culture, and then immunise culture from evolution. I said that this is why we still have no law against marital rape. And that the only way we can change these power equations is by claiming our rightful space in the public domain, and charting that domain within fresh terrain — which we can’t do for fear of our lives and dignity.
I should’ve talked about how it is really circumstance and not high falutin’ ideas about identities and communities and essential natures that shape behavior. I should’ve said Muslim women wear the hijab not only because it is their “culture” and they are proud of it, though that is always a partial reason, especially when a way of life faces the kind of threat it does in India today. I didn’t say all that because I thought it was obvious, and the faults of that assumption were stark in the discussion that followed. Even within the environs of law school, vain as we are of our cultural specificity, one must highlight that humans aren’t perfect, remote agents guided by individual conscience.
One of the first achievements of a feminist movement is to get women to think of themselves as a community, instead of as fragmented individuals in other, more important, political communities. To get women to accept the multiplicity inherent in their identity, as it is in any identity, so they can imagine lives unconstrained by all identities. If one’s lived experience is battered by threats and pauperisation, and said life is spent within insular ghettos for safety, it’s hard to consider other identities as equally worth preserving and fighting for. But, really, all I wanted to say was that Muslim women wear the chador in high summer in India neither because it is pleasant and empowering nor because they are backward and ignorant. They wear it because they are told by their murky ‘guardians’ that it’s the only way they can protect their bodies against a demonstrably hostile world. They wear it for the same reason my grandmother was under purdah and the reason I ordered a thousand buck lunch instead of simply making it. The reason you don’t play with fire after you learn how bad it can burn. Why is that so infernally hard for most folk to grasp?