Daughters are not for killing

How is it that daughters are allowed an education, freedom to travel to the city, pursue careers of their choice and live alone - but cannot choose the men they would like to marry? All inroads made by the brave new world are stonewalled the moment women's sexual freedom comes in for scrutiny
Ratna Raman Delhi

I met a young woman a few years ago. She had come to New Delhi and found a job as an assistant in a small shop. She was also in love and her conservative family had come around to accepting her adult choice of a life partner. They were coming to Delhi the following month to formalise her wedding. She was looking forward to it, since single lodgings in the city tended to be shabby, solitary and dreary. "Please do come for my engagement ceremony," she entreated, as her eyes lit up with excitement.  

I assured her of my participation and left my phone number with her so that she could inform me about the date and the location. A couple of months went by but there was no phone call from her.  Not seeing her on a subsequent visit to the shop I enquired about her.  Her employer told me guardedly that she no longer worked there. On my insistent questioning, the harrowing details were divulged. 

A week before her supposed engagement, her family had marched into the city. Her mother and maternal uncles had forcibly dragged her back to the village with them. She had made a frantic phone call to her employer who offered her support. The phone call was cut short. When the employer tried to contact her again, she was told that the girl was returning to her village and would not come in to work anymore. The phone connection was also abruptly terminated. Meanwhile, her beau visited the employer. He confided that he had been knocked off his bike on a couple of occasions and had subsequently received phone calls telling him these were warnings. His family was also threatened. There was no news of the ebullient girl who had wanted to chart her own destiny.

Here was a situation where newspaper statistics had leapt off the page to reveal a grim three dimensional reality. There was no way of contacting the girl and I raged helplessly against a lawless country in which young women could be abducted by their own kinsfolk and treated so shabbily. This was by no means a solitary incident. Something is rotten in the fabric of our country. Something continues to dog and intimidate and brutalise young women. It injures men too in the attempt to settle scores relentlessly and lethally, notching points on behalf of insularity and barbarism and gratuitous gender cruelty. 

In 2000, newspapers carried reports that Bibi Jagir Kaur, a Shiromani Akali Dal councillor in Punjab and chief of the powerful Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee, had allegedly abducted her daughter Harpreet, subjected her to an abortion, given her an overdose of pills and consigned her to the flames. This was because the young woman in question had married in secret while studying at a medical college. To date no one has been punished and witnesses in the face of muscle and money power have now turned hostile.  

What exactly was the crime these two young women had committed? What was the basis of their family's behaviour?  How could one even hope to understand this vicious and vitiating practice?

On paper we won  our independence in 1947. Our Constitution extends the fundamental right to self-expression even to women. Yet, everywhere around us, despite the cries of a liberal plural space, what we see is the buttressing and endorsement of hegemonic feudal stereotypes. Our republic awoke to Rajendra Krishan's  lyric (sung by Lata Mangeshkar to the strident assertion by Bina Rai in Anarkali) 'Yeh zindagi usi ki hai, jo kisi ka ho gaya, pyar hi mein  kho gaya' in 1953. Lata defiantly crooned Shakeel Badayuni's lyric  'Jab pyar kiya to darna kya, pyar kiya koi chori nahi ki, jhuk jhuk aahein bharna kya' in Mughal-e-Azam in 1960 for the ethereal Madhubala. Both actors were essaying the life of Anarkali, the slave girl, who received Prince Jehangir's attentions. 

The battle lines were very firmly drawn at the very outset of this ill-fated historical romance. Benevolent Akbar, humanitarian and visionary and yet irrevocably the quintessential patriarch, ordered that the hapless kaneez be entombed alive. With apologies to Amartya Sen, there is nothing talkative/argumentative about most Indian men as far as their engagement with women goes. If talk can initiate dialogue and thereby create a dialogic space, such a history of gender relations has yet to be unearthed. 

Dasaratha listened very little to any of his three wives. He planned his son's coronation in accordance with the laws of primogeniture. Rama, the product of a levirate marriage, outdid his father when he actively humiliated his wife. He watched her undergo a trial by fire and banished her to the forest without flinching in the face of scurrilous gossip despite supernatural certification of her purity. 

Gautam Buddha hastened to attain nirvana but a discussion of this life-altering choice with his wife was never part of his itinerary. In fact, there are few narratives in which the gods, demigods or humans are shown as treating women fairly or as equals. Anarkali's tale (true, false or embellished), the trauma and tragedy notwithstanding, spun out its course at the extreme end of the 16th century. Yet, well into the 20th century in  socialist, democratic India, with a poor track record on gender sensitivity and gender equality both in  myth and in history, old mindsets continue to dominate gender politics, and subject women who dare to love to indignity, ignominy and death. The unofficial version of the Anarkali story softens our anger at the king when we hear that he gave orders to rescue her from her untimely death and transported her in secret to the outskirts of his empire. Our modern day dispensers of the death penalty do not give themselves any room or time for reflecting upon their decisions. The possibility of self-doubt does not arise and reprisals are swift and bloody.

Oddly, despite a Dowry Prohibition Law enacted in 1961, from the 1970s, north India was gripped by an epidemic of bride burning which added to the number of dowry related killings all over the country. This public enactment became so routine that in 1995 a Youth Congress leader allegedly shot dead his live-in partner Naina Sahni and disposed of her hacked remains in a restaurant's tandoor. Possibly, the public outcry over this murder most foul resulted in a go-slow on the burning of brides. Other forms of dowry deaths and harassment of course, continued. The singer from Ek Mahal Ho Sapnon Ka (1975) who fondly declared, 'Dil mey kisi ke pyar ka jalta hua diya, duniyaan ki aandhiyon se bhala ye bhujega  kya'  had little or no idea of the blitzkrieg  that the  real world could unleash. 

Some form of punishment, torture or cruelty has always dogged the lives of women in our country. Women are pushed off trains, murdered in their apartments and have acid flung on their faces by rebuffed, would-be-suitors and spurned lovers. The bodies of women have always been marked as sites for acts of violence. There has never been any let up on this. 

The process of extermination begins in utero with the female foetus. Those who survive can be subjected to any of the following: infanticide, paedophilia, molestation, harassment and rape. This could be followed up with domestic violence and marital abuse, withholding of property rights, and denial of access to money, mobility, work and so on. 

A recent addition to this gruesome list of horrors which can be inflicted upon women is the spate of khap killings in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Bihar where young women who have married outside the community are made to let down their guard and then brutally silenced. Women's lives are well represented by that popular board game called Snakes and Ladders. Only in their case, there are venomous snakes at every turn and the ladders often turn into straws that can barely be clutched.

In the past few months the newspapers have repeatedly reported the killing of young women and often enough, the killing or harassment of their legally wedded husbands. In many cases, the girl's side of the family seems to be an active orchestrator and implementer of the act of murder. Mothers and grandmothers are flanked by a bloody personal army that goes all out to butcher daughters (who in most cases have chosen suitable men from similar economic backgrounds or interests, not princely scions). 

In some cases it is death to both (conspirators against caste and gotra) the young woman and the man she has married. This, in parts of north-west India, is being validated by the khap panchayats, which are finally unelected bodies reinforcing hideous codes and demanding compliance to stereotypes that  are  completely out of sync with the times. This is a travesty of the panchayat raj that Mahatma Gandhi dreamt would ensure ethical, judicial and social welfare to every little corner of India. The possibility that elders from varied communities could authorise the barbaric and heinous killing of daughters and their young men could have never crossed the mind of this practitioner of ahimsa. Ironically, this is the violent terror that stalks the hinterland currently.

If one were to take recourse to older stories, disowning daughter Desdemona after she married secretly as Brabantio did in Othello and the cold estrangement lived out by Barrett Senior when Elizabeth Barrett eloped with Robert Browning in the 19th century, seem in retrospect to be extremely civilised ways of communicating  a sense of betrayal and loss of control, emotions that understandably both men experienced. Brabantio died of a broken heart and Barrett Senior, I would like to believe, died of a frozen one. The rancour and bitterness which resulted in the outright rejection of their daughters by both men is a preferred means of communication in a flawed world. At its worst, no bridges connected the generations and outraged parental sensibility was never assuaged. The daughters did leave for other lands with their husbands. 

 In stark contrast, we have elders from different communities besmeared with the blood of their young. We also have an elected MP (young, modern, big business icon) empathising with the sentiments of khap elders. Their perspective forms the axle around which he will steer the vehicle of governance. By doing so he has consigned to the garbage heap not only his responsibilities as MP but also the aspirations of another set of elders, Gandhi and Rajagopalachari, who cemented inter-community ties and strengthened bonds through marriage between their wards. 

How is it that daughters are allowed an education, freedom to travel to the city, pursue careers of their choice and live alone - but cannot choose the men they would like to marry? Each one of these available options is a breaker of caste and gender prohibitions. All inroads made by the brave new world are stonewalled the moment women's sexual freedom comes in for scrutiny. 

The MP's choice reveals allegiance to an older world view, one in which women were sexually monitored and guarded and viewed as moveable assets in a world owned and run by men. In such a world, tokenism over a notional freedom assumes greater significance than the individual's right to live or to love. Small matter if countless young people are hacked to death because they loved incorrectly. As long as the right to fly the national flag in individual backyards is endorsed, apparently all is well with the world.  

This unfortunately is the cold truth that every young adult woman lives with. Tradition is not interpreted as being on her side although both swayamvara (choosing a groom oneself) and gandharvavivah (marriage by mutual consent) formed part of older cultural practice. Newly-written laws will take time to impact the collective's consciousness, especially when the upholders of law themselves are rather reticent about implementation. Such phenomena, wherein a separate set of codes come into play, circumscribing women's sexual lives, is part of cultures around the world. 

A report in the July issue of Time magazine online drew attention to the fact that in Afghanistan, 103 women had attempted to burn themselves between March 2009 and March 2010 as a way of escaping from their sorrows. Sakineh from Iran was recently rescued from being stoned to death for adultery because of the pressure generated by Awaaz through the international community. Patriarchal societies usually function through double standards and continue to exercise the power of   punitive action against women, declaring them guilty and never to be proved innocent. 

Women cannot desire and do not have any sexual freedom. This conviction is relentlessly hammered into women along with a sense of their innate unworthiness.

 I ran into the young woman in my story, a short while ago. Escaping from rigorous confinement in her natal home, she hopped on to several buses to reach a destination far away from her home. From a pay phone she established contact with her young man, and married her shining knight without any armour. They worked and lived on the run in various small towns for a while before shifting into the anonymity of New Delhi. The silence on the part of her family is ominous and she is rightly fearful that news of her little world of happiness may somehow come to the notice of her family. 

So here are two young adults, living out their lives, small, ordinary citizens of this country, who have engineered all by themselves a precious, precarious peace. Their journey has been fraught with all manner of dangers and obstacles and continues to be so. This is too harsh a sentence and an extraordinarily difficult price to pay for love.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: AUGUST 2010