DON’T!

A lot of crimes are committed against women by men who have been taught to view women as less than equals
Ratna Raman Delhi

Crimes are committed every day against women. There are crimes of intent, accident, passion and motivation and few women are free from this onslaught. It's fascinating under the circumstances to recall that nature programmes the female foetus as one of its chosen. Any survey will tell you that the female of the species is always more hardy than the male. Mortality rates, when not tampered with, show that the female infant has a much higher logistics of survival. This is because the female of the species is an important link in the chain of selection. Without the female, neither would the propagation of the species be possible nor would its continuance remain an unchangeable detail. 

It is perhaps several hundred years since we discovered this very important biological fact about the central role of the female of the species. Yet, this has not been reflected in our socio-cultural fabric. Has the significance of this penetrated the consciousness of our community builders, our patriarchal heads, our temple priests, our religious leaders, our lawmakers, our local communities, and our little nuclear families? 

The answer still remains negative. The crime graph against women begins from the time the foetus begins to move from an undifferentiated identity to take on a female form. It is difficult to list the number of atrocities directed against women in the patriarchal societies in which we all live. Nevertheless, the examination of the process of the making of a woman, remains significant. 
Simone De Beauvoir, one of the most articulate feminists of the 20th century, drew attention to this. She declared that "One is not born, rather, one becomes a woman."  

How is this "becoming" achieved?   

Tracing this process will probably enable us to understand how the processes of internalising the prescriptions of culture rob women of the primeval advantage that both nature and the life force have bestowed upon them. 

When a baby is born, the infant is welcomed into the world, looked after and a lot of attention is lavished on it. Kohl or kajal is used to line the eyes of the little baby (this makes for beauty and apparently provides great exercise for the eye sockets), black bangles are put to ward off the evil eye, and should the evil eye gaze first at the face, a black til, formed by collyrium and human fingers, is meant to deter it. So far so good. 

It's easy enough to dismiss this customary practice as superstitious hogwash, but the narrative changes as the humanness of the little baby becomes further demarcated into the male or the female. Once gender has been made the marker, cultural practice swings in and two books, one pertaining to rights and responsibilities and the other pertaining to  restrictions and responsibilities, come into play.

The rights usually pertain to the little boy, the restrictions by far are imposed on the little girl. There is a huge history of analysis, debate and discussion that has gone into this, so I will simply confine myself to analysing how language plays into these restrictions. The restrictions are usually very simple. They work with one operative word "Don't".  

This imperative negative is linked to an explanatory sub clause: "Because you are a girl."  The sub clause remains unspoken all the time, but is meant to be understood. 

Imagine a little girl growing up with a long list of never-ending negatives that she is meant to follow: Don't talk so loudly. Don't laugh so loudly. Don't shout so much. Don't run around in this fashion. Don't climb trees. Don't play gulli danda. Don't hang out in the street. Don't go out alone. Don't stay out so late. Don't go out in the evening. Don't stay out after dark. Don't leave your hair open. Don't wear revealing clothes. Don't wear tight shirts. Don't behave like this. Don't argue. Don't disobey. Don't misbehave. Don't compete with your brother. Don't talk to men, don't talk to strange men. Don't eat this, don't stand there. Don't forget to do this, don't forget to do that. 

Don'ts are structured into a whole lot of activities that are performed by a girl. Each young woman could add her own personal list of Don'ts to this itinerary. All these prohibitions possibly come from a wellspring of anxiety and care, and seek to shelter and protect. Yet, what they often end up doing is to create tense and diffident young women uncertain of how to put their best foot forward.

The little boy is socialised into the ways of the world very differently. The world is his oyster and he knows this at a very early age. He is constantly allowed lots of room to grow and space to experiment with and can do a whole lot of things because for him the operative sentence that comes into play is the fact of being "a boy". Every time he wakes up to a new morning, a whole world of possibilities presents itself to him. He can always do this or that, go here or there and be whatever he wants to be. 

Most boys and girls live out their growing years absorbing all kinds of subliminal messages from the innumerable Dos and Don'ts that are directed at them. Their sensibilities and responses are modulated accordingly. It is not anything to wonder then that boys and girls develop in ways very different from each other. Nurturing of the kind I have described exacerbates their differences and constantly sets them up against one another, while minimising or ignoring the huge similarities they actually share.

When the young girl grows up into an adult woman, she discovers that all the Don'ts have changed into Can'ts. Everywhere, the forbidding hands of custom or the restraining arms of habit serve as a constant reminder of the things she cannot do. Her stature is diminutive when compared with that of a male of her age and size. Educationally, she might be as bright, but the first preference for an expensive education remains with her brother. Sons are encouraged to be economically independent and edged in that direction. Daughters are trained to be emotionally independent of their natal homes, so that they can quickly establish connections in their marital homes. The laws and the civil codes speak in different tongues for men and women. 

Under such circumstances, the restrictions of childhood very quickly become the confining spaces of adulthood. The same holds true for the young boy/man. Never having had to internalise the restrictions that the little girl faced, he grows into adulthood, largely unaware and mostly insensitive to the psyche of the girl/woman. The advantages that a patriarchal society has schooled him in, he merely sees as his rightful due. The disadvantaged mothers, daughters or wives he encounters again and again seem to him to be true to their type. 

A lot of the crimes that women are subjected to result from patterns in socialising which leave women unsure about their self -worth. A lot of crimes are committed against women by men who have been taught to view women as less than equals. Sometimes it takes almost a lifetime for both men and women to unlearn wrongly instilled codes.  Sometimes, men and women simply accept the codes they have been trained in as the only ways of being. They are happy not to think outside of the instructions they have received. 

A lot of this is changing. Some of the old laws have already been rewritten and many of the early strictures have now been struck down or rendered obsolete. Yet, a lot of work needs to be done before the crime graphs against women begin to go south. A start will be made when we ensure that daughters and sons are raised as equals.

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

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