Against Mythology

A thousand new stories have taken wing. Hopefully, these will be resurgent new mythologies, transforming women’s tomorrows

Ratna Raman Delhi 

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream (1905) speaks of a utopian world where educated women ran all public offices, travelled around the city freely, flew in magical machines and were not afraid of the dark. The  ‘Presiding Queen’, having firmly  grasped that men cause trouble and can generate fear, ensures that  efficient checks and  appropriate measures are put in place to deal with them. All the men are confined indoors, within ‘mardanas’, to be effectively guided and monitored. Reverse patriarchy, possibly, but definitely a most compassionate way of dealing with generic male developmental disorders.

Indeed, this is a more manageable solution to redress the woes of womenkind — worldwide. Unfortunately, for all of us, the protagonist wakes up and discovers that she had fallen asleep on the sofa and had been dreaming after all.

In the real world, though, terrible things happen and very often to unsuspecting infants, little girls and women, both young and old, all of whom are mute victims of the violence that is endemic to our society. One summer evening in 1978, Geeta Chopra, 17, and her younger brother, Sanjay, headed to All India Radio to participate in Yuv Vani, a popular radio programme. They were not on the 8 pm show that night. Their father, who went to pick them up after the show was aired, discovered that his children had not turned up at AIR that fateful evening.

Eyewitnesses saw a scuffle in a Fiat  between two older men and a young girl and boy the same evening. Two eyewitnesses reported this at different police stations. One of the eyewitnesses was on a two-wheeler. He chased the car for a considerable distance on Ridge Road in west Delhi before he lost out in the pursuit. He promptly lodged a complaint at the police station on Shankar Road around 6.45 pm along with the car registration number. All this transpired within the hour of the teenagers having left home. (See the online details of this case in State versus Jasbir  Singh and Kuljeet  at www.indiankanoon.org\doc\1359524)

In Delhi, the gropers, squeezers, pinchers lavished attentive hands on private parts that definitely did not belong to them. The more daring would either rub groins into female bodies or attach their pelvic region to that of unsuspecting women in broad daylight as if this were some popular city sport that was allowed on public transport systems

The police station registered the complaint but did little to follow up. A few days later, the bloated, maggot-ridden corpses of both Geeta and Sanjay, with multiple stab wounds, were discovered on the ridge by a cowherd. Criminals Billa and Ranga raped Geeta and then killed both the youngsters — the teenagers fought till the last. This was the horrendous sequel to a kidnapping that had gone awry. The gruesome deaths generated a national furore and outrage. The culprits were eventually tracked down, given capital punishment and hanged to death in 1982.

The day the bodies were reported found, things changed irrevocably for a lot of young people in their teens in Delhi. From that day, the Ridge was out of bounds. Hitching a ride was unacceptable. Younger brothers, who escorted elder sisters, were no longer seen as invincible protectors. Staying out late in the evening and incurring cultural disapproval, was now taboo. Sundown was the moment when curfew began in all our lives.

All extracurricular activities meant being ferried to and fro by harried parents. Although streets were not particularly well-lit then at night, daytime was peopled by stalkers, hurlers of obscene language and flashers who displayed body parts boldly in various public spaces.

In Delhi, the more extroverted among them, the gropers, the squeezers, the pinchers and other harassers of women lavished attentive hands on private parts that definitely did not belong to them. At bus stops, inside buses, on the streets, in the marketplace, any female could have her body stroked and fondled at random. The more daring would either rub groins into female bodies or attach their entire pelvic region to that of unsuspecting women in broad daylight as if this were some popular city sport that was allowed on public transport systems.

All DTC buses had printed messages gently cautioning would-be offenders that eve-teasing was prohibited. In the absence of safeguards, the only option available to women in
the face of harassment was to move away, hoping thereby to deflect attention from intrusive aggression.

If dusk fell and a young female had to walk alone, even if home was two streets away, on hearing the unknown tread of  footsteps behind her, her spine would stiffen and the taste in her mouth would be of  fear, of  acrid metal. 

“Never look back!”

“Do not speak to someone stalking you!”

“Never make eye contact with an intimidator.”

“Don’t accost anyone making untoward advances since that will construe an invitation.”

“Don’t stay out.”

 “Don’t walk alone anywhere by yourself!”

“Always go everywhere in a group.”

“If you are accosted, run away!”

“Never retaliate! How can you defend yourself?”

“Remember: you are only a girl.”

 

Sick with terror and with litanies, tattooed upon the consciousness as if they were magic mantras providing security, Operation Hurry-Back-to-Safety would be set in motion.

 

Despite having a wife, every woman seemed to be an accessible sexual trophy for Indra. Kunti is offered by her father as part of the ‘hospitality services’ to Durvasa. Three princesses are rounded up in the manner of cattle by Bhishma. Amba, who resists, is eventually forced to sacrifice her life at the altar of contesting male egos

The public sphere then was a troubled space. Lack of gender sensitisation at the workplace meant that lewd comments, sexist jokes, unparliamentary language and an absence of adequate public utilities for women formed part of the everyday experience of women. Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi’s draconian Emergency had imposed its own restrictions on freedom of speech and movement in everyday life, which, in any case, had a priori restrictions for all women citizens. Mobility continued to be restricted by the State, its police and bureaucracy, at institutions of learning, in modes of public transport and by terrified parents.   

Holi, the festival of colours, was for many girls and women a festival of terror; the Gropers Inc. viewed the entire festive season as licence to maul and molest women. Macho violence followed as a compulsive trajectory.

In impersonal and woman un-friendly cities, dusk and darkness became scary realms. Many unspeakable acts of violence continued to punctuate women’s lives in the public sphere and within households. It mattered little whether it was a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a sister, a wife, or a mother. All categories of women of all ages lived lives that were not violence-proof within the public and private sphere.

It was not only strangers who subjected women to violence. It was, the terrible truth must be told, quite often familial men in positions of control and authority who unleashed violence on women. This is not surprising considering that in our myths, Brahma cohabits with his daughter, Saraswati. Indra vajra chops the growing foetus in Aunt Diti’s womb into seven pieces and then cuts up each piece seven times. Despite having a wife, every woman seemed to be an accessible sexual trophy for Indra. Punishment, when caught red- handed, is severe for the woman, but merely time bound for Indra.

Yama shares an incestuous relationship with his sister, Yami. Kunti is offered by her father as part of the ‘hospitality services’ provided to the visiting sage, Durvasa. Three princesses are rounded up in the manner of cattle by Bhishma, prince and statesman- founder of the Kuru dynasty. Amba, who resists the role outlined for her, is eventually forced to sacrifice her life at the altar of contesting male egos.

Myths in other patriarchal cultures are no different. Stories of origin in the Greek myth speak of the rape of Leda by Zeus, libidinous king of the gods, disguised as a swan. The twin brothers who founded Rome were born when their mother, Rhea, forced to be a vestal virgin, was raped by Mars, the god of war. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to the winds in order to provide safe passage to Greek ships heading out to reclaim Helen from Troy.

Corpses pile up in myths across the world and many of them are female because in all patriarchal cultures, women have occupied the lesser, unequal end. In all relationships, their bodies have been the perpetual site of assault.

From that day, the Ridge was out of bounds. Hitching a ride was unacceptable. Brothers were no longer seen as invincible protectors. Staying out late was now taboo. At sundown, curfew began in all our lives 

Wars, fought by knights, for their kings, were invariably an excuse for burning fields, plundering and raping women. These are familiar stories, recorded for posterity and repetitively rerun through history. They let us know how powerful women from privileged classes could be treated.

The   myths, legends and epics are silent about what happened to ordinary women. There is little succour to be had from any of these tales. Male behaviour in every one of these narratives is invariably excused, while the treatment of women provides both salutary warning and exemplum for religious heads of all denominations, politicians, and authority figures in contemporary times. People in positions of authority and control, whether religious, social or secular, continue to disseminate on notions of unimpeachable pasts and hold this imagined past up for women as models of correct living.

This was the world for women around three decades ago. Has anything changed since then? There is greater mobility in a vastly expanded city. There are new modes of public transport and far more women in the workforce. Public spaces continue to remain unsafe. Public transport is unsafe. Public utilities are still woefully inadequate. Many more women have been brutalised, raped, murdered and left to die.

All females, irrespective of age, continue to be vulnerable to harassment within homes, at school, at play and at work: every day and every night of their lives.

Women are intimidated by insensitive and unthinking colleagues, co-workers and cops. This is true of the lives of ordinary women in the cities and villages all over the country. The  statistics keep piling up in real life (this is why there are so many missing  women in economic growth charts), while there is a parallel reel life in which the unending objectification and commodification of women’s bodies  through  print, media, advertising and film continues unabated.

 

On December 16, 2012, a young paramedic and her friend, unable to find an autorickshaw to go home, climb into a private bus wherein a hideous nightmarish journey unfolds. Assaulted and brutalised, the young woman is gangraped by six men on a curtained bus that continued to move through the city across police checkposts. The friend is beaten up with rods for defending the girl.

The violators rip out her intestines with an iron rod, and throw her and her friend out of the bus, having stripped them of their clothes. They lie on the road, victims of an act that chills the mind, freezes the heart and numbs the spine. Help came for both of them, much, much too late, very slowly and extremely fitfully: those who saw them did not even stop to ask or help, even women inside cars just looked and went by, even as they lay naked and dying on that bitterly cold night.

Despite nation-wide protests, in single-file or in gangs, men continued to attack, brutalise, punish, rape, assault, murder women. Clearly, the fear of capital punishment or chemical castration has never been a deterrent to the myriad forms in which violence continues to be visited upon women 

In the days to follow, people from different parts of the city came out on the streets in protest. The State response was to clamp down on all forms of public protest with threats, teargas, brutish lathi charges and water cannons. Access to Metro stations was barred, India Gate and the VIP citadels were banned, and hosts of commuters struggled to reach homes and places
of work.

Custodians of differing religious groups, heads of academic institutions, MLAs, stray MPs, zealous  police officers, corrupt godmen and khap heads, poured out of the woodwork to advise women on codes of conduct and dress, with notations on indoor confinement and restricted mobility, confiscation of cell phones, zero conversations with males, exact prayer and plea to be offered at the precise moment of attack and so on. What were we expecting, anyway?

People continued to spill out on the streets, not only at different locations at Delhi, but in small towns and cities all across India. The protests spread all over the country. For days on end, in the neighbourhood and community spaces, outside Metro stations and bus stands, on radio and television, on sms, facebook and email, on the roads and within residential buildings, people in all age groups expressed their outrage. Yes, there was anger at the loss of a young life, gratuitously smashed and brutalised. Yes, people did bay for the blood of the culprits. However, the anger that swept the entire country, even if it was as the cynics say,
media-driven, allowed people to think and introspect, about the realms of fear and apathy in which they had wallowed for so long. These were men and women dented by life and living who formed part of the marches, the protests, the mourning, the signature campaigns, the candlelight vigils, the poetry and songs. From all walks of life, and from different social strata, pain and anger and anguish pushed them out of their homes into the streets.

Older and forgotten atrocities perpetrated on women were recollected, revisited and mourned afresh. Surely, even relentless demonstrations, held across the country cannot transform overnight mindsets bogged in centuries of quagmire. Even while the protests were all over the country, in single-file or in gangs, men continued to attack, brutalise, punish, rape, assault and murder women. Clearly, the fear of capital punishment or chemical castration has never been a deterrent and is unlikely to provide lasting solutions to the myriad forms in which violence continues to be visited upon women.

There is, however, much to be set in store from this public outburst. What the collective of ordinary women and men have shown is that they are no longer afraid to speak up for what is due to one half of the human race. In demanding justice and equitable freedom for all women, the anti-diluvian bogeys of dishonour and shame are finally about to derail.

Hossain’s novel speaks of a utopian world where educated women ran all public offices, travelled around the city freely, flew in magical machines and were not afraid of the dark. All the men are confined indoors, within ‘mardanas’, to be guided and monitored 

The protesters have rejected the roles of cowering, fearful victims and second class citizens and inspired countless others. This is a brave new world in which a dialogue is being set up between men and women. At this juncture, because of many serious listeners, there is a possibility that archaic myths and stereotypical gender identities will be eventually dismantled. A thousand new stories have taken wing and these, we hope, will be resurgent new mythologies, transforming
women’s tomorrows.

Else, the grit and fortitude of so many valiant women, over all these years, would have been in vain. 

The writer is Associate Professor, Department of English, Venkateswara College, Delhi University.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2013