In his play Chandragupta, the celebrated playwright Dwijendralal Roy made the Greek emperor Alexander the Great remark to his trusted general Seleucus about the phantasmagorical complexities of the Indian subcontinent ~ “Truly Seleucus what a strange country this is!”
Strange however is an understatement. Our country is celebrated for its cultural pluralism, it is known throughout the world as a socialist, secular, democratic republic, according to our Constitution. However our nation’s remarkable ability to generate a sense of ceaseless shock and awe and roller-coaster political post-truth acrobatics is truly astounding. In the public domain this causes outrage and disillusionment, most educated citizens of our country are left wondering whether we are riding the bullet train of progress or a descending escalator that is determinedly diving into the squalor and cesspool of lies, deceit, treachery, double standards, double speak, greed, violence and narcissism.
As the festive season commenced in our land of cultural diversity the worship of female divine icons, such as Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and various others, we witnessed grandiose celebrations and unbridled revelry. Faith we are told is not about critique; it is about complete submission to practices that have been followed through centuries. We are also warned that to be critically informed and to interrogate lines of control are the pernicious propensity of secular pests. Rational individuals are systematically warned that any assertive intervention against normative (mal) practices implies that the interrogators are against the nation, against society and against the people.
Despite such a claustrophobic cultural environment the widely cited 1974 Towards Equality status report turned the tables and made the patriarchal Parliament sit up and take notice of the grossly neglected female citizens of India. Soon after, Women’s Studies research centres were established in many state-aided universities and central universities with UGC support. This was unique but then such a process fell in line with the initiation of Women’s studies, Feminist studies and Gender studies centres and courses in the universities of the Global North. The result was the emergence of brilliant research and publications on women’s studies by mostly women academicians. Yet it is ironic that in many instances, most of the women critics, theorists and scholars were not known to practise what they professed in classrooms, seminars and research articles.
The result of such systemic and selective eliding of gender issues in our society has led to victims of sexual assault having to opt for sit-in demonstrations, contact the media and even begin hunger-strikes to focus attention on their pitiable plight. The patriarchal system has invariably accused women of subversion, transgression and indiscipline that have led to their misery.
The nurturing of the male child in our patriarchal families lies at the root of misogyny and gender-related violence on women. In fact a Punjabi short story gives a moving graphic account of how young pre-pubescent brothers and cousins tore off the clothes of their sister’s doll, slashed the private parts and rode on the doll yelling obscenities with shameless abandon. The relatives and parents of the children found such a use of the doll as a sex toy a matter of giggly gossip while the distress of the traumatised girl over such a violent destruction of her doll was regarded as overreaction and hysteric.
Religious doctrines mostly male-authored have invariably emphasized that women should be self-effacing, self-sacrificing, selfless silent bodies whose minds and bodies were not theirs, but could be used without any inhibition by male members of the society. Along with denial of education, employment and health facilities women have ben brainwashed into believing that they are angels in the house, disembodied unless needed for 24×7 domestic work, reproductive labour and sexual entertainment.
Such a rooted social conditioning through centuries and generations along with total economic dependence on fathers or husbands have led women to believe as sacrosanct whatever has been preached to them in the name of tradition and religion. It is obvious that I am targeting the fallout of the outstanding Supreme Court verdict on the Sabarimala temple case.
Women between the ages of 10 and 50 were so long debarred from entering the temple premises as they were considered defiled untouchables because they were menstruating women. Recently in its path-breaking verdict, Supreme Court recognized the crying need for gender equality in our patriarchal system as it did in the case of Teen Talaq. The verdict of the Kerala High Court that led to the imprisonment of the rapist Bishop of Jullundur is also a case that deserves to be cited.
But how did women react? The five-member judicial panel in the Sabarimala case included one woman and four men. It almost seems a deliberate ploy that the woman judge Indu Malhotra was the lone voice of dissent. After all, Indu Malhotra was not only a practising judge. As a good and responsible woman of India her belief in her religious tradition was much more important to her than the entire “unIndian” clamour for gender equality! If indeed this was a strategy to attract women’s dissent about the verdict of the Supreme Court, it was a successful one.
It is obvious that social and political pressure were created overtly and covertly on all five judges. Will it be wrong to speculate that the men were able to fight free from the overpowering weight of tradition and provocation, the educated professional woman of privilege, crumbled.
So who are the feminists? They include both the enlightened, liberated, educated men and women of India. Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Rokeya Sultan, Amartya Sen, Nabaneeta Dev Sen are just a few names among many others that one can readily mention belonging to the feminist group.
Who are the misogynists? Unfortunately, the worst misogynists in our country are not men but WOMEN! Around 4000 women of Kerala have been known to have protested against the Supreme Court verdict. Review petitions have been filed. Threats have been issued. The review petitioner Shylaja Vijayan (needless to say, a woman, another brilliant tokenism) stated that the Supreme Court verdict affects the fundamental rights of millions of devotees of Ayyappa. The petition declared with indignation, “The petitioners believe that no legal luminary not even the greatest of jurists or a judge, can be a match to the common sense and wisdom of the masses. No judicial pronouncement, even of the highest judicial tribunal in this country…can be a match for the voice of the people.”
(To be concluded)
The writer is former Professor, Dept of English, Calcutta University.