Reflecting on Being a South Asian Woman in 2013


The Importance of Women Misbehaving

By Rita Banerji, Guest blogger @rita_banerji

2013 Nominee

2013 Nominee


Why did Indian women suddenly rise up in an angry, mass protest after that highly publicized Delhi gang rape in December 2012?  Since I run a campaign on female genocide in India, this is one question I’ve been repeatedly asked.


I’m not sure why this puzzles people. India is the 4th most dangerous country for women, following Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan.  In 20 years, 20% of women will have been systematically exterminated from India, subject to every form of gender-based violence.

How much more were Indian women expected to bear before they rose in revolt?

Rita Banerji

Rita Banerji

Perhaps what we really need to understand is that women’s revolutions happen for the same reasons everywhere. The impulse is the same.


Journey-from-the-Land-of-NoWhat that impulse is, is nicely put in this quote from The Journey from the Land of No.  In this book Roya Hakakian talks about growing up in Iran during the Revolution. She explains that as teenage schoolgirls even though they couldn’t comprehend the political context of the revolution, something about the spirit of a revolution resonated deeply even within their young minds.  While Khomeini had promised his supporters freedom from a monarchy’s dictatorship, when in power he imposed the same under the guise of religion.  There was a systematic move to impose the veil and an Islamic code of behavior on all women including schoolgirls.

So Roya and her classmates spent many afternoons being lectured sternly on what constituted ‘evil’ and ‘virtuous’ behavior for girls. Those who resisted were labeled sinful and shamed and humiliated.

Then Roya recounts one afternoon in school when the girls refused to yield.  They stormed out of their classes, marched through the schoolyard, broke windowpanes, grabbed brooms like flags, and shouted protest slogans as they marched along. What instigated this sudden uprising?


This is what Roya writes:

“All our lives we had been taught the virtues of behaving, and now we were discovering the importance of misbehaving. Too much fear had tainted our days.  Too many afternoon’s had passed in silence, with us listening to a fanatic’s [the headmistress’s] diatribes.  We were rebelling because we were not evil, we had not sinned…we were rebelling for all those who had come before us and had never dared to…No one led anyone. No one followed anyone…Together as girls we found the courage we had been told was not in us. This was 1979, the year that showed us we could make our own destinies.  For one spring afternoon…we too became the true daughters of the revolution. We too trounced tyranny, [and] tasted the sweetness of liberty, of victory…”[pp.168-9]


However, as I read this quote, there is one line that I pick out as most significant.  I see it as a coded message for women everywhere.  It’s the secret of a revolution! And that’s the first line: All our lives we had been taught the virtues of behaving, and now we were discovering the importance of misbehaving.


A social code of behavior is used as a weapon by almost all cultures to violate, control and beat girls and women into submission.   Women are told if you don’t want to get beaten, raped and killed, then this is how you will have to behave.   Men have no equivalent code of behavior on which their life and safety is dependent.  Men are never told if you don’t behave this way you will be beaten, raped and killed.  So women learn to BEHAVE! That is, they assume the code of behavior more out of fear than anything else – fear of safety, fear of rejection, fear of life.  And yet, even when they don’t MIS-BEHAVE, they don’t violate that code of behavior, they still get beaten, raped and killed!


In 1996 a 16-year-old schoolgirl in the town of Suryanelli in India, was kidnapped by the man she was in love with, and sold into sex-trafficking.  Over 40 days she was gagged, bound, and beaten, and moved place to place, and during that period 42 men raped her.  Today 16 years on, as she still fights for justice, she was recently written off by a High Court judge in India as a child ‘prostitute.’  Why? Because her first violation of behavior was that she had fallen in love, which is not permitted to girls in India!

But more importantly, despite persistent harassment from various quarters, through the years, she has continued to maintain that a high profile politician, J. S. Kurien was one of her rapists, a man she recognized and identified from a photograph.  She has violated the code that says you cannot point a finger at men of power.  To put her in place, indeed all other women who might follow suit, 35 of the men who had been convicted of her rape by a lower court, were freed by a higher court.  And for added measure, Kurien, despite women’s angry protests, is to chair the 2013 Parliamentary discussion on India’s new rape law—a law made in response to the Delhi gang rape protests! [Click here to sign a protest petition]


Photo: 50millionMissing

Photo: 50millionMissing

In 2012 a woman who was gang raped at gun point on Kolkata’s Park Street, was labeled a liar and a slut by various government officials, including the Chief Minister.  The police further made every attempt to derail the investigation.  The victim is a divorced woman, and a mother of two small children, and she had violated the ‘code of behavior’ that says ‘good’ women don’t divorce, and ‘good’ mothers don’t go to parties and pubs at night!  The police officer who attempted to help the victim, and pushed to arrest the rapists, was removed from the case and given a punishment posting.


However, unlike the Suryanelli and the Park Street victims, the Delhi gang rape victim was not violating any major social codes of behavior.  She was doing what many women would do on a Sunday afternoon.  Go to a shopping mall, see a late afternoon film and catch a bus home soon after.  But she was still beaten, raped and killed!



Photo: 50 Million Missing

And so in December 2012 when the women of India marched out onto the streets in angry protests, they like Roya and her friends were saying: “All our lives we have been taught the virtues of behaving, and now we are discovering the importance of misbehaving. Too much fear had tainted our days…We are rebelling because we have not sinned…We are rebelling for all those who came before us and had never dared to… For one winter’s week in December 2012…we too will trounce tyranny, [and] taste the sweetness of liberty…”


To all the women reading this: Today, take one little code of behavior that confines you as a woman, tells you how to be at home or outside, forces you to live with shame and/or fear — and break it!  If you break one code today, tomorrow collectively we’ll have the courage to break our social prison!  So let’s get started! Let us resolve to MIS-BEHAVE!!


rita_banerji_optBio: Rita Banerji is a writer, photographer and gender activist.  She’s the author of Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies (Penguin Global, 2009), and the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign which is fighting female genocide in India.  Her website is  Twitter: @rita_banerji



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  1. Nadia

    Great article and topic! I love the challenge to break a code of behavior. The challenge is that these expectations of how women are “supposed” to act are so ingrained that it’s hard to even identify them…but now you have my mind searching for what behaviors I follow because I’m a woman. Thanks!

  2. Rajinder

    Finally got a chance to read this … late but never! Fantastic article. All women are rebels at heart and at some point in our lives we will ‘misbehave’ in some way, whether during our single or married lives. What get me is how shocked onlookers are when we do. I’ll never forget a comment made by my husband when I finally did speak up early on in our marriage, “when did you develop a spine?”. All women have one, out of respect for the feelings of men and our parents or for the well being of our children we choose silence, it has nothing to do with our lack of “fire” in our soul and our desire for justice. Amen to ‘revolution’. Amen to ‘misbehaviour’. Thank you Rita Banerji, great words, well written.

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