By Rita Banerji
I was waiting with my mother, in a chaotic, dusty, office in Calcutta, as she complained to a woman of how difficult it was, especially for single, elderly women like her, to deal with the bureaucracy. The woman waved towards the man accompanying her and said, “That’s my son. He handles everything.” My mother then pointed to me and said, “That’s my daughter and my son.”
There is a cultural logic to how ‘son’ and ‘daughter’ were used here. It attributes intrinsic traits to each sex, such as, men are strong and women weak. It rationalizes the hierarchy of India’s male overrun system and its predation on women. It preaches that to survive the system, a woman must have a male figure — a son, a father, or a husband, take charge. And those women who stand their ground and fight the system are like men.
The conventional thinking is that women who stand up for themselves are freaks. They are exhibiting behaviour that’s natural to men, but strange in women, like standing and peeing.
But even Indians who think of themselves as progressive, and proclaim their daughter is “like a son,” don’t recognize the sexism in their statements.
Still, I was surprised at my mother because I have never heard her say something like this.
In a son-crazy, daughter-hating culture, that has mechanically exterminated millions of daughters both before and after birth, my mother has spent her entire life justifying to random people why both her children are girls.
“Only two girls,” they’d say, as if that was in some way insubstantial. Or, “Didn’t you try for a son?” like she had bypassed the ultimate goal-post, to which she’d just say “No.”
Sometimes she’d tell me about how when she gave birth to my sister, a middle-class, educated, woman, who shared the hospital room with her, and who had also given birth to a girl, had refused to see or feed her baby.
The questions re-surfaced in a different format when my father died after a prolonged illness. The phrase my mother’s sympathizers used was – “Now the roof over your head has gone,” meaning — without a husband and son you are vulnerable. It used to irritate me. Yet I could not be blind to the almost instantaneous, predatory response to my mother’s widowhood. From the lawyers, bankers, officials in government offices, to her neighbours, relatives and even the grocer, plumber and electrician, saw the absence of a man in her life as an opportunity to exploit her financially.
But sexism is too mild a term for the abuse my mother was subsequently subject to. It felt more like a dark and terrifying altered reality. It got to the point, where our neighbours, colluded with my mother’s male relatives to actually cheat her of her home by stealing her identity papers and lying to get her to sign documents they professed were for the building society. The city’s municipal officer who came to see the house for the annual valuation for tax suggested, offhandedly, she should sell off her flat as she had no son and “only two daughters.”
As I fought back, our water supply was sabotaged, the wall of our house was broken, an attempt was made to kill my mother’s cat, and I was assaulted by neighbours. Each time the police refused to file criminal charges and I had to force them to. I then found out that an imposter had registered as owner of my mother’s house clearly with the help of the local government municipal office. Even the police and lawyers seemed involved.
The police actually took the case numbers (called FIRs in India) that I had filed against the neighbours and tagged them to a case they initiated against my mother, apparently for disturbing the peace of her neighbours, a fact the courts clerks clearly had been bribed to hide. The aim was to make my case files disappear! More worryingly, our nightmarish experience as single women is not unusual in India.
As a feminist, I am aware that most cases in India where rural women are branded as ‘witches’ and gang lynched, are a ploy by village men to grab the women’s land or homes. Most of these women are single, that is widowed or separated. However, the same case scenario repeats in the cities, where real estate sharks operate in a mafia like manner to offer incentives to various parties, including neighbours, police, lawyers, to target vulnerable, single women, living alone, for their property.
People just accept it as normal and women are advised to avoid living, working, and even traveling alone. Even cases that are high profile and have extensive media coverage see no protest from the city’s residents or feminist groups. In one such case a 36-year-old school teacher, Mamta Agarwal, who was living alone after her mother died, fired a gun at 15 armed bouncers who barged into her house and attacked her at 3a.m. The police who had earlier refused to respond to her complaints of harassment over her home, did not register it as a case of self-defense and arrested her for murder and attempted murder. In another case in June 2016, 60-year-old Sunanda Ganguly who lived alone and ran a school for street girls in her house was found dead in her home.
The police wrote it off as an accident even though she had bruises on her body, and had made several complaints to the police over harassment for her property, fearing for her life. And this criminal targeting of single women, living or traveling alone in India extends to systemic violence and rape too, across all class boundaries. If you are single and living alone, your wealth and strata are no protection. The female lawyer of a top Bollywood star, was attacked, raped and murdered when alone in her flat by the building’s security man. One of India’s top international perfumers, recently divorced and living alone, was also raped and murdered in her own flat by her building security man. And just this week, a well known actress, traveling alone, was abducted and gang raped by her ex-chauffeur in her own car.
It is odd, that social behaviour towards a woman would vary so dramatically based simply on the presence or absence of men. Of course, then this is also the culture that for centuries practiced ‘sati’ – the custom of burning widows alive on their husband’s pyres. Underlying this is the idea that women are men’s properties, off-limits as long as they are ‘owned’ by a legitimate man, but available to abuse and discard if there’s no “owner” in sight. My mother once said to me, “If your father was alive, they wouldn’t dare do this to me or you.”
This is why I wonder, if my mother’s equating me with a son, was something of a defensive reaction to her experience of the unceasing, terrifying, male attack from the society she lives in.
The solution, as I’ve also told my mother, is always speaking truth to power.
To survive this male brutality, we shouldn’t have to aspire to be like men or profess to live or fight like them. If anything, this only validates a vile patriarchy.
When my mother asked, “Then what should I have said.” I told her, “You have to speak truth to power.” I told her she needed to tell that woman, her son, everyone in that room, this city, this country, and even the world, what it means for her, personally, to survive this male brutality on a daily basis.
I told her it will make people uncomfortable, because many are directly and blindly invested in this system. It will make others uncomfortable, because they’ve got used to blowing off the harsh ground reality of women in our country and culture, with clichés about women’s empowerment. But they need to look this misogyny directly in the eye, as it reflects in the truth of your life, and acknowledge it, regardless of whether they can help or not. And after that if they want to talk, they need to first tell you what they can do to help you.
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