“On campus, boys used to creep up behind us when we weren’t looking, and undo our bra clasps for kicks. In the bus, we couldn’t tell where our bodies stopped and where their hands began.”
My whole life, I feel as though I’ve heard a constant commentary on the rapidly approaching change on our horizon. How the horrors of past centuries are behind us. How things are going to get better.
“My friend was assaulted by one of our teachers. She never reported it though. She was terrified that her parents would pull her out of college.”
My mother, reflecting on her former college life in Delhi, is still left waiting. She looks on as her nation, wearing the mask of modernity, remains trapped in ideals that justify ancient oppression and inequity. For her, the uphill battle of being a woman in India was a permanent struggle stitched into the fabric of her surrounding community and country. Ugly, but acceptable with the absence of an alternative.
For me, the truth wasn’t so easy to swallow.
Summers in India were a constant outpouring of grandma’s love, manifested in the endless amounts of kadhi chawal and fried food flying straight to my thighs. They were also a painful reminder of the enduring interest of my country in what exists between my thighs. For me, India was always supposed to be a happy place, synonymous with summer break and long awaited time with friends and family. For me, India was supposed to be perfect. And so every time I was told my shorts were too short, or was ogled on the street, I turned a blind eye to the cracks of a facade that I’d built to preserve the integrity of my home country.
But this past summer, as I listened to my mother recounting the tales of her college days, I was taken aback by how her description of India three decades ago sounded no different from today. Where is the change we have been promised?
The answer lies in the falsified ‘tradition’ that has come to govern Indian law and society. It is this so called ‘tradition’ that has thrusted women to the bottom of an increasingly constrictive social hierarchy. For the readily accepted idea of ‘tradition’ in India is not that of holiday trees and Sunday brunches, but male dominance and female subordination. It is this so called ‘tradition’ that mandates a woman to not leave the house alone, that she must dress a certain way, that she is a burden on the shoulders of unlucky parents who can rid themselves of her only through marriage. It is this so called ‘tradition’ that is used time and time again as justification for the widespread rape and murder throughout India.
How convenient that the existence of ‘tradition’ is enough to obscure misogyny and legitimize crime. That as India modernizes, launches rockets into space and develops new technologies, its justice system can fall back on centuries old ideologies. That politicians can tailor this idea to the tastes of dominant classes and castes, and create a false ‘male unity’ through the common control of their sisters and daughters.
This is not my tradition. It is not my country’s tradition. And it has led to the common misconception that inequality is a part of who we are - not just for Indians, but for a large portion of eastern nations.
The notion that the women’s rights crisis is the product of an intrinsically misogynistic and sexist culture is to disregard all social, political, and economic factors that have a hand in molding a nation. It is a way of sidestepping the complex contemporary roots of the problem, and further allows for the propagation of the prejudiced behaviors and ideals that have come to define our culture. It gives the crisis an aura of permanence, by accepting it as a way of life, an identity.
To those that buy into these ideals, I ask:
What tradition justifies a conviction rate of just 18.9% for crimes against women in India 2016?
What tradition allows for over 1000 honor killings to take place in India every year?
What tradition encourages the rape of nearly 20,000 Indian children each year?
Our tradition is not honor killings. Our tradition is not dowry crimes. Our tradition is not stove burnings, nor acid attacks. Our tradition is not withheld education, nor child marriage. Our tradition is not assault, not rape. Our tradition is not murder. Our tradition is wild bhangra parties and never ending goodbyes, endless cups of chai and food that you can’t stop eating even as your eyes begin to water from the spice. Our culture is vibrancy and color and light, not the darkness that has come to shroud it.
Like religion doesn’t teach one enmity, tradition doesn’t teach one inequity. Women will achieve equality and respect in society only when people begin to take responsibility for their beliefs and behaviors, and stop pinning it on some national code of ethics that doesn’t exist. As long as political powers continue preaching this doctrine of ‘tradition,’ our girls will continue to trade their pencils for brooms, their dolls for children, their lives for a society that doesn’t understand their worth. As long as we accept this ideology, change will remain but a distant dream drifting along a muddy horizon.
I love my country, but that doesn’t mean I will applaud it’s faults, and ignore the suffering within it. Inequality is not a permanent condition, nor an ugly truth for us to live with indefinitely. It is a reality that we have the power to change, starting by dismantling the mechanisms of justification for female mistreatment and advancing on a path of awareness and justice.
The future will not wait for us to realize our history does not define us. We are strong. We are deserving.
We are India’s daughters.