A British Indian Woman's Story
Sneha, translated into English simply means pure love, and was also, ironically the name of the tiny month old baby girl I was cradling in my arms, who, had recently been discovered in a rubbish tip a few weeks before I laid eyes on her. Her rescuers, who had chosen her name, firmly believe the obvious and the most common reason for her plight, like many others, is her gender, and for me, this was this start of the realisation of a new meaning of being the girl.
August 1997, it was a dry hot summer’s day in Nagpur, India, where my dad and I had been visiting family, and in spite of my objections to stagger across the nearby town by foot in this icky and unbearable weather, we made our way to the nearby orphanage to make a donation, thus completing our “good deed”.
Begrudgingly, my brash teenage attitude and I grunted at the obvious stares from the local men as I trotted along the dusty and uneven surface known as the footpath to residents here. Dressed in the simplest of attire, that being a pair of jeans and an extra large shirt to disguise my petite yet not so subtle womanly frame, I failed to comprehend what I felt was a violation. Neighbouring collages filled with girls of my age in the same if not sometimes bolder wardrobe selection, further confirmed my belief that I was in no way a novelty piece.
Yet, now looking back, what my permanent chip on the shoulder and egoistic adolescent self unintentionally ignored was, that this was not simply a battle of me against the world. I belong to the branch of first generation children in my family tree, having being born in the UK to Indian born parents who migrated to London over thirty years ago. At eighteen my world was, in my mind, a complex Rubik’s Cube of parent-child crisis’s, discovering my femininity and essentially creating and understanding a sense of identity; each element forever clashing yet never assembled together in one piece. It was this sense of frustration combined with the “yes I am a GIRL from the UK, and what?” imbalance of confidence and arrogance that pulled in the glares, not my awful 1980-esque get-up! (Slightly relieved might I add!)
As we arrived in this tiny building known as one of many Missionaries of Charity institutes, a Roman Catholic religious congregation which was founded by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta in 1950, the scarcity of furniture and bare walls were simply overwhelmed by the warmness and sincerity of the sisters who voluntarily have dedicated their entire energies into the protection and well being of those children who are unwanted or unsolicited by their own family. In a culture and current generation, where class, hierarchy and patriarchy were words that were still flung around in every political debate and social progression movement, the virtual picture I had encapsulated at that moment would have silenced a million voices.
Girls, boys, and children with disabilities joyfully devouring life collectively depicted the true essence of a child’s innocence. Gleefully playing with the toys and recreation facilities provided by individual donators, these children were oblivious to any form of discrimination by class, caste, disability or gender.
It was here where I noticed that some of the children had created a circle around a new arrival to their home. Gently proceeding closer to try and steal a glance, I managed to look past the huddle of crowded heads and my heart melted at the sight of the tiniest little baby girl staring right back at this unknown face. Sneha had been discovered in a rubbish tip about three weeks ago not too far from the institute. Whether this was intentional or just sheer luck that she had been found so close by, no one will ever know. To the sisters in this orphanage, it was God’s way of giving her a chance to have that life that her parents could not or did not want to give.
Sensing the expression of horror and bewilderment etched across my face, Sister Mary Deanne, the senior sister, interrupted my thoughts to explain how sadly such abandonments were a norm. The stigma of a girl being defined by the “burden” of dowry she brings, and her inability to carry on the family name before she is even born was very much the reality in the late 90’s. The fierce combination of lack of sex education or birth control knowledge for the illiterate mixed with the ignorance that a disabled or handicapped child is a “curse” upon a family which many of the middle class folk are also guilty of, resulted in the ever increasing child neglect.
Leaving a somewhat generous donation, I had decided, upon my return to the UK, that I would try and sponsor little Sneha by sending monthly money postal orders to the orphanage for her benefit. The World Wide Web was not just as “wide” back then, so in return, Sister Mary would write me a letter once she had received my postal order and keep me informed on the baby’s progress. Even today, I still believe the personal feel and emotion devoted by a hand written letter simply cannot be conveyed in an electronic mail. Through Sister Mary’s careful and neat handwriting, I could try to envisage Sneha’s first smile or her adorable attempt to sit up independently.
Any hope of a family member coming forward to acknowledge the baby had failed miserably after months of assistance from local newspapers and the police. Following a gap of no communication from Sister Mary, I unexpectedly received a letter from her stating that she had moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) along with Sneha who had been officially put up for adoption. No sooner than a suitable home had been confirmed for the little girl, I was promptly requested to stop any interaction regarding Sneha’s well being. That was the last of my communication with Sister Mary and I fully believed that she would ensure that Sneha would be placed with loving parents just as she rightfully deserved.
Crushing my own selfish ego, I had been exposed to a harsh reality that I had always indirectly been aware of but too self absorbed to give it a second thought dismissing it as the country’s problem to resolve and assuming the “motherland” would always struggle with its own independence. I was yet to discover the real crux of this so-called “girl effect” in my own world.
Fast forward to February 2012, having recently been made redundant from a City job and ready to dive into my new dose of freedom and adventure, I arrive in Mumbai, to film a documentary with my filmmaker friend, that follows my attempts to explore and engage in the traditional and non-traditional methods that women of my generation are undertaking to find a suitable partner for matrimony. Despite the mixed reactions I had received prior to my arrival in India, I had no intention of creating an expose into all that was wrong with our culture; on the contrary I wanted to understand how the identity and perception of both women and men are influenced by everyday relationships and surroundings and whether they faced the same culture clashes and shifts in attitudes that I had witnessed back in the UK.
Bombay may have reverted to its original namesake Mumbai, but the women certainly contribute immensely to the face of this cosmopolitan city, proudly walking shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts. From university lecturers to icons such as Leena Mogre, one of India’s most prominent fitness idols, I was fortunate to meet and interview women who truly resemble the empowerment of the modern Indian woman.
Whilst in Mumbai, in the hope of donating some clothes to under privileged children, I accompanied a fellow London friend to the Missionary of Charities Mother Teresa’s orphanage located literally at his doorstep near Ville Parle. A mirror image to what I had witnessed in Nagpur fifteen years ago reflected back, with the exception of heightened security to prevent child abduction; the irony that this was a place where many renounced their new-borns was screaming in my head. In wanting to affirm my belief in the admirable work carried out by these extraordinary women working here, I refrained from asking any of the sisters in the Mumbai establishment about the whereabouts of the little girl I had sponsored in Nagpur. Unfortunately, I left that day with echoes of countless stories as to how and why an increasing number of girls were found at the doorsteps of such establishments just as I had heard back in 1997.
Over the next few months of my arrival in India, I was consistent in blogging my adventures and at times, misadventures in this bizarre yet brave “seeking soul mate” process, as well as unearthing a face to India that was unknown to me all these years despite my frequent trips here. Expectations to conform to social norms seemed interwoven in every type of situation, right through from choosing a career in a “suitable” field to families and communities determining a woman’s sell by date in finding a life partner, it was a tapestry sewn by a single thread – a mindset. These experiences, I felt, had to be shared, even if it meant using my infamous sense of sarcasm to lighten the tone and admittedly, often shy away from my own self-doubts.
Upon my return to London last summer, and after a few months of having the opportunity to share my journey with a few South Asian on-line magazines, a horrific incident back in India pushed me to set aside the humour and replace with candidness of the severity of the vicious circle around me. A young and aspiring medical student in Delhi was allegedly brutally and violently gang raped on her way home, by six men in a bus, followed by multiple beatings using an iron rod that were so severe, her intestines had to be removed. She died within two weeks and as of now the trial still continues.
This heinous crime prompted the ugliness of misogyny and inequality to be highlighted in the form of a global outrage. Protests on the streets of India, debates on who to blame, blogs and petitions for female safety and stricter laws were jumping out on every news channel, website and newspaper. In responses to questions posed to me by own family and friends of my personal experiences as a single female living in India, I wrote a blog, which gave me the opportunity to be a guest speaker on the subject on four regional BBC radio stations. Fully aware of some of the potential backlash to my frankness, I spoke openly on my observations as a foreigner in India. Fortunate as I was to always have remained away from any harm whilst travelling alone, I found there was a bigger and endless spiral to how females are perceived every day and within every action they undertake. The differentiating set views on how women should behave, what they should wear or where they should be, has unfortunately been exploited as a pathetic and vile excuse to justify violence and abuse towards them for centuries. Throw in the position of power to the mix where perpetrators can buy the silence of the law, and therein lies an obvious cry for a new revolution. Or so you would think.
In the past sixty-five years of India becoming a democratic country, influential women such as Indira Gandhi created history in 1980 as the country’s first female Prime Minister. Enriched in its colourful culture, Indian mythology proudly tells the story of Draupadi, the daughter of King Drupada, who was married to all five brothers of the royal Pandava family. In order to avenge Prince Duryodhan for attempting to disrobe her publicly, Draupadi is often regarded as the true personification of a woman’s pride by making a stand, speaking her mind and declaring war against her culprit and his clan. Yet these representations are simply tarnished as horror stories continue to unfold on girls who are cursed before they even enter the world. It is an infinite list of injustice; the female foetus, dumped in a street, that was mistaken for a doll by young children in Bhopal, the increase in child trafficking across Rajasthan where young girls are sold as brides in affluent towns with a shortage of females, or society and the legal system failing victims of abuse and suppressing their voices.
Post the BBC interviews, my mind was still manifested with questions on whether everything I was witnessing and reading would somehow lead to a radical change in both law enforcements and socialization. Gender equality has been a subject that is constantly challenged and even here in the UK, stories of honour killings and violence against women in South Asian communities are widespread.
Last week I came across a wonderful article in the New York Times by a woman named Sohaila Abdulali, author of the Year of the Tiger. Thirty-two years ago, she was gang raped and almost killed at the age of seventeen in Mumbai. Failed by the legal system, she was accused of “immoral behaviour” for being accompanied by her male friend on her journey home rather than being brought to justice and punishing her culprits. Three years after her attack and still outraged, the fire within Sohaila motivated her to submit an intense and provoking article to an Indian magazine bravely detailing the specifics of her appalling ordeal and realization to the gruesome attitudes towards her gender.
Dismissing the old age notion of keeping quiet about rape to withhold the family honour, she describes how her rapists stated she “deserved” to be punished for acting like a whore and how the police spent less time on the finding the criminals but wasted hours on questioning her choice of attire and friends. Sohaila’s article created a woman’s movement across India for a short while and swiftly disappeared. The article recently became viral and her work toward this noble cause has not stopped as she has continues to create a platform for discussion and enforcement of a woman’s right and not a privilege to dignity and respect. The questions her thirty-two year old article emphasized back then still leer today. Why do such movements only create an uproar across the world and then disappear when misogyny and patriarchy is affecting women every single day? Does my definition of what I believe is violation differ to that of any other woman? Is every woman’s characterization of what civilized behaviour is different?
In the UK, I have used public transport throughout my adult life, which has never been segregated, into single-sex compartments; hence travelling on the local trains in India was a new experience for me. I thrived on this new adventure, all the while in wanting to blend in with locals and not stand out like a complete foreigner by keeping my dress code simple. Mumbai trains, I found, were safe and reliable in the short time I was there. During off peak times, I did not even mind sitting in the mixed carriages. The act of obvious stares from men in these compartments, however, was not just towards me. Working class women and even women with children were all targeted by at least a handful of pairs of eyes. This, to me was an act of violation, being deliberately pushed or brushed up against in a packed carriage is, in my opinion, violating. Walking across the streets and hearing lewd comments passed at every visible woman enrages me. Are all of these not contributing acts that intimidate and offend any human being?
Amongst the streams of debates and panels discussing the what, why and how change towards femininity should be implemented, Barkha Dutt’s We The People instantly grabbed my attention, particularly the debate on the influence of Indian cinema contributing to how a woman is distinguished. Famous celebrities faced a battle of words with the audience and each other on whether actresses’ bolder outfit choices and raunchier song routines were sowing seeds of vulgar thoughts in easily influenced men. Legendary film maker Raj Kapoor’s bold portrayal of a woman’s sexuality thirty years ago by exposing his lead heroine’s breasts in more than one movie and depicting the modern 70’s Indian woman in skimpy bikinis was frequently hurled between arguments of art and a woman’s empowerment versus vulgarity. In today’s steamy dance routines, the journey of a camera working it’s way up from a woman’s navel to her cleavage in an almost-there sari blouse also raised the question of humiliation versus beautification and a woman’s independent choice.
Growing up and watching my parents’ version of classic cinema, the so-called “Western influence” from what I had seen, still existed thirty to forty years ago in the form of jazz music, beehive hairstyles and flairs. Whether it was the 60’s era vamps dancing in bodysuits with their midriffs concealed yet indirectly exposed by flesh coloured material or today’s lead actresses gracing the big screen in sleek and tiny outfits emphasizing their sculpted and lean bodies, the woman’s liberated decision to celebrate and embrace her femininity remains just as it did forty years ago. Regardless of how difficult this is for any type of society to digest, every young woman in Barkha’s audience urged that the act of violence to vent disapproval is simply inexcusable.
Author Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s riveting article in the Hindustan Times rightly emphasises how the subject of sex has never been associated with the daily normal vocabulary in many Indian homes and hence remains a taboo subject. As an adolescent in Allahbad, he reveals how many sexual references were, by default, associated with violence and vulgarity. Taking a girl’s virginity would be referred to as “seal todna” (breaking the seal) and some girls were often labelled as “chinars”, prostitutes, by the self proclaimed sex gurus of his college. His exposure to literature on French feminism, initiated by his mother, created such an awakening within him, refusing to be associated as someone who participates in any form of female violation, it was a realisation that detachment of violence from sex was far from impossible.
Alas, with the birth of a bolder generation and an attempt to change the social norms of everyday life, it is the female gender that is either challenged for raising a voice or indirectly creating a skin of self-traumatisation. I was fortunate to meet and interview Dr Gopa Bharadwaj, who heads the Psychology department at the University of Delhi, and her syllabus has a heavy focus on core gender topics. Whilst she educates young girls and boys about the importance of one’s own individuality and identity, many of her students focused on the importance of ensuring they were rarely in a “single” status. It seems, that dating is the “in” thing according to many of her female students and was saddened that a lot of them conformed to this peer pressure lest their “clique” shun them.
Aside from the necessity of being “active” on the dating front, image, fashion and the latest trends unfortunately still par over self respect for many teenage and twenty-something females. Today, everyone that is anyone can own a mobile phone; this included my bai in Mumbai (maid) who refused to leave her house without both her phones, each of which had a personal ring tone that she had downloaded herself! The Internet may have revolutionised in bringing people across the world together, but it is we as consumers that have exploited this technology to determine how we mould ourselves. Comparing our lives to our peers on social networking sites by monitoring the “happening” places we should be checked into, who was tagged with who, what they were wearing, and over analysing every text message or BBM (blackberry message) from a guy is something I am sure many of us women are guilty of.
Regardless of how much we limit the uneasy discussions of sexualisation and image obsession within the family, these subjects will find us. Pictures of our favourite celebrities attached with slogans of the secret of their fabulous figures in just two days creep up on every social networking home page. Floating adverts of the latest slimming pills and fairness creams branded by the number one actors scream out at every TV channel and in every shop window. With businesses cashing in on this new found market of girls as young as twelve, make-up and questionable clothing are at the forefront of many teen sections in department stores both in the UK and India. This self-traumatisation and definition of how we should look not only denies a young girl to experience the innocence of childhood but also essentially contradicts the continuous fight for respect and equality for our gender as we continue to devote ourselves to self-torture. How often do we consider, whilst we punish ourselves in this way, any woman whose pride in their feminine physicality is crushed when they lose their crowning glory of locks or breasts after falling prey to cancer and chemotherapy treatment? Or those woman scarred by physical abuse or acid attacks from domestic violence?
Capitalizing into equality for the female gender goes beyond attire and physical appearance. Indian movies today are often criticised for over sexualising woman, yet the films that portray the characterization of the Indian woman as being inferior and ultimately expected to sacrifice her own identity are just as damaging. The everyday decisions a woman makes in a relationship, marriage, at work and self-perception impacts and influences how we are distinguished. One friend who I met whilst filming in Delhi, shared her story of how, after losing her father at a young age, married at the young age of eighteen to prove to herself she was worthy of love, after being shunned by her stepfather; the marriage never lasted.
For many women that I had met and interviewed, freedom comes with conditions. Several of these girls were allowed to complete their education, but simply to add as an attribute to their matrimonial biodata or purely for social standing, happily allowing their future husbands to decide their life path. Nonetheless, girls as young as the immensely brave fifteen-year-old Mallala Yousafzai continue to fight for education for girls in her hometown in Pakistan despite being shot in the head by extremists. Mukhtar Mai, another heroic woman, was a victim of a horrific gang rape in Pakistan, and used her compensation to build a refuge for battered women. Where there are females who are developing into iconic figures for those girls who never had a central voice, it is at times disheartening when educated and knowledgeable woman are unknowingly self-destructing their own identities.
Maybe we were never really afraid to speak out; before the existence of the Internet and social media, women’s movement and cries for socialisation change were created but soon silenced. The persistent struggle for progression is stained in the form of misogyny often resulting in a fear of voicing an opinion. Segregating views on empowerment versus vulgarity, and an acceptance or denial of a “modernised” culture fuels anger and frustration within every generation.
A married friend in Jaipur once told me, “an Indian bride is a wife, mother, daughter-in-law, cook, the image of the Divine Goddess to her children and a friend and lover to her husband.” By default, it seems, often a woman is categorised before she has created her own individuality. Strength, courage and integrity are facets of women such as Mallala, Mukhtar and Sohaila who refuse to be determined on what society believes is apt for them. Will these voices continue to create a revolution in a mindset change within not just society, but women themselves? How many more Sneha’s are still waiting to be embraced and accepted?
This time last year, I began a journey in India thinking I knew what the outcome would be. I was wrong. Unintentionally, each of my encounters – dates, friends, family or lecturers, revealed my own demons that were no different to many of those who candidly spoke of their lives. Relationships that cause more harm than good, self loathe and creating an identity that is considered acceptable in my culture as a woman are dilemmas that are not isolated to just one part of the world. Replacing struggle with progression, the true realisation of a girl’s worth is when not just society, but she herself believes that empowerment is her right and not a privilege and thus she will embrace the real essence of being the girl.
Follow Sejal @sejal_thefilm