Durga Does Not Cry?
The World Before Her
What could I possibly have in common with a Hindu extremist or a beauty pageant contestant? I would be hard pressed to name two categories of Indian women less like me than these two. As I started watching Nisha Pahuja's documentary The World Before Her, it was all I could do to fight the disgust that welled up inside me at the sight of these two women. But by the end of the movie, I realized that their stories were the stories of every Indian woman. Their story was my story.
Prachi Trivedi, a 24-year old instructor at the Durga Vahini camp, says, "I'll speak that I am a Hindu, and I'll proudly say that I am a Hindu... We are trying to save ourselves. That is the only thing I want, nothing else." Durga Vahini is the women's wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a militant Hindu extremist organization closely affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Prachi's statement at first makes her appear like a brainwashed follower of an extremist militant doctrine, but as the movie progresses we get a better understanding of the fierce independence that drives her passion.
Ruhi Singh, a 19-year old contestant from Jaipur in the Miss India beauty pageant says, "We have to change our mentality. As much as I love and I respect my culture, I think of myself as a very modern young girl. And I want freedom." Nothing I can dispute, on the face of it. But deep inside, I'm still wondering how self-delusional she must be if she thinks that a beauty pageant will give her freedom. Freedom to do what? Freedom to become a sex symbol for sex-starved Indian romeos? Freedom to swap archaic patriarchal Indian women's clothing with equally denigrating Western symbols of sexual objectification? Almost as though reading my mind, the scene switches to Ankita, another pageant contestant, who says, "Miss India would give me the identity that I deserve to have. My own identity... You earn for yourself, you live up for yourself, you gain respect."
Both Prachi and Ruhi are from (relatively) small towns in India. What ambitions do small town girls have? What resources are available to them? What can they grow up to be? What role models do they have? These questions are very relevant now as we head into the New Delhi elections, where BJP candidate Kiran Bedi will be facing off against her biggest opponent, Arvind Kejriwal from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In 1972, Kiran Bedi was the first woman in the Indian Police Service (IPS). She earned medals and commendations over the course of her career. Bedi was a small town girl herself, born and raised in Amritsar. As she has joined Modi's party and is campaigning heavily with the same development-focused agenda that made Modi the Prime Minister a few months back, Bedi has become BJP's symbol for their women's development agenda. What is BJP's, and its closely affiliated Sangh parivar's, agenda for women, that Bedi is endorsing by her sheer presence in BJP?
The Durga Vahini camp provides an answer: "your transformation into tigers begins here... those who can defend themselves can defend the nation." As she addresses a class of young women, Malaben Rawal, national president of Durga Vahini says, "Where has the self-respect of Indian women gone? We don't know who we are any more. Remember, if there is a supreme religion in this world, it is the Hindu religion." The Durga Vahini camp is for women between 15 and 25, "because by the time they are 25, they'll become so strong-willed, you won't be able to tame them." Women are taught that they should be married by the age of 18, that they should not be educated or aspire for a career because those are Western values and as such, unnecessary for Indian women. Women are taught that equality of the sexes is meaningless because they could never hide their natural weakness as women. Prachi's father, himself an instructor at the camp, teaches the women that Muslims are rakshasas (Hindu demons) because of their beards and black hats, that Christian missionaries are like Putana, the female demon who tried to feed Lord Krishna poisoned breast milk, and that Gandhi's non-violence philosophy was no more than a castration of Hindu men. Clearly, BJP's development agenda for women does not involve moving forward but moving backwards, to regressive traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation "for 5000 years".
"Durga roti nahin hai" (Durga does not cry). Nari Shakti (women's empowerment) is a term that is used often at the Durga Vahini camp. Nari Shakti was also made the theme of India's 66th Republic Day parade on January 26, 2015. For the first time since our Independence, women serving in Indian Armed Forces were the focus of the parade. This was done both for publicity reasons (as US President Barack Obama was the chief guest of the celebrations) and to give the public the illusion of pride in the achievements of women. But what does women's empowerment really mean to the BJP? Like Kiran Bedi herself, the brave women who chose careers in and are striving for equality in the greatly male dominated world of national defense are just a public facade for something much more dangerous happening behind the scenes. At the Durga Vahini camp, empowering women simply means to teach them how to use rifles and daggers to kill anyone who goes against their brainwashed interpretation of their religion. Women are not empowered to control their own destiny. They are in fact empowered to use violence against other women who wear jeans and go to bars. Prachi herself admits that she is willing and able to kill at a moment's notice "because that is not hinsa (murder), that is self-defense, what we are doing."
One powerful scene in the movie is the one in which we learn about the conflicts between Prachi and her father. Prachi does not want to get married. She does not see herself fitting in with either girls or boys. She does not believe her destiny will require her to produce children. Her ambition, in fact, is to be the next Sadhvi Pragya Singh, a militant Hindu extremist implicated in the 2008 Malegaon bombings that killed 8 people and injured 80. The movie shows one of Pragya Singh's public speeches in which she says, "Without violence, it is impossible to move forward." Greatly influenced by her role model, Prachi readily admits, "I hate Gandhi". Her father concurs, "Nothing would make me more proud than my daughter giving up her life for Mother India." But he hastens to add, "Prachi will be getting married.. Definitely.. The obligation of girls is something that God designed.. Only after she bears children can you call a woman a woman." Why does a woman as fiercely independent as Prachi put up with any of her father's rules? Surely, with her self-confidence and her ability to protect and support herself, she could walk out of the house and live independently any time she wants? As she herself says, "This is the age, if I decide it now, if I'm stubborn now, nobody can stop me."
The answer to this question took me completely by surprise. Prachi's father beats her regularly, in order to improve her character, because "she is our product and our product has to be perfect in every sense." He beats her even more when she cries because "I don't want to see tears in Prachi's eyes. I want to see flames." Strong as she is, Prachi submits to her father because "he has the right. He has given me birth. Knowing that I'm a girl child, he let me live. This thing when it comes in my mind, I feel like crying many times. He let me live. That is the best part." And in that one instant, I realized that Prachi's story, strange as it is, is every Indian woman's story. Feminism is a battle that must be fought at home. Our adversaries are not ancient barbarian invaders who believe in a different religion, but the very people whom we love the most, our parents, our siblings, our husbands and our children. These are the people who imprison us within our own minds. Willing slaves never want to be free. Prachi thinks that she owes her right to live to her father. Her gratitude for his generosity in not killing her at birth makes her willing to submit to his every caprice. She doesn't see that her rights are her own, and not her father's to grant to her. She owes him nothing. But he still owes her her freedom. Freedom to live, freedom to be educated, freedom to have a career and earn her own living. Freedom to choose whether and whom to marry, whether and when to have children.
Turns out Pooja Chopra's story is remarkably similar to Prachi's. Pooja, Miss India 2009, is her mother's second daughter. Pooja's father wanted to kill her at birth because he wanted a son. He and his parents pressured Pooja's mother to abandon her daughter. She refused and walked out on him, determined that her second daughter would make her proud. To make this happen, Pooja turned to the beauty industry. As the chief organizer of the Miss India pageant says, "now it's become like a little factory. I mean it's a manufacturing unit. Where you go inside and you're polished like a diamond, to the best that you can be polished to. That's it. The model Indian woman." Pooja may have chosen a beauty factory, while Prachi chose a Hindu militant factory, but they are both aiming to be model Indian women. Is either one of them really free? Did either one get an identity? Did either have a real choice? Are Durga Vahini's saffron sashes really any different from Miss India's white sashes? Is the Indian Taliban, as the VHP is also called, any different from "The Escape from the Taliban", a round in which pageant contestants walk down a runway covered in white burkhas so that they can be judged impartially on their "beautiful hot legs"?
This is not the first time in Indian history that we have been forced to grapple with extreme differences in our growing culture. Ever since the decline of the Indus Valley civilization 3500 years back, the Indian subcontinent has been a melting pot of widely divergent cultures. Hinduism itself is a loose amalgamation of disparate, often contradictory, beliefs and practices. Roughly 2000 years back, Hinduism went through perhaps the most turbulent time in its evolution. This is a period that many historians refer to as India's Dark Age, because of the absence of a centrally and well-governed empire. It is also known as the Age of Invasions, when barbarians invaded India, particularly from the north. The cultural diversity that this period witnessed was at once terrifying and creative. It gave birth to scriptures as widely different as the Manusmriti, in which a woman is treated as the property of the patriarchs in her family, and the Kamasutra, in which a woman is primarily an object for sexual gratification.
We are seeing the same conflict today, between the radical Hindu militancy of the Sangh parivar, and the consequences of India becoming a remunerative market for Western capital. But their similarities are more terrifying than their differences. The one thing that every person interviewed in this documentary agreed on was this - that an Indian woman's life and ambitions effectively end the day she gets married. From that point on, she loses the right to live for herself. That, to me, is the crux of the problem. An Indian woman is entitled to her identity and her freedom even after marriage. It must be made a real and unfettered choice for her. Every Indian woman has the right to make all her dreams come true, whether or not she gets married. This is her right. We owe it to her, and we have failed to deliver it to her. No development agenda of any political party can be complete if it denies the ambitions of half of the country's adult population.
As one of the Durga Vahini students says, "I want to become an aeronautical engineer. I don't want to get married, but in our society, my parents say that one has to get married. And whatever they say, I'll do. I don't want to depend on a husband. I want to create my own identity in this world. I don't want to be known by his name. He should be known because of me. By achieving my dreams. By becoming very successful. I will never get married to such a man (who will not allow me to do this)." Do we have the courage to make her dreams come true?