22 March 2019 11:49 AM

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MEHRU JAFFER | 25 SEPTEMBER, 2018

The Foot On A Woman’s Throat is Not Her Own

Book review


Besharam! Adjust kar lo! And of course Chup is the kind of advice still given by society to most women even when they need help most. Their own response to various problems faced by them is hopeless as well.

Akeli hoon, darti hoon… most women quiver.

Dr. Deepa Narayan, international poverty, gender and development advisor should know, as she has collected 8000 pages of notes from interviews with hundreds of highly educated women. As she analysed the interviews, she discovered that cultural habits and ideas of morality of most women over power intellect, and all the education received by them.

In Chup, her latest book she writes about the wide gap found between the intellectual belief of women and their actual behavior. Narayan was surprised to discover how afraid, alone and helpless even smart and economically independent women feel today.

The foot on a woman’s throat is not her own. Her voice is not her own. It belongs to society. It is her mother’s voice. It is her father’s voice. It is her teacher’s voice. It is her brother’s, her sister’s, her husband’s, her friend’s, her employer’s, it is the shopkeeper’s voice.

Narayan writes this in a book that she says forced itself on her. Already a contributor or author of over a dozen books, she did not want to write another one. Then Nirbhaya happened, the gang rape of Jyoti Singh in 2012. The brutality of the rape, the public outrage, the non-stop coverage and the fact that it happened in her Delhi shocked Dr. Narayan to the core.

The trained social scientist found it impossible to be complacent after that incident. She noticed that the public debate around the rape was focused on law and order and the police. She decided to study the cultural context. What is it about a culture that can explain both raped and everyday sexism, she wondered? She became obsessed with the question.

She first talked to friends then to any woman she met. As a public speaker she addressed the same question to audiences in numerous schools and colleges before she began to compile interviews of women in slums. The conversation she had with people made her want to ask more, and to know even more. And the more she found out the more startled she got.

I could not stop. I also met women and men in their homes, in cafes, in universities, in malls in offices in airports and in parks. I met women, men and children living mostly in Delhi but also in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. I was surprised by what I heard from women who were competent, educated, gender aware and often fighting for gender rights. Often men seemed less conservative until the discussion turned to what a couple should do after the birth of children. I met young people in slums. I met Indian students and women of Indian origin in Seattle, Cambridge, Massachusetts and New York, sometimes it seemed that only their clothes had changed.

What she heard woman after woman say was disturbing. She found one smartly dressed woman after another, so unsure of herself.

She had thought that when women are educated they are valued, free and unafraid. She thought that women did speak up in this day and age about what bothers them but apparently most do not. She was sure that after women earn their own money, violence against them would stop. But has it? When laws change and women have rights to property and maintenance after a divorce it was hoped that women would be independent at last, and safe? The problem is that women are still not safe.

Narayan found out lots more. She focused on trying to make sense of women’s complex lives. She got together a team to interview women between the age of 17 years and 35 years. She developed a guide and her team of six women from the middle and upper classes living in different parts of Delhi carried out interviews in different geographic areas based on a simple sampling plan to talk to women who fit certain income and age demographic criteria. Soon she had collected at least 600 interviews with women, men and children in Delhi and in other metros.

And she was astonished to find how every day culture over powered the daily life of most women. This so as cultural indoctrination starts with childhood and prepares women to be deleted, and then enrolls women to delete themselves from affairs of life as well as other women, all without conscious awareness. This cultural indoctrination, the social scientist concludes is all pervasive.

Armed with this information Narayan sat down to write Chup to shatter the silence over India’s women.

Navjeet, 33, has a MBA and is a successful photographer. He is a warm, kind man and very concerned about gender inequality…he praises his father as the only one who can engage in conversation, logic and debates about anything.

Navjeet praises his mother as the shock absorber in his family, the social glue. As a shock absorber his mother by definition could not engage in debate. Shock absorbers by mandate and function don’t initiate interrupt or disrupt. They absorb the jolts. They don’t create the jolts. It is then no surprise that women don’t do well in conversations, meetings or heated arguments, whether at work or at home. They remain silent. They absorb the tension.

This book on our cultural system is not just for women. It is as much for men as it is for women as the same cultural system that creates women also creates men. The author wants all of us to become cultural detectives, to share our dilemmas with other cultural creatures rather than hide alone or pretend not to see.

Her dream is for society to collectively reach out towards acquiring emotional literacy. We can be more creative collectively and once there is a shift in the unequal cultural world that resides inside most of us, our outside world will also change, is the dream.

Chup by Dr. Deepa Narayan is published by Juggernaut, 2018.

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