The critical issue

Not allowed!

Urvashi Butalia

  • Born un-free: The powers that be, the gurus and goons are full of counsel for women. Photo: Mohd Arif
    Born un-free: The powers that be, the gurus and goons are full of counsel for women. Photo: Mohd Arif
  • Urvashi Butalia
The ever-growing list of all that a woman can’t do

In early 20th century, a number of books were published, mostly written by men, which prescribed different forms of behaviour for women. Some did so directly, in the form of prescriptions laid down for women. Others wrote pretend stories about different female characters, one obviously better, the others not so, and it was clear to the reader which form of behaviour was preferable. Sold cheaply or conveyed into homes for free, these books had a powerful impact on women — and indeed on their men for whom the ‘well-behaved’ woman was an asset. We don’t, fortunately, have many such books these days — although I have no doubt that it will only be a short while before some savvy publisher discovers this gap in the market and rushes to plug it. But we do have our own forms of prescribed behaviour for women today and the list is only getting longer as more and more ‘wisdom’ prevails among those who make the rules. Here are some of the most telling examples: Women of two or three particular groups must not wear helmets when they ride pillion on scooters as this is against their religion(presumably it is all right to wear them when they are actually the principal riders on scooters and motorbikes, as religion somehow adjusts to that). Nor must Sikh women, for example, go into gurudwaras if they dye their hair, as the powers that be have prescribed that that is not right. It doesn’t matter that men use fixo on their beards, or those who dye their beards and hair with henna or indeed chemical dyes, are not barred from going in. The gods and gurus look upon them with much kindness. So also, women must not marry men who are their neighbours or clansmen. Clans can be defined narrowly, as being from the same gotra, or they can be defined broadly, as being from the same and related gotras, living where the same or related gotras would live, or sometimes living further afield. Equally, women must not allow themselves to be seduced, particularly during garba and dandiya dances, by men of the other religion whose only aim in life is to wage a war against them, using love as their weapon, and eventually to convert them. The gods are against that too, as are some politicians and a large number of the lumpen mob who take to the streets in their attempt to impose correct behaviour on women. While they’re at it, they also prescribe what women should wear, where they should walk, and at what time. Neither should women file cases of sexual harassment against their employers or against judges or lawyers. This could result in women losing their jobs, or, more seriously, in women being responsible for other women losing their jobs, because why would employers want to hire women if all they do is accuse every other man of sexual harassment when what they really want is for the man to pursue them as in Bollywood. If you’ve had the misfortune to have been the victim of a rape or sexual assault and if you have had the courage to speak out about it and let your identity be known, you should never ever go to a bar and have a drink as the powers that be will not allow you entry, because what do you know, they know who should be allowed in and who not, and you could end up being a bad influence. More so, if you are a student and you have a sexual harassment complaint against a fellow student, you must never ever decide to go on dharna or demand State action — especially if the State happens to be West Bengal — for you are without doubt stooges of the erstwhile government and just for that reason you have no right to protest about the things that were freely allowed by that government. If you do refuse to pay heed to this simple wisdom, you could end up in hospital, after being at the receiving end of police action. There was a time when the law on rape was such that as a woman, you had the choice whether or not to report sexual assault or rape if you had been at its receiving end. But now, if you are a woman in this position, you cannot not report it, the law says you must and then you must subject yourself to a medical examination for which your consent is immaterial. You’re a woman, you’re not really qualified to say yes or no to someone examining your body, it’s got to be done. This is by no means an exhaustive list, indeed, it’s only illustrative. The opposite question, however, is not so extensive and is more easily answered. Here it is: what can you do as a woman? The answer is, simply, not much. (Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan). [email protected]