Is every Indian woman a refugee?
This question may sound shocking to that elite group of women who are content in their French chiffons or ensconced in their corporate cabins that bring them six and seven figure salaries busy with their accountants to save on income tax. Or, to women like yours truly cushioned in front of a computer to pen rebellious articles on patriarchy or joining our voices to #MeToo.
But basically, we Indian women are all refugees because we are forever living in a state of flux, flitting and floating from one place to another, from one city to the next, from one job to another, from one family relationship to another and so on. This refugee identity is structurally built into our birth and then, socially and politically multiplied several times over till death liberates us, hopefully.
So, we are refugees even before we are born because our parents would have preferred us to be born male. In this unkind world, we are discriminated much before we understand what the word ‘discrimination’ means. By the time we understand, it, it is too late.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines the refugee as “a person who has escaped from his/her own country for political, religious or economic reasons or because of war.” Neither of these definitions fit strictly into the life of an Indian girl or woman.
An Indian girl does not need to “escape” from her own “country” for “political, religious or economic reasons” or because of a “war.” Because the parameters and the qualifying features are not the same. “Forced displacement” or “forced migration” perhaps would suit the situation better.
Even if one were to take the dictionary definitions of the term ‘refugee’ and apply it to women across the world, it would be different but equally alarming. Women and children make up to 80% of the refugees or internally displaced persons. Women fall prey to sexual violence, torture, rape, forced prostitution, sexual slavery, and forced conscription in war. Women lose fathers, husbands, sons, property, and employment in war.
Living life is itself a war zone for all women in general and Indian women in particular. We do not ‘escape’ our parents or the homes we were born in. But we are forced to leave our homes when we marry only because we happen to be born female.
If the home is a ‘country’ which it is for girls and young women, we migrate to a different ‘country’ we know nothing about. When an Indian woman gets married, she is the worst victim of forced migration because everything in her life must change beginning with her name, her social status, her economic base, her identity and at times, even the way in which she dresses, walks, talks and behaves!
But the most violative of all is that she has to change the geographical base of her life forever. This practice is internalized by the family, society, caste, community, religion and even by herself so deeply that it does even occur to anyone to think that this is a gross violation of her human rights.
This world humiliates and assaults us by censoring and attacking our mind, body, life, language, speech, work, dress, relationships, perspective and ideology. The war begins before I am born – as soon as I take shape in my mother’s womb. My mother goes in for an amniocentesis test to find out what sex me, as a foetus, belong to.
If I am female, the family forces her to abort me. Two ‘women’ across two generations are locked in a war situation – the one conceived fights a war to be born, the mother fights a war with her body to stop me from being born. My mother’s womb is a war-zone for me. Her own body is a war zone for her .If they are forced to skirt an abortion, they will still kill me, by giving me the extract of the poisonous dhatura flower – a common practice in Tamil Nadu despite laws banning it. There are other practices in other regions of the country with different names but with the same purpose – elimination.
I am a refugee in a public place. When I step out of the house after sunset, I might be stalked, molested, groped, teased, assaulted, raped, kidnapped, and murdered.
If I work at an office, my vertical rise in my career might demand a compromise with my boss on sexual favours. If I do not compromise, I might be sexually harassed or thrown out of my job. If I rise without compromise, no one will believe I did.
The society is a war-zone for me that constantly forces me to seek refuge in solidarity through candle-light marches when another refugee like me dies, or, by resorting to the legal and judicial machinery without realising that it is as patriarchal as the rest of the world I belong to and am seeking escape from.
I might get married in the belief that my husband will liberate me from my ‘refugee’ status, or seek consolation by joining the growing numbers of a hashtag MeToo campaign. But nothing works. The late Shakuntala Devi, the mathematician with her gift for numbers, had to fight for many years just to establish that a woman had the right to give her mother’s name in her ration card application and no one can force her to put her father’s name there!
.When my parents get me married to the man of their choice, my consent a mere formality, I must fight the losing war against the dowry they are forced to give because the man has generously consented to marry me! My husband will rape me every night, because he has the State’s legal sanction. He believes he has the right to slap, batter, abuse me, till I fight him back, tooth for tooth, or divorce him only to step into the unknown war-zone that stalks the life of a divorced woman across the world.
A single woman, a deserted woman, a ditched woman, a married woman, a divorced woman or a widow are all refugees constantly searching for some kind of permanent shelter in life.
I am a refugee of my own body. My body is my enemy. I menstruate every month and that is war with my body. My body is subject to every kind of humiliation, indignity and assault known to human history. My parents who rationalize every wrong they do to my being a girl are my enemy. I live in the constant fear of hidden wars against male relatives trying to exploit me.
As victim of child abuse, I grow up with a thwarted mind and my mind turns into an enemy. I must mother children even if I am not prepared for motherhood and I can hardly decide how many in how many years or ask ‘why’.
I live as a refugee everywhere because the society, state and law do not offer me a home to live in. My father’s family is my ‘paternal home’ says the law, while my husband’s home is my ‘matrimonial home.’
My husband bequeaths this home to our sons who will throw me out when and if my husband dies before I do. There are few homes for deserted and abandoned women. And they are filled with rapists, pimps, traffickers and molesters disguised as social workers.
As a widow, I might be forced to go on a lifelong pilgrimage to Vrindavan or Varanasi to die unheard of, unwept and unsung. Most of the 33 million widows in India live a life of pity, isolation and penury.
War’s Dirty Secrets: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes Against Women, edited by Anne Llewellyn Barstow, opened up a horror story of systematic, sanctioned rape and prostitution among women of Korea, Japan and other countries of the Far East during World War II who were drawn from mainstream families into the war scene to function as ‘comfort women.’
The physical and psychological trauma of the repeated rapes (up to 30 and 40 a day for some women) and poor conditions (living in three-by-five foot cubicles and receiving monthly chemical injections meant to reduce cases of sexually transmitted diseases among soldiers), estimates that only about one-fourth of the estimated 200,000 women brought into this system survived the war. While the vast majority of these women (around 85 percent) were Korean, women from other colonized Asian nations and some Dutch women were forced into “imperial service” in the comfort stations.
I do not have to wait for a war to break out because I am constantly at war and have learnt that this war will never allow me to be free of my ‘refugee’ status. Is it because I, as a woman, am naturally peace-loving as I give birth, nurture and care for children – soldiers of posterity?
Or, is it because the nuclear state of mind that war demands, calling for a suspension of disbelief, is alien to me?
Or, do I fail to be excited by media narratives of war, spilling over with macho stories of male conquests, defining a superiority I know is a media-creation? War affects individual women, their family, extended family, group, community, village and wider society. I cannot bear to see pictures of malnourished children, of a desperate people whose idea of sanctuary is the hell-hole of a refugee camp. I cannot tolerate video clips showing entire villages cut off by winter. I am neither coy nor a hypocrite. My reactions are natural, because these images are reflections of my life as a woman – in war, or in peace.