Give her her space. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar
Give her her space. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

It’s good you took to the streets to protest not for yourself; still there is so much more you can do, says Tabish Khair.

It is good that you protested against a homicidal rape. I will not call it a “brutal rape”, because that would imply some rapes are not brutal. All rapes are equally brutal. It is not often that you have stopped to think of so many other rapes that take place in India (and in other countries too), but it is good you stopped to think this time. And you protested with real conviction. Let me reiterate it once more: It is good you protested for a change.

But protesting against this homicidal rape was easy. Now, before you, lie a number of acts which will prove far more difficult. For instance, you will have to learn to decline when your mother serves you food before she serves your sisters. Actually, to be honest, you will have to anticipate your mother and serve food yourself. You will need to help, equally, with the cooking, cleaning, washing up. What about the laundry? You probably have an ayah or a part-time servant, but still, you might have noticed that your mother and sisters do a lot of the domestic chores too. I won’t be so radical as to ask you to help the over-worked ayah — though that is something to consider too — but surely you need not watch TV or go off to the cricket club when your mother is putting away the dishes or stacking the clothing.

You will need to work very hard on it — not as a favour but as a habit. And believe me, such habits are not easy to cultivate when you have been brought up with decent Indian middle-class values.

But why should I target Indian values in particular? I have seen young men in places like England, Italy, France and even Denmark expecting their mothers — though less often their sisters — to take care of domestic chores. Do not, because you have grown up reading most books in English, assume that patriarchy is a problem only for India.

I recall seeing on Facebook, in the days when you were out on the streets protesting against the homicidal rape in Delhi, that you disliked the suggestion by a famous Indian writer that your passionate protests were motivated by class bias. I will not enter this complex matter here. It is sad that you have been deaf to so many rapes in remote, overlooked corners of our country, but that does not mean you do not deserve full credit for protesting this time. It is good you protested this time, at least.

But let not your protest be confined to middle class affinities. It is not true, as some of you wrote on Facebook, that the famous writer was wrong because it is middle-class women who smoke, drink and are accused of wearing sexy clothes anyway. No, middle-class women are strongly controlled by the forces of propriety in India. Some might react to this and smoke or drink, but this is very rare even in the big cities of India outside cosmopolitan circles.

Actually, it is working-class women in India who have traditionally smoked — and openly imbibed fermented drinks. You do not see them. They usually belong to the aboriginal tribes and the “scheduled castes”, and many of them have been “cured” out of such habits by missionary as well as middle-class propriety in the last few decades. But if you really look, you will still find some of them smoking bidison your streets.

You see you have fallen into the same trap as your opponents. There are frightened men (and women) who want to control women and inhibit their spaces in the name of protecting them. They say that Indian women do not smoke or drink. They are wrong: millions of Indian women have been smoking and drinking for centuries, and lakhs still do. As for “sexy clothes”, well, “sexy” is a strange word in a country where millions of women do not have enough clothes to wear. The fact is that Indian women, like Indian men, have traditionally worn a more varied assortment of clothes than the men and women of any other country!

You see, for centuries these “working” women have also been raped — by people like you, by people like me — for partly that reason. They were raped because their different lifestyles were considered a moral and social defect, which somehow “called for” such a brutal form of exploitation. They were raped because they were not given the right to say “no”.

So, yes, stand up for equal space for all women; their right to say no or yes; their right to wear saris or shorts. Do not stop your sister from going out in the evenings, if you yourself would go out in the evenings. Do not use fear as a weapon to control her. This takes effort too. Because finally, “rape” is a weapon that is brandished over the heads of all women who simply wish to have the space to live as fully as men do. Do not use it as an argument to curtail the lives of the women around you.

It was good to see you protest for women, and not just for yourself. But let it not end here. Look around you. Look into your families and do what you can there. Look into your neighbourhoods, and do what you can there. And forgive me if this sounds preachy, but I am talking from experience. It took me time to learn to iron my own clothes, wash my own dishes, and to cook for my family. It takes effort even today. I was not born with such habits. But I make an effort because I know that it is an example I can hand on to my son and, indirectly, my daughters.

Rape is the monstrous face of ordinary domestic injustices. Do not fall into the easy trap of blaming politicians for a flaw that exists in almost every home.