It’s been a month since I’ve started working in the rural areas of Bihar and my new buddies here are very eager to set me up on a date with their friends. “Dishooja Ji, meri ek dost hai. Baayis saal ki ho gayi hai, aur shadi ki umr bhi hai. Dilli ke bank mein naukri karti hai. Khoob angrezi bhi bolti hai. Woh aapse milna chaahti hai, chaahiye to milaa loon?”. This came like a breath of fresh air after a long and dry spell after Induction Training. Now, the chances of being coerced into a marriage were pretty low, and I had pretty much nothing to lose, but only experiences to gain. But, Rule #1 of trying to impress a woman is to not show that you are interested in her (Feynman R., Ch. “You Just Ask Them?”, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!). I said “Dekhte hai”, to show my indifference.
A few days later, I was travelling as a pillion rider on a bike. I saw a couple sitting along the banks of an irrigation canal. It was a dark afternoon, when the sky was grey, the wind was blowing across the paddy fields causing a flutter of the grass, and with a dash of delicate thunder – it was about to pour. The couple sat there, unperturbed, talking to each other, dreaming about their future, spending time with the person who probably meant the entire world to them. They did not care if it rained meteors or got struck by lightning, as long as they were going through the ordeal together. My bike stopped, the couple saw us and the woman fled the scene instantly. I could see the fear gripping the man as my rider called him closer. There were a few questions asked, his collar was grabbed, and he was about to be punched in the face. The man begged for mercy. He was warned to stay away from the woman, ‘mind his business’ and never be seen around her again.
We took off, and sparing me the obvious, my rider started deconstructing the scene for me. The man was from another caste, and unemployed – he said. He further went on to say how their union is bad for the society, disastrous to the woman, that the guy was luring her with money, had ulterior motives etc. His face beamed with pride when he explained how merciful he was; he neither beat up the guy nor forced them into marriage, as it is done for couples if seen for PDA. He was proud of doing the job of a ‘brother’, by saving a ‘sister’ from danger. I mentally switched roles with the man and could imagine my fate if anyone saw me with that lady. I told my buddy to call off all his plans, and kept thinking about what would have happened if that couple was switched with I and my date. Would I have chosen the thrashing, or chosen to be married off?
The festival of Rakshabandhan also fitted snuggly in this sequence of events. This year, I was in the land where this festival is extremely popular and is considered the ‘most sacred festival’ of them all. In a nutshell, during this festival – a brother becomes the ‘protector’ of the sister against all evils to her on tying of the rakhi by her; he gifts her a present and she feeds him something sweet. Although, people do give their own personal touches to this festival, this is the core highlight of this festival.
On pondering about the events, the culture where ‘brothers’ beat up boyfriends as they are being ‘protective’ made an immediate connection. It makes for a society where the men become the protector of women. It reinforces the idea that a woman is weak and a man is required to protect her. I feel, this is where the fathers feel that they can get the daughters married against their wish, because only daddies know best. The idea where a man can decide what a woman can and cannot do is being systematically imposed on the women, as it is ‘for their own good’. For me, the festival was promoting the idea that women cannot protect themselves, as if they are mentally and physically incapable of doing so.
This festival is celebrated across the country, beyond boundaries of religion in India. From the Indian epics, Sita is revered for her chastity, that too after the trial by fire – like it’s the only virtue required of a wife. Contrast this with Lord Krishna’s behaviour with women. It is deceptively called ‘cute’ for creepy; ‘naughty’ for predatory, and accepted for ‘boys will be boys’. The virtues and vice of women are made celestially white or diabolically black by the two most famous women of the Bible – The two Marys – a virgin and a whore. The Islamic texts are filled with instances of treating women as second rated human beings who are unable to think. From my pattern recognition abilities, the gender discriminatory rules, all the weirdness shown towards menstrual cycles, regulations for a woman to oblige a man for sex etc., indicate that these ‘divine’ texts are works of man (masculine). It is sprinkled with lavish amounts of rules and anecdotes which are used to systematically subjugate women, shown to women saying it was delivered divinely; asked to abide by them, failing to which they will go to hell. One such deceptive anecdote is when Draupadi is given a ‘boon’ to be a virgin when being married to a Pandava, each year for five years. Being a virgin again is portrayed as a boon to the woman, and taught to be a virtue. Why on earth would being a virgin before sex with every new man be a boon to a woman?
The discriminatory societal rules that still exist, be it in the village of Bihar where I work, in the Middle East or the remote deserts of Somalia – the common element is that, they are still prevalent because they are still accepted as the divine word. These books are being the basis of morals and ethics in our societies. Our traditions and festivals also are derived from them, and we fail to see them for what they really are. Our ‘culture’ dictates us to beat up couples for being in love, for alienating women for not being virgins etc. In the rural areas, the degree of religiosity is very high and where status quo is accepted as ‘fate’, the room to cry, wail, whimper and whine for liberty and freedom is only slowly setting in. These medieval texts are now obsolete. We now need to let science, love and compassion to guide us in our interaction with other human beings in our societies.
Those will be the days when I will be able to roam the fields of my village, with that lady without the fear of being beaten up.
*Alston started writing this piece on the day of Rakshabandhan, when he was woken up really early by the loud speakers of the temples. The thoughts and connections he has made took more than a week to establish and sublimate into this form.