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Loose Women & Other Urban Tales In India

Posted: April 20, 2013

My name is Anuradha Sengupta.

I am writing this to share a recent incident that brought me face to face with many issues I feel are of wider importance, and to use this as a collective sounding board for possible future action. My idea is simply to tap into the wider experiences and insights of the community of people this may reach, who are invested in creating a more just and equal environment for everyone. Since some people reading this may not know me personally, I will begin with some information on myself.

I live in Kolkata at the moment. I live with my 13 year old son and parents. My family has lived in this colony for more than 40 years. My grandfather was a senior person in Survey of India and he set up this colony along with some family and friends. He is a founding member.
I am a freelance journalist and write for several media entities. I have worked with The Telegraph in Kolkata, DNA (Daily News & Analysis) in Mumbai, and ANI (Asian News International) in Delhi. I run an award-winning indie youth media collective called Jalebi Ink.

I am also a single mom, by choice. I haven’t faced any significant negative situations about my choice/status.  Till now.

This week, a nasty run-in happened with some older boys and their parents in my colony. These boys had been harassing my son for a while. Whenever I tried to intervene to stop them from teasing, my son stopped me, saying that it would lead to more harassment. I would sometimes meet some of them on the road, and ask what’s going on. They would deny it, or say it’s all fun. But things got out of hand this week.

What I did and what followed is important, I feel, as it speaks about the reality faced by women in our cities, as well as the kind of intimidation that society allows.

I went to the house of the defacto leader of the boys group, seeking his parents’ intervention. Some of the boys were there. They shrugged it off with nonchalance. The usual followed. We weren’t there. He is lying. Nothing happened. This is all in fun, anyway. Laughter. Shoulder shrugs.
Instead of reprimanding their son, the parents started shouting at me, asking me to get out. An altercation followed with the boys, and their parents and other people who seemed to have suddenly turned up and it turned nasty. They proceeded to hurl every known cliched gendered abuse. They shoved me. I slapped the boy and his pal who had smugly admitted that he had “only touched my son’s pants”. They threatened to beat me and my son up. Some came at me with their fists balled up. But were held back by some friends.

I was alone, on the street. No one did anything. I left, shaking with anger. They returned twice. Once to ask me to get my son out and ‘discuss’ the incident. Then with their mothers and sisters in tow. I was subjected to tired cliché after cliché about women. ‘Chool chhata’, ‘pant pora’, ‘characterless’ ‘frustrated’ – you know how it goes. I stood there, thinking – Really? Are you serious? I can, at a stretch – understand the mothers thinking like this, but these young kids were attending schools that are considered among the ‘good’ schools of Kolkata. I asked them have you had your say. Now scoot. Ta ta.

They left muttering threats of a court case. I locked the door. I filed a complaint with the police the next day. Since then the cops have come, asked us questions about the incident and names of people involved. They have been very decent about the whole thing, and even told my son the bullying will stop. They may have done that due to the calls I made to my friends in the media. I was lucky to have such connections. After it was all over, I was thinking about my grandfather. About this colony where I spent my childhood and what it was like before. And what it has become.

And, most of all, I felt the need to make this experience the bedrock of action. To not just lose it in the laments of ‘what can we do’, but actually use it as a catalyst for something positive. What that can be, is what I am writing this email to try to figure out. We need to create a space where single women are not stigmatised or made to feel insecure. Since I uploaded my story on FB, I have received so many mails from women and men relating similar situations they have faced of harassment. One woman said she too is single – divorced – and has to maintain an artificial aggressive manner to keep people at bay, to stop them from messing with her. She lives in what is considered a posh Kolkata area. I know what she means. Maintaining an aggressive attitude so people do not mess with you. That can be so exhausting.

Some of the responses I have received say the fact that these incidents are cropping up ever more frequently in recent years is thanks in no small part to the ascension of a generation of working women choosing to stay single.

One friend commented on FB- a chool chhata (short haired), pant pora (pant-clad), westernised, single woman = ‘loose character’, as per Bengali middle-class morality. This is a dangerous trend that I have noticed over the years – the simmering violence within middle-class Bengalis and the growing tendency to ostracize independent single women based on warped notions of morality. It’s mob mentality in its most vicious form, the shocking part being that these are the so-called ‘educated’ bhadroloks, not uneducated people from deprived backgrounds. The external trappings of middle-class society have changed. Everyone thinks they are ‘modern’ now. But the mindset is still feudal. Add to that a growing propensity for violence, and you have a dangerous cocktail.

I have women friends who have chosen to remain single. Some are divorced and raising kids alone. Some are single women who are not getting married and choosing to have babies through IVF. These women are spreading the idea that people can choose to follow alternative paths — that they can live interesting lives. They can choose any life path. Marriage is only one choice.

Society needs to start factoring in changes. Instead of making women sign forms that identify them only through a male prism. Or screening snarky, regressive ads that show men as bread earners. (Argh. Beats me why practically all insurance ads on network television show men as the providers.)

The need to see a woman as legitimate only if she has a male appendage. Male attached? Stamp as legit and acceptable. Otherwise throw her to the wolves at every opportunity.

It’s like living in the dark ages. Everything they said to women then, they are saying now. Women have to have male figures around as “protectors” and “guardians”. The police fellow’s pen had hovered for a while over the “son of” section in his report when I said write my name. Yet it was back in the 1990s that writer Githa Hariharan took her fight for her right to be the “natural guardian” of her minor son to the Supreme Court. She had applied to the RBI for a relief bond in her son’s name. The RBI returned the application asking for the father’s signature. She won the case and slammed home the point that a mother’s signature is more than enough. I was in my 20s then and she became an icon of sorts for me. It seemed like common sense to me even then that a mother’s signature should be enough.

Yet today, when I fill in forms anywhere, I have to face the “Wife of” “Daughter of” section. Yet, I exist. Ever since my father was diagnosed with Parkinsons, my mother has taken over all documents and bank work. And yet, they still ask her to fill in who she is a wife of or daughter of.

Enough with the labels.
The words the young boys and the women used were tired clichés – used to slice and dice a woman and crop up any time anyone tries to talk about gender and perception.

They called me a “mad woman” and I heard their case has said I am ‘mentally unstable’. Because I let loose some fury at their cavalier attitude to the bullying of my 13 yr old son? If a man had fisted the boy, would they have said he is ‘mad’? Or that he is ‘frustrated’?

The other day a 50-something fellow in my apartment complex got into a fight with men from the neighbouring compound over a mango he was trying to take off a tree. The neighbours claimed that’s their tree, hence their mangoes, so back off. I mean this was a 40 minute fight. Over a mango. And this 50-something punched the young fellow in the face. No one said he was mad. All the residents slapped him on the back, including the supportive wife. You did not walk away, with your tail behind your legs, you showed them.

What is scary is the people who labelled me as ‘loose’ and ‘mad’ and ‘psycho’, and ‘chool chhata’ are the next generation – young people who go to the ‘good’ schools of Kolkata. I want to drive home to these boys and their parents that what they did was wrong on so many levels. What they did to a kid. Their strange warped perception of women. And the fact that 18 year olds think it is okay to bully a 13 year old. The fact that they invaded my space and abused me. They did not bother about an old and ailing person. The boys who labelled me as a ‘fallen woman’ were teens, some of them going to the new crop of ‘international’ schools that have mushroomed in Calcutta. They have a music band. And yet they have such regressive mindsets.

I am looking for ideas and suggestions – justified legal interventions to campaigns in the area, maybe. People out there may know of things that have worked elsewhere, smaller or larger examples, things we can tie up with or tap into. Just sharing of concrete suggestions would be very welcome.

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  1. The chauvinistic attitude that men enjoy will not disappear over night. But it is sad that the next generation of men represented by boys in their teens are being fed with the notion that they are indispensable and can get away with any kind of sickening behaviour. Society endorses such behaviour and their families forget their duty of making their sons balanced individuals. Protesting against unacceptable behaviour is the first step. Sensitising society is the next. Keep up the good work. I am with you.

  2. IT is indeed disgusting to hear women berating women instead of empathizing.That is the reason why men lord it over.Can you believe the strength we have with half the population made up of women? Even the serilas portray women as wily and wicked and plotting and planning against each other.Nothing will change till women change their attitudes towards each other and then they will bring up their sons the right way.

  3. this prejudice against short haired, pant clad women is really all over our country.

  4. My parents were born and grew up in Kolkata. I grew up outside of it, in a small sleepy town of a neighbouring state, before Mum and Dad decided to move back to their hometown.
    I was in high school when I transferred to one of those ‘posh’ schools; you have no idea how terrible it was! Most teachers, almost all students, and almost all of their parents as well – the same barbaric age mindset, the same ‘holding on to backwardness and resisting good change’ attitude! I managed to flee as soon as I finished school and my parents reluctantly moved elsewhere; but they still find it hard to believe that Kolkata, their Kolkata, their own tilottama has come to this…

  5. We are a hypocritical society! All have dirty secrets & frustrations and take them out on people who are ‘different’ or ‘vulnerable’! Most women in our society live miserable lives due to women!! we are neither completely orthodox nor completely modern – the balance is always convenient. Sadly even the system & support we have is unreliable. You are a very brave and beautiful woman & I am sure you have many who love and will support you. Even from a distance many like me wish you the best! In a country where a girl/woman is raped and/or killed every 20 mins, where even a 5 yr old is not spared & the so called ‘LEADERS’ don’t do anything about it except feel sad & bad; we are really asking for a lot! Hai na??

  6. Don’t even ask me what this post means to me! It is a great anchor to have read this, and emotional and mental anchor of sorts! Feel happy that I or a few women are not the only people in the world who want to stay single or become mothers through IVF!

  7. It is interesting that the piece asked for constructive suggestions and all the 5 comments are different variations of “what can we do, society is like that”. Perhaps there is our first clue to why things are the way they are. The way we see society as something different from us. Anyway, here are some thoughts on how to help. They are crude and not well thought out, as I don’t really have much experience in this, but just thought I could get the ball rolling.
    1. We could spilt this situation into two problems. a) bullying and b) antagonism against single women. So if we did this, we could perhaps deal with them separately.
    2. For the bullying, it might be possible to put up anti-bullying posters in the neighborhood, perhaps even in the community you are living? If this one 13 year old is being bullied, I am sure there are other young kid also being bullied but too afraid to speak up? Perhaps bringing the issue to light might be the first step in creating awareness? Posters could have phone numbers of anti-bullying hotline where the kids could call and talk anonymously to get guidance. I know there are such hotlines in the US, but don’t know if they exist in your hometown. If they don’t, then perhaps opening one with like-minded people and publicizing that might be the first step to take.
    3. Would it be useful to get the local police involved? Maybe organize a discussion/talk by the chief of police in the community, to lay down the law (if there is one). To let people know that it is not OK or acceptable behavior to bully a minor, even in fun and also to let minors know to speak up and know they have support if they do. I know there have been a lot of reports lately of the corrupt, misogynistic nature of Delhi police, but since the police seem to have taken the writer’s report seriously enough to visit her and lodge a complaint (?) perhaps this step might not be too unrealistic?

    Again I apologize for not being able to give you concrete points of actions, but hopefully others might do so soon. Good luck on your fight, wishing you the best of success. Do keep us informed of your progress!

  8. Very well written and an insight into just how regressive the attitude towards women is even today. Kudos to you for standing up to the bullies of our society and for helping empower women everywhere to do the same.

  9. Anuradha,
    I cannot express the rage, guilt, anger, frustration that this article caused inside me. As an educated woman, I know that sometimes even I have stooped to a level (with respect to denigrating a woman’s image by calling her names) which I later regretted. All this name calling is society’s way of intimidating a woman to hide their own insecurity.
    As a divorced woman , I try to find reasons and hope behind such behaviour. I dream that may be Kolkata being what I call “City Of losers” , this behaviour is expected. May be Bangalore/Pune/Mumbai are better in this aspect of respecting the privacy of a woman. But may be I am not completely correct. A woman is constantly scrutinised everywhere.

    I would request you to share this article on general forums (and not just a primarily women centric website like womensweb).We cannot hope for any change in society if men do not participate in it.

    I would also ask you not to lose hope. Even 200 years ago we had sati-pratha which was propagated by our great Indian Society in the name of tradition and yet we had Anandi Joshi and Kadambini Ganguli in the same century. Women have come a long way and they will continue to scale heights and break barriers if they stick together.


      1. I agree that ‘women crying among themselves does not help much. Publicise the blogpost in FB Twitter,Merinews etc where others including men are likely to read. 2. Try to reach principals of schools through Parent Teacher Associations to stop bullying. There are as many bullies as victims too. School has a major stake to minimise this problem.

  10. Hats off to you for writing about your experience…its sad that despite how modern we believe ourselves to be -go to a good school, live in a good locality etc as you mentioned but still look down upon women..

    Its sad that society doesnt accept a woman who wants to live life the way she wants-without causing any harm to anyone…when the woman is independent, is it a crime?

    There could be a hundred reasons why a woman stays single..it could be an alcoholic, abusive or impotent husband that lead to her walking out of the marriage..society expects you to tolerate nonsense and appreciates such women for their “tolerance, adjusting behaviour”..if a woman chooses to have a happy, peaceful life, she is termed “too modern”

    Shame on the regressive attitude of society!

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