Loose Women & Other Urban Tales In India

Single women in India are still vulnerable to character assassination as "loose women" if they stand up for their rights.

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.

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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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