As Indian Women We Mustn’t Stay ‘Chup’ About Our Open Secret: Internalised Sexism #BookReview

Deepa Narayan's extraordinary book Chup should be the springboard for Indian women to introspect and break the silence around gender inequality.

Deepa Narayan’s extraordinary book Chup should be the springboard for Indian women to introspect and break the silence around gender inequality.

I began reading Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women, prepared to argue against it. The very premise of the book –that even educated, modern women in India are subscribers to the sexist biases of earlier generations, was unbelievable.

However, the author, Deepa Narayan, observes that as she spoke to urban Indian women in many different settings, in India and abroad, a disturbing pattern emerged. To put it in her own words, “yet another smartly dressed woman, an artist, a business manager, a financial analyst, a professor, a dentist, an engineer, a lawyer, a researcher, a scientist, a teacher, an educated stay-at-home mom, was so unsure of herself. Or that she sounded, after the obligatory gender equality claims and sometimes passionate lecture, like her mother would have sounded thirty or forty years ago.”

Following this, the author made modifications to her research methodology and ended up with 8000 pages of notes from interviews with highly educated women in the cities, and discovered that there was still a huge gap between intellectual beliefs and actual behavior.

From this the author builds her central arguments—that gender equality is not born from the intellect, but from ingrained culture; that this culture, which currently favours inequality, and explains both sexual violence and everyday sexism, can be changed; and that this change is not possible without the active participation of men, and so the focus should not be on blaming “patriarchy” but on finding ways to educate men and to include them in finding solutions.

Our culture, according to the author, trains women to not exist either by literally killing them (foeticides, female infanticides, violence) or by training them to “disappear” via seven habits, making us “feminists with bad habits.”

The seven habits are: Deny your body, Be Quiet, Please Others, Deny Sexuality, Isolate yourself, Have no individual identity and Be Dependent.

Published by Juggernaut, the book has a total of eight chapters. Excluding the introductory and concluding chapters, each of the other chapters deals with these bad habits. In each chapter, the author discusses, using actual quotes, examples, and anecdotes from the lives of the women she interviewed, how the habit is developed, its consequences and finally offers reflections and suggestions for how these habits can be broken.

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In the concluding chapter, the author offers her suggestions for how this culture can be transformed. These are not a list of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ but are general guidelines for action. I especially appreciate the author’s metaphor of gender bias as “dirt” which must be cleaned every day. She makes interesting observations in this chapter about co-opting men as integral to the fight against the cultural systems, about facilitating collective action and ensuring solidarity, and the importance of redefining “power,” before concluding on a hopeful note by asserting that change is possible.

It was a difficult book to read as it challenged so many things I had taken for granted. But now, having read it completely, I feel a sense of relief –a much needed deep breath. This book solidifies and lays out specific changes for cultural modification in a structured manner.

While it is research based, the writing is not buried under layers of jargon and the prose is simple, straightforward and honest. The observations and arguments are interspersed with quotes and stories of real women, making sure that the reading experience isn’t dry and boring. It makes it relatable.

With a length of 300 plus pages including acknowledgements and detailed references, the book is a power packed capsule that contains a surprising amount of condensed wisdom!

This is a book that must be read by both men and women and especially the younger generation. I would sincerely urge parents to discuss and debate this book on the dinner table with their teenage children. While I still do not agree with everything the book has to say (for example, the author’s assertion that intersectionality is an obstacle to collective action) I do agree that it is impactful and starts conversations that we must have.

As I said in the beginning of this review, I found the premise of this book outrageous. “I am not sexist,” I thought. In one chapter, the author mentions that she took the Implicit Gender Bias test available online, and was shocked to realize that she was indeed biased. I decided to take the test myself, and the results revealed that like 19% of other online test takers, I too have a “slight automatic association for Male with Career and Female with Family.” I can only heave a sigh of relief that it is not a strong association. The effect of cultural conditioning on my subconscious is undeniable.

I also felt that the statement, “women are trained not to exist,” is a little extreme. However as the author unpacks that statement and lays out her arguments, the little and big cultural biases that are so much a part of daily life that we take them for granted, become recognizable. Many events over the past month, such as a minister’s comment about girls drinking, or a jibe at a lady minister for laughing, and some unwanted advice about saris, etc. are proof that society attempts to control women at each and every step.

The latest proof came just as I was finishing reading the book. Aayushi Jagad, a female comic, had pointed out bias in the work of the prominent comic group AIB. All Aayushi asked for was for the existence of women to be acknowledged. Where AIB accepted the criticism gracefully, some random men took offence and attacked Aayushi. This to me was a perfect example of society telling women to not exist.

I understood without a doubt then what the author is trying to say. Women are taught not to exist—by stifling their voice and identity. It is a metaphorical non-existence that limits them to roles and responsibilities (daughter, sister. mother, wife) and murders their individuality.

Ultimately, Chup is a voice that battles this push towards non-existence. It has stood up and shouted out—“I’m here! I exist! I deserve to be here!” Now, it is up to us to acknowledge the message and take it forward. Reading the book is a good start.

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If you’d like to pick up Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women by Deepa Narayan, use our affiliate links: at Flipkart, and at Amazon India.

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Top image via and book cover via Amazon

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