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In a society where women are routinely shamed for their choices and also for things beyond their control, Priya-Alika Elias’ book Besharam is required reading.
Says Priya, “I think shame is one of the most powerful tools we deploy against young women in Indian society. We routinely shame and bully unconventional women into shutting up and making conventional choices. If a woman is being bold, or provocative, or stating her desire – any of these things might lead you to be called besharam.”
These strong views prompted Priya-Alika Elias, a lawyer and a writer, to consolidate her essays into a book titled ‘Besharam’. Her work has previously appeared in American blogs and magazines such as McSweeneys, Gawker, and The New Republic. Priya’s book ‘Besharam’ is about young Indian women and how to be one, written from her personal experience in several countries.
Priya has always faced a tremendous amount of trolling and cruelty from men online. “Just the other day, in fact, I got an email calling me ugly and a bitter feminist. All because I had a voice on Twitter! ”
Priya’s experience as a vocal feminist, in a society where men feel entitled to our thoughts, voices and bodies inspired her to write about how we do not have it as easy as men believe it to be.
Sharam aurat ka gehna hota hai! (Translated: Feeling shame is a woman’s jewel) Most of us have faced this attitude of ‘putting us in our place’.
Shame is a powerful term. It is used to humiliate us. Control us. It is a unit of measurement of how much of a doormat we are not. The more it is used on us, the more you should be sure you’re not a doormat.
In a country where women are either pious or rebellious, it is indeed a welcome move to tell us that we need not feel guilty for being ourselves.
Intrigued by the title, I spoke to Priya and asked her if women are themselves responsible for this state of women, as we judge other women in the harshest way.
Priya referred to the recent incident of an older lady shaming young women for their choice of clothes in New Delhi. “Why do we do the work of patriarchy by putting each other down?” she asks.
Some women do become the torchbearers of patriarchy. However, Priya does not believe that it is women who are responsible. “Men do the brunt of victim blaming and slut shaming.”
I was also curious to know Priya’s views on intersectionality, she being a well-traveled woman.
“One thing that really irks me is when white feminists online bring up the plight of Indian women by saying, ‘See, how oppressed Indian women are!'” she says. “They are not recognizing the fact that we too have voices, and that we should be allowed to speak for ourselves. Similarly, we should be trying to pass the mic to all kinds of women…so that they can represent themselves and their needs.”
Priya moved to India from the United States after living in the United States. As someone who has also lived in the U.S, and based on my interactions with other women who move back to India, one of the things that pinches about living in India is the discomfort in public spaces.
Priya also found it fairly shocking to come back to a country in which her movements were restricted so heavily. She says with some annoyance, “I was used to being able to go buy milk in my pyjamas at two AM – this simply isn’t possible for a woman living in New Delhi! But it’s bigger than me – I hate the fact that I don’t see many women in public spaces after sunset. All you see are men.”
I had a chat with Priya on how men pretend to be feminists. How do we even begin to figure out who is genuine? What dating advice could we possibly offer fellow women?
“Men today put ‘feminist’ in their Tinder bio. They loudly proclaim to be progressive, but I am always suspicious of such men…” says Priya. “They seem to me to want praise or cookies for doing the bare minimum. I would advise women to watch actions instead of words. Don’t date so-called ‘feminist’ men, date men who are good to the women in their lives and who have respect for women.”
I also mentioned to Priya how some problems are peculiar to India.
For example, first time sex is challenging enough for women due to reasons such as anxiety, pain, relationship issues, birth control to name a few but here we complicate it even further by adding a layer of morality to it. Pre-marital sex is still frowned upon in some sections of Indian society. There are women who are not yet married in late 20’s or older who have been told that it is immoral to have sex before marriage and they believe it.
When asked about it, Priya says that pre-marital sex is a choice every woman has to make for herself. “I don’t believe it to be a moral one. If it was immoral to have sex before marriage, why do we not tell men to refrain from it too? Why is the onus on women to guard their virginity so fiercely? I would tell women that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in pre-marital sex, if they choose to have it. Any man who judges you for not being a virgin when you get married is not a worthy man.”
As a fellow feminist, I asked Priya which specific aspect of empowerment of women does she feel men find most threatening. It was as if we were playing ‘Guess the card’. I knew what her answer would be.
“I think men are most threatened by the fact that women have more financial freedom than they used to and are better educated,” says Priya. “Men who want to control women rely on the fact that women cannot leave home. They are dependent on men to feed and house them. I used to work with poor girl children in Rajasthan. I can testify to the fact that giving women the tools to earn their own living is the number one priority.”
Priya has also touched upon the issue of bulimia in her book. I asked Priya the main reason why women fall into the trap.
“I think it’s hard not to succumb to the societal pressure to conform. Especially in the age of Instagram influencers and what not, one is constantly bombarded with images of the ‘perfect’ thin, white body,” she points out. “Girls as young as seven or eight develop eating disorders. It’s tragic, and the only way to combat it is with self-love and teaching people that all bodies are beautiful.”
Discussions around women’s issues are incomplete without addressing women’s body image issues. I have often wondered if women are inherently more conscious about their bodies than men or is it the pressure from society? Or is media the culprit with women flaunting perfect, photo shopped bodies?
We may even know by now that there is a lot of starving, unhealthy eating and mental health issues that may be hidden behind the glamour. Yet it is hard not to feel inadequate when we look at those models.
The one thing Priya would like to tell women struggling with bulimia would be that they don’t it owe it to society to be thin. They don’t owe it to the people around them to be a certain weight.
“Ignore the aunties and judgmental people who tell you to lose weight. You are perfect the way you are: please do not jeopardize your health and happiness to fit into jeans that are a size smaller,” she says.
When we talk about bulimia, it is important to understand that it is as much of a mental health issue as it is a physical one. Priya believes that people are shamed into shutting up about therapy and their mental illness. Once they do muster up the strength to speak up, they are told idiotic things like ‘Just exercise and drink water, you’ll feel better.’
She stresses that “Mental illness is like any other illness. It requires medicine and treatment, not a positive attitude.”
And then came my favourite part. And probably the part that most writers, budding authors would look forward to. Priya’s book is a collection of her essays. I asked her advice for authors who have been writing on various topics on collating their work into a book.
This is what Priya says, “Dig up all your work – past and present. And see what still holds up. You will have outgrown some of your work, but be proud of other pieces you wrote. Nothing like time to filter the good from the passable. Take the good work you’ve done and see if there’s any theme that could unite them in an essay collection.”
But isn’t it scary? I asked her.
“It is scary, of course, to write about your personal life in such detail!” She replied instantly. “You are opening yourself up to the judgment of strangers. But you have to forget about that, if you want to write. A writer is no good if she isn’t honest and fearless. The drive to be truthful overcame my apprehension.”
We wish Priya the best of success for Besharam. May we succeed in creating a culture where no women get shamed for making their own choices.
Image source: a still from the movie Tumhari Sulu
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