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I had thought my progressive upbringing had given me a voice. I was wrong – and I realised this on reading Deepa Narayan’s iconic book Chup.
‘Books are the mirrors of the soul’, said Virginia Woolf. They are also commonly referred to as a mirror of the society.
Both these sayings come true with Deepa Narayan’s well-researched shocking book, Chup, which offers not just a mirror to society but also, specifically, to women.
With Chup, one understands the traditional practices and customs that are in place and have effectively contributed to the systemic silencing of women’s voices.
Don’t speak. Don’t shout. Don’t argue. Don’t ask questions. Don’t go out after dark. Don’t disrupt the relationship. Don’t think only about yourself. Don’t do anything to disturb the family peace.
All of these are direct instructions issued to women to shut them down or, as Narayan says in her book, make them invisible.
As I was reading this book, it ceased being a reflection of the world around me. Instead it became a reflection of the world I am intrinsically a part of. That in itself was the first shock for me.
Educated, confident, earning, outspoken me, who was brought up in the most progressive and forward-thinking environment – how could I have been silenced or ‘trained to become invisible’, I thought. That this is something that happens in small towns and among the less educated sections of society, one would think. But as I read on, and more examples of educated smart working professionals came forth, I realized how similar these circumstances were to what I had gone through.
This isn’t an easy book to read, for one it deals with some heavy topics and backs it up with statistics. But more importantly, because it made me question everything that about my life that I had known and understood so far.
It made me realize my voice has repeatedly been silenced too and, as a result, my existence been erased too. It makes one come to terms with the fact that being a victim of what the book says is ‘patriachal upbringing’ isn’t something that happens to others. And that revelation is not an easy one to process or accept.
One would have thought that a confident smart single woman would have the freedom to do what she wants. One would have thought that education would ensure that women have the power to control their lives the way they want to. One would have thought that being a working woman would have given her the independence to live her life with the respect and dignity she deserves.
One can be forgiven for being so mistaken. And this realization of being mistaken comes forth only after reading Deepa Narayan’s book, Chup – Breaking the Silence About India’s Women.
Chup is a well-researched book, that is the outcome of interviewing young women across a gamut of industries and professions, on women’s silences and attempts to breaks these myths and shed light on the factors contributing to the dismal position of women in society even today.
There are several and more incidents in the book which I felt were a reflection of my behaviour and feelings. Whether it be the pent-up anger inside me or the retaliatory nature, or whether it be the emotions that I experience each time I am told to behave like a good girl.
While many men today refrain from resorting to physical violence (and make it look like it’s a Nobel Prize-worthy sacrifice they are making), there is an increase in the spate of incidents involving emotional and psychological abuse. Strangely, whether it be physical or emotional, the main driving factor behind the two forms of abuse isn’t different – the exertion of power and control by men, or rather, the attempt to put women in their place.
“Train girls to feel unsafe, live in fear, stay at home, shrink, judge themselves and their bodies, make girls feel wrong, inferior, immoral and dirty; don’t let girls speak, reason, question, have an opinion, argue, debate; teach them modesty, to wait and follow; make girls suppress their emotions, seek only approval, always please others perfectly, especially men, never say no, avoid conflict, never negotiate, and never initiate action, and then bundle all this behaviour and spray it with morality.”
A highly educated professionally qualified power lady who I look up to immensely shared recently how she is suffering silently in an emotionally abusive marriage. This despite the fact that as a professional working woman, she herself is today a force to reckon with. Unfortunately, her income isn’t enough to be able to sustain herself. (Is this what encourages husbands to dominate their wives, because they are providing for the family?)
Another extremely creative woman I know is staying in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship simply because she doesn’t want to be divorced a second time. She has systematically been isolated from all her friends and colleagues and is now wary of going back to a full-time career. (Is this the kind of life we want to provide to our women – one that is in constant fear and submission?)
Yet another amazing woman with loads of potential was sexually abused by a close relative till the time she was an adult. She was told to keep quiet to maintain the family honour and reputation. The physical violation continued and so did the emotional abuse. (Is this the kind of families that we want to build where we refuse to protect our own women and daughters?)
A close friend is on the verge of divorce because she has had enough of her husband being unconcerned of her dreams and aspirations. No woman wants to ruin a happy married life willingly. But the pain of being side-lined and silenced is too much to bear after a while.
Why others, let me talk about myself.
I, educated in a top convent school of a metropolitan city, trained to be an aware, outspoken as a child, and fearless, am now constantly told that I need to speak softly, remain quiet and respectful, not be argumentative, and ensure I don’t do anything to disturb the peace in the family.
Why is the onus of maintaining the peace in the family only on me? That too, at the cost of my freedom of expression. Why is that my confidence and expression has to be conditional – fearless in front of the world but respectfully silent in front of my elders?
How different am I from the women who come from families that lack the social and educational privilege I am used to, and who have not been taught to be expressive and confident? Am I any different just because I don’t cover my eyes with a veil or remain hidden in my room when males are around? What modern progressive ideals do I epitomize?
No wonder then that I am in a constant state of self-doubt and fear. The emotional abuse most women suffer is sometimes far more damaging than the physical wounds that may still heal over time.
Narayan isn’t wrong in pointing out that “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.”
In an interview, the author talks about how the #MeToo movement has changed the way we talk about sexual abuse. While it may have made a positive impact, what’s also true is the backlash that women have received. The emotional abuse, especially, is even more brazen and bold.
Women are often told now that educating them was a mistake. They are often reminded of how the parents or the husband has or is providing for them and so owns them and their lives. How different is this existence from slavery? What impact does this have on the sufferers?
“Our culture bestows power on men and morality on women. This is a stark reality.”
It’s a double-edged sword. Don’t let women become confident and capable enough to take charge of their own lives, and eventually, they won’t have the confidence to grow and develop – whether it be in the personal lives or in the professional space. No wonder then that the statistics of women in corporate careers mentioned in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In are so startling.
What’s worse is that those trying to put women down are smart enough to know and see that if women were to band together it would change the status quo. That’s why the conscious effort to isolate and pitch women against women.
Thankfully, we have books like Chup that make these subtle control tactics visible. Recognising them enables us to see the flaws and work towards implementing a change.
Chup offers not just the points of improvement but also how to effectively work towards the change. The solutions are simple enough.
Example – “Smart parents would do well to screen for controlling men rather than caste and wealth” is a simple enough strategy that if implemented would truly make a huge difference to the lives of women.
But (and there’s a huge but, here) the change is not possible unless we begin to see the potential such an inclusive and progressive world would have.
The solutions and the strategies are all included in Chup. One only needs to pick it up, read and understand to “collectively create a moral culture that allows both women and men to flourish in families, in communities, and at work.”
Is there hope then? Can we dream of a world where women will be truly equal and empowered? Is it possible to change the culture?
For answers, I turn to Deepa Narayan’s book again.
“We are the culture. We create the code. We can create new cultural codes. New compassionate moral codes for women and men. So we can flourish together.”
Dear men, here is me, sending an appeal out to you all, on behalf of all women. We are suffering. We are silent, we are stifled, and we are desperately screaming for help. Please listen. If you care, if you want us to be better women, mothers, sisters, daughters, colleagues, friends, please stop and listen. We need you to be better. Better fathers, husbands, friends, and partners. We need you to give us the respect and dignity we deserve. We’re humans too. Is it that difficult to understand?
It is evident then. Because this isn’t our fight alone. Men who care – fathers, husbands, brothers, friends – need to step up and join the fight to make it a revolution, not just for women’s rights, but for a better more inclusive world.
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Piyusha is a sometime sane reader, part-time crazy writer and full-time wacky alien.
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