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Neelu Mehta’s Murder Begs The Question Why Do Women Still Need To Fight For Their Space?

Posted: April 13, 2021

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Neelu Mehta’s brutal murder by her husband has shaken people to their core. How many shocking incidents do we need to bring about change?

Trigger warning: This post contains details of murder and abuse which may be triggering to certain audiences.

It is the 10th of April, 2021, and a bustling marketplace in Delhi is crowded with throngs of people going about their day. There has been a surge of COVID cases in the past few weeks but public spaces are packed and busy.

Online, there are continuous conversations about empathy for the fellow human being. Or the lack thereof-from anti-maskers to the anti-vaccine campaign and apparent indifference towards the poor of the world.

Healthcare professionals and frontline workers have been struggling for a year now and it feels like the end is still far away. But in that crowded marketplace, the end came brutally soon for Neelu Mehta. She was a 26-year-old woman who was the victim of hate and social apathy.

Women have fought to enter public spaces and history has recorded these battles seemingly well. However, the fight never ends for women who continue to have to fight even after they have assumed their positions in the public.

When will this fight to enter public spaces end?

Literacy rates may have improved for the girl child, but everyday life in school is traumatic and oppressive. Women may be more visible in politics, but they are crucified more as they try to reach impossible standards.

Essentially, women and their identities are still unsafe. Such is the story of Neelu, who worked as an employee at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital. Upset by her decision to work and not become a housewife, her husband viciously murdered her in broad daylight, as those busy crowds watched.

The details of the event have flooded articles, Instagram posts and stories over the past weekend. Meanwhile, the one-minute-long CCTV clip that captured Neelu’s death, has been watched by thousands. One is horrified by the murder itself – the cruelty and aggression with which a man made his decision. At the same time, the passivity of the crowd is painful to watch.

I personally was unable to watch the video but have read several reports that detail the event. What I have also read are the conversations online and it is apparent that people are confused. There are several key points that need to be discussed.

While gruesome, it wasn’t ‘exceptional’

First, the murder itself. It was gruesome, but not an exceptional event. It was an attempt to maintain patriarchal order. The man is the head of the household and controls all that comes within it-including the women. And the wife’s sole purpose is to serve him and his progeny (hence the term pati parmeshwar).

To serve includes more than physical labour, which is exhausting and unrewarded in itself, but also requires obedience. Men are the holders and guardians of culture while women are weak spots that require vigilance. The values and honour of what patriarchal culture considers to be proper must be protected, at all costs.

If the dowry is not enough, a woman is burnt to death, for she is improper. Similarly, the food is not good enough, a woman is beaten, for she is improper. And if she does not listen, well then she threatens the social order itself.

She ‘deserved’ to die according to her husband

In the eyes of her husband, Neelu deserved to die because she tried to subvert his idea of propriety. The harsh reality is, many in India and the world, across classes and communities, share this idea.

So if a woman is part of the household, then all matters concerning her are household issues. Despite the communalistic tendency of Indian cultures, people work to keep family matters out of the public, even if it involves criminal activity.

Marital rape is thus not recognised as a crime by the law. And these rapes are routinely unreported in an attempt to keep the ‘issue’ quiet and domestic violence is not even an issue-it’s a given.

When an issue concerning a woman is taken up in public, as seen in khap panchayats, the community acts as an extended family that is concerned more with honour. There are several explanations, sociological and psychological, as to why the crowd did not intervene. But our cultural notion of ‘family matter’ is undeniably one such reason.

Do women’s lives have any value at all?

It is difficult to imagine what Neelu would have been thinking about in her last few moments. But we may also be bewildered by the reaction (or the lack thereof) of the surrounding onlookers.

We are taught to help people in need and that there is strength in numbers. Had a fraction of the crowd stepped forth, it would’ve been one man against many. It would’ve been one woman with many. I cannot help but think of Hathras and Jessica Lal during this time. What value do women have? And what can you do to feel even marginally safe?

It’s strangers and family members in dark alleys and open streets, private parties and DTC buses. And it is the infants and the elderly women and women wearing niqabs and ripped jeans. It is married and unmarried women, the educated and uneducated, the rural and urban, the rich and poor. But there is no identity a woman can assume or take refuge in. Neelu would be part of a statistic that would be used to say, ‘Look, women don’t have it that bad – so many are studying and working.’ And then what? How does one measure development or women’s progress then?

Do we learn anything from this?

These are questions I find difficult to answer for I keep getting stuck in contradictions and paradoxes. One may say, it’s just India but it’s not. Despite the varieties of experiences, no matter how ‘advanced,’ women share different shades of the same oppressive systems of control. One simply cannot succeed, for if you meet one standard, you are bound to fail another.

They say life is a series of choices but it feels like a woman’s life is a series of impossible choices, just a constant barrage of Catch-22 situations. A good housewife is said to hamper feminism for she’s reproducing patriarchy. At the same time, an ambitious woman is threatening all that is good about social life. In fact, a woman who exists is already a hindrance. She is treated as a necessary burden, but a burden nonetheless, and sometimes, it is easier to cut her off.

What do we learn from this? I may seem cynical but what I seek is for people to become more nuanced in their opinions and perspectives. To understand womanhood more deeply in order to attain the progress we pedestalise so much.

How many other incidents do we really need?

There is no one marker that guarantees women’s development nor any statistic that ‘proves’ that feminism works. Once we start to see women as human beings, we can perhaps attempt to learn and understand the different channels of patriarchy. In fact, once we learn how it can be expressed in less obvious ways, we can attempt to learn and understand the problem.

I ask that we try to battle our public’s feeble memory and momentary anger to sustain what we believe women deserve. We need to accept the flaws of who we are as a people. At the same time, we need to get past the initial confusion to realise the answers to our whys were always there. It just takes shocking incidents to open our eyes. The last question I leave you with is this – how many more shocking incidents do we need?

Picture credits: Photo by Julia Volk from Pexels

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