What It Takes For the Urban Indian Woman to Dissent
Last month, an unnamed woman called out Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi for sexual harassment and abuse of power – one instance of which involved requiring the woman to rub her nose at the feet of Gogoi’s wife. The woman and her family were harassed further by repeated, contrived police cases and removal from their government jobs. In her sworn affidavit to 22 Supreme Court judges, the woman wrote she had “been victimized for resisting and refusing the unwanted sexual advances of the CJI and [her] entire family has also been victimized and harassed.” Mr. Gogoi received a clean chit, post an internal probe from an in-house panel. The woman says she is terrified, as she and her family remain vulnerable to potential escalated retaliation from the highest court of justice in the country.
This is hardly the first instance of an Indian women’s persecution for voicing dissent. Gauri Lankesh lost her life for criticizing Hindutva. Rana Ayubb, a journalist who took on Narendra Modi with her book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-Up, was trolled and doxxed, and had her face digitally placed onto pornographic videos; she also found herself on the list of top 10 journalists worldwide facing serious threats to press freedom. These women were attacked, both because they were a threat to growing right-wing power and because an example had to be made out of women who spoke up — teach your daughters, or watch them suffer.
Lankesh and Ayubb are a part of the rare tribe of women who spoke up despite consequences, but for a lot of women, the choice of challenging the status quo is simply unavailable because of financial and emotional liabilities that begin at home.
The art of quashing dissent is one that Indian families have perfected over centuries. Indian women, specifically, are taught early to fear the grave consequences of defiance and to embrace platitudes and neutrality over opinionated stances on high-impact issues like finance, politics and social change. While such quashing is often more blatant in rural spaces, urban conservative families rely on subtle emotional manipulation to make sure their daughters toe the line. Often, the gifts of the urban social environment are held ransom to keep young women subdued. Benefits such as personal phones, privacy, a good education and control over money earned are taken away when girls and young women break rigid rules or develop independent preferences and plans.
Saraah, 19, who lives in Mumbai, had to sacrifice her privacy when she broke her family’s no-talking-to-boys rule. She said, “My father caught me texting boys, which is a big no-no in my house. He proceeded to snatch my phone away, but I was able to lock it. He screamed at me to open the lock on my phone and slapped me multiple times, but I was so scared of the consequences that I refused. It was not until my mother cried that I opened my phone, which was then taken away from me for two months. In that period I harmed myself and attempted suicide thrice, but they only treated me like an outcast, and my brothers made fun of me. I was devastated and crushed.”
R., a 26-year-old creative director based in Mumbai, has never been able to move out of the family home, or have any serious control over the money she earns. “My parents are highly emotionally abusive and kind of financially abusive. [Though] I have my own income, I still don’t have control over my documents and don’t have permission to invest any of my savings or money, ” she says. “I have broken a lot of rules. A LOT. Drinking, smoking, dating, premarital sex. I don’t even want to imagine the consequences [if I gets caught], because it’s scary.”
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Beyond active rebellion, opinions are also taboo. Dinner table discussion is for men to opine and women to serve or eat along silently. Nehal, a 23-year-old lawyer based in Delhi, said, “My parents are right wing [supporters], and I am a centrist, so one can imagine how political and social conversations go. It’s a classic ‘I don’t know why and how you can think like this.’ The elections were on Mother’s Day this year, and before entering the booth, my mom said, ‘Give me my Mother’s Day gift: vote for the BJP.’ That hurt me a lot.” E.V., a 27-year-old marketing manager in Bangalore, said, “My family supports the ruling party and when I posted a WhatsApp status against them, my dad forced me to delete it. His reason being that duniya kharab hai (the world is a bad place) and people might attack me. He did not see the irony of it.” She summed it up as, “Fights were a lifestyle till I moved out.”
This particular, familial lack of openness in dialogue and fear-mongering also puts young women at risk outside the home. A big part of fear-mongering revolves around fearing the police; Indian families often attach a great moral stigma to interacting with the police. The law is seen as an authoritative, onerous process that is better to avoid than to rely on for protection. ‘Good girls’ do not ever have to interact with cops. This culture of fear emboldens the police and the political ‘moral police’ to prey on young women caught doing anything perceived as amoral, even if it’s legal. Thus, most young women are often unable to loiter or linger outside unbothered, let alone protest for their rights.
19-year-old Saraah said, “I told my family that I was at a friend’s sleepover, but actually hung out with my ex. We were sitting in his car at 2.a.m and getting high like stupid teenagers, when a policeman knocked on the window. We both completely froze and I thought it was the end of the line for me. Luckily, my ex shook it off and hit the gas pedal. The cop didn’t follow us, thank God, but from then on I’ve had anxiety when I go out with my male friends.”
Nehal added, “My boyfriend and I are both lawyers, so we know how to avoid harassment. Slapping the advocate sticker on the car and showing our IDs helped us, but police harassment for holding hands, sitting idle in a car and talking, happens way too much.”
Another major reason why families discourage choices that challenge the status quo is caste pride. With respect to her family, M.V. 20, who was raised in the Middle East said, “Being Kshatriya by caste, they believe that I will live in accordance to my community [Nairs from Kerala]. This means I will marry within the community and support it in whatever way I can. Doing otherwise would tarnish their reputation as a Nair family. Even marrying within the same religion, but a lower caste, would be wrong in their eyes.”
Nehal, a Hindu woman engaged to a Muslim man, said, “I went to a convent [school] for 13 years. I grew up praying with Our Father Who Art in Heaven more than Om Namah Shivay. I celebrated Christmas more than Diwali, and my parents would proudly tell people that their daughter goes to a prestigious convent here. Yet, marrying out of caste/religion was so alien to my parents that when I had a Christian boyfriend back in school, my mom said, “It was better when you were dating a baniya” (a Hindu caste).
Emotional abuse as a lifestyle, though intrinsic and old-as-time to Indian society, grows exhausting — especially when urban friend circles are increasingly progressive. It also risks normalizing abuse, raising the danger of movement from one abusive situation to another. Ruchita Chandrashekhar, a trauma therapist, points out that young women who undergo emotional abuse at a younger stage are especially vulnerable to other relationships that take advantage of them.
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“Indian culture is such that it relies on gratefulness towards family for the most normal things — almost like a permanent debt to the caretaker. When this is internalized, the emotional abuse can manifest as a constant reminder of things being done for the young person’s well-being. For example, telling women that they ‘could’ve been married off in a previous generation, but we’re letting you study’ is normalized but gaslighting language. This makes women think it is okay to be spoken to like that,” she said, speaking from her own professional experience, as well as from personal experience growing up amid a conservative extended family.
Financial abuse especially carries on from familial to spousal abuse, she said. “Telling women that the family elders will take care of money matters, or that they’re not responsible enough to take care of their own money soon turns into their spouse ‘allowing’ them to work — and that becoming this debt they owe your spouse,” she said. “Another big problem is the spouse controlling the woman’s finances, which makes them vulnerable to domestic abuse situations.”
Coping strategies for young women living with families like these differ from small-scale ranting, to actively seeking out therapy for mental illness and exhaustion, to moving states or whole continents to avoid their family. For women like R, the pickings are slim. “If I choose to move out of my parent’s home to live separately in the same city while unmarried, I will probably be disowned. Leaving aside my financial situation, I don’t have the emotional strength to disown them, even though I have nearly no relationship with them.”
Few urban women can afford strength of opinion, to be water-cannoned and arrested, to live life on their own terms, to have their identity out and proud, regardless of community opinion. Fewer still can break away from family and live with no contact. While tales of family-perpetrated terrors like honor killings and extreme violence seem like they could never happen in cosmopolitan circles, subtler methods accomplish the same end in India’s cities (though, a terrifying, gradual uptick in urban honor killings has been observed). Thus, “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,” fear still remains a powerful deterrent to women’s free thought.