Three stories trending these days with women in the spotlight.
Nikhita and Vijayalakshmi
When I first heard of the story of the wife beating actor Darshan, I thought it was an insult someone leveled rather than a real story. Then, I discovered that the man had assaulted his wife, Vijayalakshmi, burned her with cigarette stubs, so that she landed up in hospital. When he got arrested, he pleaded some mysterious illness and got admitted to hospital, while for some strange reason KFPA took it upon themselves to protect their investment in him by bullying two women. While his wife was under pressure to reconcile with him, the woman he was having an affair with – the actress Nikhita was banned from working in films for three years for “causing marital disharmony”. The reasoning being that she distracted him. Really? Even if she could be held responsible for tempting an adult male into a relationship, even if we accepted that said male were mentally incompetent and she was responsible – that would be an affair. How does it make her responsible for violence? In an industry conspicuous for progressive and free life, it is a stunning throw back to times of swinging from trees for the KFPA to actually block an actress because she was involved with someone who beat his wife. The wife was “convinced” into withdrawing the case against him. Darshan himself was not punished in any way while the KFPA took on the surprising task of “saving his family”. In other words, they would like a woman he assaulted badly enough to require hospitalization to return to a status quo and not rock any boats. They want the woman he had an affair with to disappear. It seems that by virtue of having a penis, Darshan is excused any requirement for ethical, humane or even legal behavior, while his victims are expected to suffer for his actions as if it were their responsibility.
Anjali Gupta was an IAF officer who got suspended on charges of indiscipline, financial irregularities and insubordination. Anjali had been having an affair/live in relationship with Group Captain Amit Gupta. He had led her on with false promises of marriage. He was already married. On the behest of Amit Gupta, she had fabricated false sexual harassment charges against her seniors in 2005 which eventually led to her dismissal in 2006. She was found hanging at Amit’s place – dead of depression. Another interesting twist in this tale is that Amit Gupta has been arrested by Bhopal police for abeting her suicide. Apparently, he was under surveillance of the Indian Air Force (IAF) intelligence for the last few years. The intelligence officers knew of the affair and Amit’s role in framing the charges that got Anjali fired.
In the meanwhile, a letter called an open letter to a Delhi boy went viral. Written as though the author was Madrasi, it lashes out with contempt and ridicule for a stereotypical Punjabi “stud” wannabe and goes into great detail about various personal traits and insults them thoroughly. It is somewhat satirical, but there is enough truth about invasive attitudes in it that it hit nerves and spread like wildfire. Soon, boys started writing back to the Madrasan – some making a virtue of their cultured civility, others giving free range to sarcasm. None met the flamboyant obnoxious satire of the original. Countless jokes were born around racist terms she used, #madrasan was a popular tag on Twitter… It was clear that responding to the letter was a free for all. Yet, those who read with amusement responded with discrediting. Many interpreted the letter to be addressing all Delhi boys, others made other rude comments, some got outraged and refuted her systematically, others ridiculed. Two things that didn’t happen – two things that are normally very common – the first, any jokes on the stereotypical male that she had attacked – which is funny, because it is really quite a common stereotype to lynch for being obnoxious and invasive. And the second, any agreement with the Madrasan even as fleeting and vague as “It is irritating when boys patronize us” – another very common attitude, but conspicuously missing yesterday.
These three incidents to me are manifestations of the same stereotypes and unconscious prejudices about women. Whether aware or not, whether an educated society, glamorous society, or conservative, our assumptions about women in society seem to be similar. When in a one on one relationship like a couple, the man is the one with the social sanction and the woman is the one left footing the bill, regardless of how deserving they are of either. A man having an affair and assaulting his wife leading to one woman being forced back into his known dangerous company and another having her career damaged over something that really is her personal business. While the man goes scot free. I had once written that society expects men to not be responsible for their actions, or at the very least allows them to shrug off responsibility on to women. It is as though a penis is a mental defect. It is very unfair and oppressing for women, but it is insulting to a vast number of men who assume responsibility when they are aware of it. Worse, it handicaps many men by leaving them without the skills to manage their own life consequences and adds to victimization in society, and also depression and inferiority among them. The second story is the objectification. Whether true or not, the fact that it is quite plausible is the key to our social stereotypes, where a woman is merely an object. A man uses her for pleasure, then uses her to destroy her own career and credibility in order to make an attack on the credibility of someone else on the behalf of the man. The intended victims, also men strike back and end her career. The man doesn’t come to her aid, and eventually disowns her. Helpless, she is finished as she commits suicide. The irony of it is that another set of people who knew that she may have been used and wronged are silent until her death when they do arrest the man. I see this as typical of society. Both, the woman being a sacrificial pawn in a high risk situation (except for visible heroics) as well as providing an easy target for retaliation. Of course, helping her is out of the question – both as an ally or as a system. Nowhere does this objectification come into stark, ugly light as a law that allows a person to seduce a married woman on obtaining permission from her husband. Another law makes it impossible for a married woman to be arrested for adultery. Put together, it is rather simple. The woman is property. Thieves get arrested, not stolen scooters. The law in question is 497 of the IPC as far as I have been informed, but I will be confirming and updating here personally. While the first two stories are obvious narratives are common, and thus people easily find them wrong. Earlier life experience has established them as wrong. The third is the googly, because it is a situation so far not identified as a chauvinistic. There are no alerts to act thoughtfully and spontaneous reactions are telling of our defaults as it sweeps people into disempowering a woman making a powerful stand against a man. The ones doing the disempowering will be both male or female. Doesn’t matter. It is a social status quo we unconsciously uphold. If we really read that letter, while it is aggressive and extreme in its challenge of the obnoxious male, there is little that is actually insulting to the reader. It is not a generalization of all Delhi boys like many took it to be either. Put quite simply, its gravest crime is that it takes a “macho male” stereotype and rips it to shreds quite viciously. On an unconscious level, two things are happening. The “mardangi” has been insulted by a woman – we are conditioned to see this as inappropriate. A woman is acting extremely aggressive with a man – another unconscious no-no. While consciously we consider the genders as equal, conditioning is automatic, and our unthinking responses lay it bare. There is nothing right or wrong about this. It simply is. We have been born of a chauvinistic society, we have learned a lot of misogynist garbage that is from a POV of a woman being inferior to man and this gender positioning being the “right” one and crucial to maintain for the survival of society. If we see a man patronizing a woman, unless we are really tuned in to issues of gender or the man breaks some other social norm, it is unlikely he gets noticed. Our logic knows it as unfair, but the unconscious mind doesn’t understand logic. What it sees happening fits the patterns it knows as okay – as simple as that. Nothing alarming at all. On the other hand, if you see a strong woman – which in today’s day of modernity isn’t such a big surprise, you notice. You appreciate it, or you condemn it, but you notice. Why? Because the stereotype of woman is dependent. No matter how many strong women you are blessed to know, you will recognize them as out of the ordinary. Many of us wouldn’t give a second thought to a man being patronizing, obnoxious and aggressive with someone else. At worst, the person would be shrugged off as an obnoxious, uncultured thug. It certainly wouldn’t seem outrageous, but a woman doing that to a man made people spend a good day talking about it on Twitter. Even though most of these people wouldn’t agree at all to thinking like this. Yet there the truth is. My description of the magnitude and nature of the response is public record. But that is the normal with unconscious actions – they aren’t conscious. Again, I am not calling this right or wrong, but pointing out how our unconscious assumptions often make us act in a way that isn’t actually in line with our choices. Being more aware can change our responses to these very vital understandings of gender age and power. That in turn will help us be more authentic with our responses. More importantly, it will begin to re define dysfunctional stereotypes with more relevant understandings that will go a long way to gender sensitivity.