A news item tucked away in the morning newspapers spoke of a young 14-year-old Nigerian girl who had finally managed to escape from her abusive 28-year-old husband, and a father who did not want her to come back home. Her face was swollen, her body carried welt marks, as she quietly informed the reporter there that she did not want to go back to her village as she would be beaten badly.
And why was she beaten? The international news agency took the trouble to find out by visiting her husband. “She had too much ABCD,” he said seeming more preoccupied with his knee length boots than the girl he had violated. “Too much ABCD,” he repeated clearly referring to the fact that she was more educated than she should have been.
Of course, this is the social sentiment that allowed the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram to abduct more than 200 schoolgirls and later declare that they would not be released but married off. The girls have still not been secured and the terror and trauma that has overtaken their young lives can only be imagined.
But this is not true just of Nigeria, or of some remote African village. It is true of South Asia, where education for girls is still frowned upon, and where early marriages are considered ‘respectable and sane’ and hence preferred to education and employment. All faiths and cultures unite to keep the women subjugated and ensure that they are not able to breathe, let alone live without deferring to the wishes of not just their immediate families, but also the social community at large.
The violence against women is not decreasing, but is on the rise. In India, rape has gone up. Sexual molestation is almost a norm in many parts of the country, with women in the nation’s capital bearing the scars of eve teasing and assault. Women remain a property to be used and discarded at will, with disturbed men these days making headlines for turning the gun on themselves but only after slaughtering their wives and children. For reasons really as flimsy as ‘ABCD’ and ranging from the wife objecting to her husband’s drinking, to a fight over children’s education, suspicions regarding problems at work, which men obviously cannot cope without indulging in violence and murder.
The social mores just do not seem to be changing with khaps determining the moral behaviour of women in the community, from what they should wear, how they should talk, and who they should marry. The political and religious right insists on joining the khaps in ‘controlling’ women and every now and again strike terror in the cosmopolitan cities of the country but attacking women for drinking, or wearing jeans, or going out with men.
Of course, women are fighting back and demanding action. The protests against the Delhi rape astounded the entire political system, but were not seen at the same level when it came to the murder and public hanging of the two Dalit girls in a Badaun village.
Empowerment of women, while much talked about in the seminar circles, is, however, agonisingly slow. The Parliament has still to consider and pass legislation. And clearly, this is not going to happen for a long time since male representatives of all political parties have united against sharing space with women.
Unfortunately, feminists are too apolitical to understand the dimensions and thereby calibrate the fight for equal rights and justice. Patriarchy alone is not the problem. It has to be taken as part of the larger system where a woman’s political, economic and social rights are as important as her gender rights, and where she is usually attacked for demanding them.
Despite this, women are reaching out and crossing the hurdles imposed by families, society and even governments. This is amazing prowess and shows a determination that is struggling through the clouds to be seen and heard.
So governments that talk of growth and development will have to recognise this slow but steady march forward, and join it if they really wish to change the horizons ahead.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2014.