Last week the Chief Minister of Uttrakhand criticised mothers for demeaning our culture by wearing ripped jeans, and at the same time India saw the opening of its first brick-and-mortar sex-toy store in Goa. These two pieces of news do not belong in the same country, is it possible we’re all living in two countries at the same time?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
Sometimes it feels like my news feed is curated by reaction junkies whose sole goal is to maximize my outrage. A few days ago, during my morning dose of outrage, I scrolled past an article about the Chief Minister of Uttrakhand, Tirath Singh Rawat, condemning women for wearing ripped jeans (especially if they were mothers), and I landed on an article about the first brick-and-mortar sex-toy store in India located in Goa. I scrolled back and forth between the two pieces trying to reconcile them with each other, but it felt a lot like trying to reconcile adding two tablespoons of salt to a banana smoothie. They just didn’t go together. They didn’t make sense right next to each other. They didn’t sound like they were addressing the same place. Yet this happens all the time. We recognise a third gender, we won’t recognise marital rape. We commandeer an all-woman flight on the longest possible air-route, but we ask why a 50-year old woman who was raped and killed went out alone. We subsidise women’s education yet we wonder why the marital age for women needs to increased when females can give birth even at fifteen. We had a woman as Prime Minister years before that seemed possible to most of the world, but we arrest a woman for posing “provocatively” for pictures in a bikini.
It constantly feels like I am living in two different countries. This is not in reference to the “diversity” of India, it’s in reference to the ideology of the country, it seems to be moving in two different directions at all times so what do we stand for? Sex-toy stores or condemnation of ripped jeans on women?
For the past ten years or so, progress in the field of women’s rights is constantly shoved down our throats and I won’t deny there have been legal changes that were, at least, designed to the end of progress. Moreover, in the wake of Nirbhaya, there was a seismic shift in the conversations surrounding rape, violence against women and feminism. All of sudden fringe feminist theories about teaching the boys, touching the pickle and freeing the nipple became much more mainstream, and refrains like “my body, my choice” became so common you’d think a renaissance was underway. Stories of women doing extraordinary things were celebrated, and platforms that specialised in women’s content didn’t just become possible, they became popular. Conversations about teaching our daughters empowerment and independence became a lot louder and women’s fashion in India got a lot bolder (and maybe even more permissive).
At the same time the past ten years have been brutal for women in India. The #metoo movement revealed just how deep the web of power-based coercion was spun. Crime against women increased steadily but the rate of conviction remained largely stable (and abysmally low). Arranged marriage got a makeover and made a resurgence on Netflix to serve as a reminder of its reach and the misogyny built into it. The government suggested replacing all sex-ed programmes (which were shockingly few) with yoga classes (because a botched chaturangasana is the same as chlamydia). Women repeatedly took their parents to court to fight for their right to love whomsoever. The MRAs and the “humanists” started their own counter-cultural movement alleging women were taking advantage of their supposed privilege in society. No significant strides were made in women’s employment, and in alleging that women had no role in farmers’ protests even the Supreme Court displayed just how severely disguised unpaid employment afflicts women. To say nothing of the anti-woman statements that have been made by various political leaders in the past decade, if I made a list, it would be as long as Victor Hugo’s doctoral dissertation.
The last decade has been confusing.
On the one hand, I see a lot of empowerment on the internet, I see women talking about things that were swept under the rug for generations and I think that’s wonderful. I see movements and hashtags and strength. I saw that in my life for the longest time. On the other hand, for the past 18-months I’ve been living in a very small town in J&K, it’s an interesting social experience for me given that I have spent most of my life surrounded by “like-minded” people most of whom have had the same level of privilege as I have had in life, and I had a very different idea of our country than what is real for the majority. See, I had my life, and it had its priorities: an apartment close to the metro station, career growth, bars I liked, intellectual stimulation, that one yoga pose. Even though most of my work has always pertained to covering crime against women, I never reconciled the world I lived in with the world in which I worked. The world in which I lived was populated by women like me, we’d been through some shit, but the focus of our lives was liberty, growth, ambition and gin. When life got too much, we took trips or made appointments with a good therapist. I don’t mean we were vapid or out of touch, I just mean the scope of our struggle was mostly incidental and not pervasive. We might have dealt with an abusive relationship or sexual assault or a patriarchal upbringing, but oppression was not a way of life for us, it was an annoyance that came up frequently but our version of the world had space for us, our rights and our choices. Of course it wasn’t as much a space we had created as much as it was the ability to rent an apartment or a life within an area where you could insulate yourself from certain aspects of life. We bought our freedom, and rented an existence in sex-toy India.
However, our freedom was a function of luck and privilege, because after I was taken out of my environment and put in a different one, I realised just how easily I could have grown up in ripped-jeans India. This is not an indictment of bucolic life by a “city” girl, nor am going to romanticize it. I don’t think city life has more “meaning” and I don’t think town-life is more simple. However, my social existence here has been very different from the message of empowerment I was fed all my life and the experience of achievement I could take for granted through my professional life. I attend university here, and I’ve had clerks openly tell me that women shouldn’t behave like me because I told him he was wrong about something. I’ve had a professor tell a classroom full of women that if they married for love they would definitely regret it and almost certainly be unhappy forever. They don’t understand why I object to people enquiring about someone’s marital future; neither the asker not the asked understand my objection. I’ve had virtual strangers tell me I should make more of an effort to look married and behave like a wife. I have been told by people I employed that I shouldn’t speak so openly about being someone’s step-mother or second wife. Allegedly educated men have commented, that I as a woman, should not swear. My friends are terrified to dress in revealing clothes and when women date here they do so with the secrecy of a spy. Muslim women I know are told to their faces they shouldn’t attire themselves religiously lest violence be unleased upon them. When I profess independence, the youth here calls me naive and out-of-touch, and the truth is that by their measurement, I actually am. When I tell them they have the option of leaving their homes and living elsewhere, they call me crazy, and I must sound crazy to them.
It’s because there are two Indias.
You’re supposed to live in the one you were born into and always look at the other as sort of aberration obstructing your world view. There is the India where a minister saying that women in ripped jeans insult Indian culture outrages you, and there is one where you may know it is wrong but you’ve heard similar things said so often by your father, mother, neighbours that you secretly wonder why everyone is so mad. There is an India where we celebrate having a sex-toy store because we’re so tired of always having to buy dirty things on foreign trips and then just hoping to get them through customs, and there is an India where this idea is an abomination and we should all be shot. There is an India where you can get on Tinder and get laid no problem, and there is one where you cannot even choose the man who will have sex with you for the rest of your life. There is an India where you can indulge your passions for microbrewing and motorcycles, and there is one where you have only until you are eighteen to make your peace with getting married and making babies.
Yet on some level, underneath all of this specificity, there is one India. I don’t mean this terms of unity at all, I mean that underneath our failures and victories in the name of women, there is a similar sentiment of oppression. Ripped jeans are just a symbol, and when someone tells a woman how to dress, we must fight but saying it’s wrong is very different from really having the freedom to wear whatever we want. Many of us will be vocally against this statement, and I am too, but for family, decency, dignity or whatever the reason du jour many of us still won’t wear things that aren’t permissible. Many of us won’t wear low-cut tops. We won’t wear skirts or dresses. We won’t wear clothes without sleeves. Not because we don’t want to, but because we aren’t allowed to do that, and it’s reinforced with ideas of culture, beauty and fashion. A sex toy store is a great story but in a country where menstrual products are still wrapped in black plastic by the pharmacist and most women would never buy a condom themselves because of how they treat you for doing so, a sex-toy store is also just a symbol. A symbol for a more progressive era that only exists in one out of thirteen thousand neighborhoods. I mean it’s great that I can buy a vibrator when I’m on vacation in Goa while wearing my ripped jeans, but if I have to cover my head and pretend to be chaste at home, what is the point?