By Jawahara Saidullah
“Kya maal hai.” What good stuff.
“Bilkul sahi cheez yaar.” Absolutely, great stuff, man.
Maal means, stuff, thing, or merchandise. So does cheez.
This common male conversation on the streets of North India is usually conducted over-loudly so that the ‘stuff’ being talked about can hear it. It is almost always accompanied by laughter, a leer, perhaps some touching. For the stuff being talked about is no inanimate object: they are girls and women. The creepiest observation is: “Bari ho kar maal banegi.” When she grows up she will become maal, if their target is a cute little girl.
It was in the late 1970s that I became aware I was maal. I remember the exact moment. My purple, cotton sleeveless dress had tiny pearl buttons down the front. The bodice lay straight and almost flat while the skirt flared down to swish satisfyingly against my legs. My knees had day-old scabs from falling down while playing. Eminently practical brown Bata sandals were on my feet. I was nine years old.
I remember the roughness of their hands as they caught me between them. They were laughing I remember, goading each other on, laughing at me as I stood there, head down, waiting for my mother to come out from the tiny shop she had gone into, unable to shout or cry. I was paralyzed, my voice frozen as two grown men taught me what it feels like to be an object.
Most Indian women who travel without male protection have had similar experiences. Experiences that tell them they are things that can be trapped, hunted. When I was 12, I was groped by a policeman in a crowded train compartment for two hours after he had cornered me by the wall. I used a revenge fantasy to escape, imagining myself a warrior queen, swinging a giant shining sword and cutting off his head.
Later I would learn to walk in a certain way, holding my bag against my chest to protect and hide the most targeted part of my body. There were right-wing solutions to avoid this public molestation: stay home or just go out with a male relative.
But I loved travel and traveling in India can be a magical adventure, so I took what happened in stride, as a price to pay rather than as a complaint to be made to my parents or anyone. It became a strange kind of normal. I was lucky. I wasn’t raped, just molested. Just molested. In choosing freedom over safety I left myself open to some truly scary encounters. Still, I felt lucky.
Then the famous gang rape in Delhi happened on December 29, 2012, as I was preparing for a research trip to India.
I say ‘famous’ because gang rapes in Delhi and across India are commonplace. Newspapers are full of them, always have been full of them. Rapes in police custody, caste-based rape to shame entire communities, rapes of tribal women, rapes of so-called ‘westernized’ women to teach them a lesson about respecting Indian culture, and many other variations on a macabre theme. So there must have been others that night as well, the night before and the night after that. They continue even today. But that rape of a young physiotherapist intern sparked the nation, the world.
We all know the details by now. Jyoti Singh Pandey and her friend were lured by a young man—a boy really—who sweetly called her didi, elder sister, to get her to board the bus of horrors. This was the same boy who would be the most violent of her rapists. His ultimate act was to brutally assault her with an iron rod scrambling up all her internal organs in the process, leaving only five percent of her intestines within her body.
Just a few days later, on January 2, 2013, I landed in Delhi in the early morning soupy fog that bedevils the city all winter. I arrived during a time of large-scale protests and demonstrations against the police, against the administration, the government and the justice system, against the rapists, against society.
Frustrated citizens, young and old, men and women protested in the streets of Delhi leading to mass arrests, the use of water cannons, tear gas and other police baton-charges.
India, the world’s largest democracy, loves protests and demonstrations. In any city, at any time, there is some strike or protest or demonstration while the police look on. It is an enshrined right for all Indian citizens.
But this was a national shame. For the protestors were not poor farmers, tribal rape victims, or communist rabble-rousers. These protesters were members of visible India: educated, middle-class, upwardly mobile, tweeting, facebooking, cellphone-toting people. They were the people guaranteed not to protest, they are meant to uphold the status quo. The government did not take into account the will of the people.
Just a few miles outside the city of Delhi stands a mosque that had been constructed from the remains of many temples. Here in 1236 AD the will of the people raised to the throne Delhi’s only female emperor, a Muslim woman no less. She had been designated heir by her deceased father, the Emperor Iltutmush. However, it was a disputed throne. Her brother, aided by conservative clerics, claimed it on the basis of his gender. He was almost crowned until Raziya made an impassioned speech at the mosque about her right to rule. The crowd surged, carrying her to her rightful throne.
Media pundits screamed shrilly on TV, and marchers shouted ‘death to the rapists.’ The city and country talked about nothing else but the Delhi rape and what it meant for women and for men.
Through it all, I could not stop thinking of my warrior queens, the subject of my new non-fiction project. These real women had started as my escape fantasy and then become a dream project. I wonder if others had ever shared my fantasy. If they did, it would probably have been the most famous of all the warrior queens.
The charismatic young rani of Jhansi, Lakshmi Bai, a leader of the 1857 rebellion took on the might of the British Empire to secure the kingdom for her adopted son. She jumped from tall ramparts, rode 100 miles of hard terrain in one night with her little boy strapped to her back, and cut through the battlefield with her flashing double-sword.
There were others like her, in all parts of India. They are more than relevant today but not in the ways in which they have always been revered. Heroes and heroines—but especially heroines—are deified. They become goddess-incarnates, invoking comparisons with Durga and Kali, the martial and violent mother goddess manifestations.
Even Indira Gandhi, a troubling leader with a questionable record on civil liberties, became goddess-like to some. M.F. Hussain, the famous Indian artist, painted her as the goddess Durga. Making women divine does two things: one, it says that only goddesses can lead a populace and command respect; two, it strips them of human frailties and complexities creating impossible standards of chastity and virtue that real women would invariably fail.
In the wake of the Delhi rape, everyone had an opinion. Some lamented how a country that worships female deities could brutalize real women. Others talked about India being a nation where mothers and sisters were revered and protected. So how could this happen? The victim was someone’s sister, they said, someone’s daughter. A shady god-man got into the act. He conjectured about the victim’s complicity in her rape. “Why didn’t she,” he asked, “call them her brothers and ask them to spare her?” He also wondered at her character, to be out late at night with an unrelated male.
It was not the god-man’s intention but he inadvertently held up a mirror to the nation. Indians do only see good women as goddesses, as self-sacrificing mothers and virginal protected sisters, as wives embodying a home’s honor. Jyoti was someone’s sister and much-loved daughter, but she was also a hard-working, ambitious human being, an individual with a right to expect her basic safety. She was failed by everyone except by her friend and brutalized by the one who called her sister.
A few weeks later, as I drove through the countryside to the kingdom of Ahmednagar in Central India, thoughts of Jyoti interspersed with those of Chand Bibi, the warrior queen whose trail I was on.
Jyoti was a fighter. Despite the great pain she was in, she said she wanted to live, that she wanted to fight to live. To avoid further controversy in India, the government airlifted her to Singapore despite her doctors’ reservations. She died almost as soon as she arrived. Jyoti was failed by basic human decency, by the police that fateful night and by the government of her country.
So too was Chand Bibi failed by her people, who should have protected her as she strove to protect them. She was the regent of two separate kingdoms in the 16th century. When the mighty Mughal Empire moved towards her twin realms, she went to war against their larger, superior army. She even won a battle or two. Then a rumor was floated that she was ready to collude with the enemy. Many accounts say her own people killed her. She died fighting. There is no surviving historical evidence of her collusion.
But if you are a woman, it takes little more than rumor and conjecture to bring you down. When a goddess is pulled down from her pedestal the crash is often fatal. The threat of violence, especially sexual violence, is ever-present.
Note the recent Adria Richards ‘dongle’ controversy on twitter. She overheard what she considered to be an objectionable joke of double entendre by a guy sitting behind her at a California tech conference and tweeted her distaste. The joker was fired. Later, so was she. Her outrage over an eavesdropped conversation was a bit much but the story doesn’t end with the firings, as we know.
Threats against her on social media rolled in, threats of rape, violence, and one gruesome bloody picture of a decapitated woman. How different is this than a bunch of guys loitering on the streets in India shouting out obscenities and threats to women? Or from those who blame rape on the victims?
When I returned to the U.S. from India, it was to the lurid details about the so-called New York cannibal cop who fantasized about eating girl-meat. That’s how he talked about the women—including his own wife and a female friend—he wanted to kill and eat. He didn’t follow through with his fantasies but it illustrates a mind-set. Girls are meat, consumable commodities. Maal and cheez at the most basic level.
I saw this also in the photographs of the limp body of a 16-year old girl being carried as hunters carry their kill, slumped over, looking dead. Meat! Like many others I read the social media messages that made fun of her, the Steubenville rape victim. “She’s dead,” a young man tweeted gleefully because “she was so raped,” and “because they peed on her.” Later, after the verdict came, the even uglier tweets. They blamed the victim for destroying the boys’ lives, threatening her with dire consequences. Some said she was asking for it by being out, others for drinking alcohol, still others said she had consensual sex and cried rape out of remorse. The tweets were deleted. It wasn’t until the power of people—in the form of Anonymous—unearthed them that a clear case emerged against the rapists. Social media haters continued heaping vitriol on the victim.
Some see a pervasive, worldwide rape culture. I see it as girl-meat season. Except it’s not really a season. For a season implies an end, but girl-meat hunting is always open, no permit required. Women around the world will continue to be hunted during this endless open season unless something changes.
During the long nights of jetlag back home in Concord, I realized that if women need to be inspired by warrior queens, so do men. If the transition for women is from meat to warrior, men too need to move away from being hunters, to being warriors. In solidarity against injustice like the protestors in Delhi.
Warriors live by a code of honor. They are brave even when facing certain death as Jyoti was, or Raziya Sultan or Lakshmi Bai or Chand Bibi or those young men and women standing tall, like warriors, while being blasted with water in the freezing cold of Delhi. That is my newest fantasy, good women and men being warriors together, in India and everywhere else.
Jawahara Saidullah’s first novel The Burden of Foreknowledge was published by Roli Books in 2007. A short story, Edge of the Village, was short-listed for the 2012 Fish Prize for short fiction and will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal, Open Road Review. For four years, Jawahara was a weekly columnist for Mid-Day newspaper in Mumbai, India. Her essay, War Stories, was included in the 2006 Seal Press anthology Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War, Faith and Sexuality. Many other pieces have appeared in print and online. She has just completed her second novel and is working on an exciting non-fiction project. She currently lives in that most literary of towns, Concord, MA, a long way from Allahabad, India, where her life and her literary journey began.