Written with Luke Meddings
As International Women’s Day approached, I found myself so grateful that I was born into an Indian family where the link between my gender and my right to an education was never an issue.
I only became conscious of how precious this level of belief in a girl is much later in life, and not as a result of a single event. Of course I’d heard the gory stories of baby girls being killed at birth in some parts of the world because they were born the wrong gender. And I was certainly exposed to the Indian obsession around marriage from a young age – a girl’s highest achievement was finding a husband, and we decorated and celebrated her for it. We still do.
I was also vaguely aware that men earned more than women in most jobs, and I’d observed how all the mental and emotional prowess that comes with motherhood seemed to decrease a woman’s value in the workplace. I suppose I had always known these things, but it took me some time and many steps in my own life to realise how very important they are.
Also as International Women’s Day approached, and before the link was shut down by a court order, I watched the harrowing BBC Four documentary on the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh.
Amid the horrific testimony, rapist and defence lawyer alike blamed women for rape. The words that went very deep with me were ‘not behaving like a decent girl’. This is where I realised the true depravation of the situation, where such an act of brutality was equated with a lesson in decency, albeit in the minds of psychopaths. But how many such psychopaths walk among us? How freely do such dehumanising opinions about women thrive and spread? How do we spot them, let alone stop them?
There was a sense of ordinary violence underlying the rapist’s testimony that is either chilling or deeply – as in profoundly, from the depths – depressing. It’s as if this was a ‘routine’ sex crime that went wrong.
It was left to the defence lawyers to reveal, in their lofty censure of any young woman who dared leave the family home unchaperoned, the ideology – the way that thinking is structured.
One might say barely structured, built as it is of such tattered materials. Structured perhaps through repetition – a kind of prefabricated thinking, flimsy and indefensible but so extensive that it becomes part of the landscape.
And one might say that people inhabit this thought because they have no other home: the rapist who spoke to camera said he didn’t go to school. But those defence lawyers must have been highly educated. Education needs to be universal not only in access but also in practice, addressing in this case the issues that link jurisprudence to justice. These men – the rapists, their lawyers – knew the law, but they didn’t know right from wrong.
Until quite recently the repetition of misogynist discourse, whether full proof or diluted, gave many men access to one of the largest discourse communities on earth – like-minded men.
Despite the advances of recent decades, the struggle – as evidenced in the UK by the abuse directed at female commentators such as Mary Beard – is far from over. And there is so often a sense of slippage, of tolerance and the notion of equality itself reverting to a shabby and ancient and muttered norm.
Events like these prompt reflection on human rights, which at their root point, their simplest utterance, say we are born equal.
Slavoj Žižek wrote recently in the London Review Of Books about human rights maintaining a ‘marginal grey zone’ – a sort of liminal space at the city limits of religious law where, for example, ‘the right to own property is a right to steal (to exploit others)’. But one could equally well argue – and need only open the Old Testament to learn – that religions have grey zones of their own, lurching from mercy to revenge in ways that can only be resolved through selective interpretation.
The notion of human rights is important (and maligned by religious extremists) precisely because it bypasses the accumulated and conflicting norms of human culture with its believers, infidels, nations and castes. And it says, and it said after the specific historical moment of World War II, look where all this has got us, and can’t we do better.
True equality, not to mention the progressive education that would support and sustain it, is a new idea. The parents who (like Jyoti’s) celebrate a girl when others would not, the parents who celebrate a disabled child when others do not, the parents who celebrate a gay child when others cannot – these parents participate in the new idea, and become educators.
Now, I’m of Indian heritage but I’ve never lived in India. So I wouldn’t presume to understand the wider social dynamics around the banning of this documentary. I’ve read that some people are angry with the BBC for glorifying the psychotic rapists and somehow tarnishing the nation’s image, I’ve read that others are angry on behalf of the BBC, for the unfair banning of this film. In neither scenario have enough people been given access to the bitter truth that this documentary bears.
What is decency? Who defines it, and where have they set the bar?
What is decency? How is it arbitrated and implemented, and to whose benefit?
What is decency? Has there been a vote, or is too dangerous to democratize it?
I don’t think girls benefit at all from the general discourse on ‘decency’.
We can seek to understand how societal breakdown fuelled by corruption and inequality led to such an event. We can theorize on policy reform, we can dig into feminist theory, we can lay out all the necessary critical frameworks that need slotting into the social mindset. But if we don’t somehow all start believing that little girls have the same rights as little boys, the road will be interminable.
We might start by truly valuing our daughters’ intellectual and academic achievements. What if her graduation from higher education was the moment when we threw the big party for all our friends and loved ones? What if we spoilt her and celebrated her not when she got married, but when she got her dream job and started standing on her own two feet? We might stop asking her ‘when are you going to have children’, and we might view motherhood in the context of her whole life and not as the pinnacle of her achievements.
What if all men and women were to force a resetting of the scales so that the gender gap was bridged in practice, in the trends we set in our own families and our own communities? Then we might change our vocabulary when it comes to raising girls once and for all, and for the better.