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Daily Archives: August 26, 2008

16 Angry Women

Remember that scene in Chak De India where the entire hockey team ends up trashing a McDonald’s and beating up a bunch of louts who verbally harass two of their teammates? Beth of BethLovesBollywood thought-provokingly writes:

Apart from this scene, Chak De! India is for me a feminist film, unapologetically, boldly, with heart and humor. But women taking on the worst behavior of men and/or male-established/dominated society is not what feminism about. You don’t get to attack people because they mistreat you. Of course these jackasses deserved to be punished… [b]ut vigilante violence isn’t really the answer here… In a story that highlights personal and professional success by playing by the rules and behaving ethically and with concern for others, it doesn’t fit. I’m so disappointed that not only does the movie have the girls engage in this behavior, it also has this outburst of short tempers and violence serve as the bonding moment, the experience that enables the very existence of the team continue. What’s the message here? The enemy of my enemy is my friend? We will rise when we beat down others? The people who mistreated us behave like this, so we should too? Violence demonstrates our potential for greatness?

My answer, and i promise it’s not a copout, is that it’s complicated.

On the one hand, she has it absolutely right. Vigilante justice might solve a particular crime at a specific point in time but in the long run and larger scheme of things, it’s an ineffectual band aid applied on a deep wound. The lesson those men in Chak De are likely to have learned is not to refrain from eve teasing, as we call it in India, but to target girls singly because groups can turn nasty and, above all else, to keep away from girls with hockey sticks. That is most important.

But on the other hand, I’m an Indian woman.

When I was eleven, a cousin and I were followed home by a group of grown men who kept describing the various ways they’d like to fuck us and how much we deserved it – because I’d gone to the store down the street from our house with no one but my nineteen-year-old cousin sister to give me company. My pocket-sized, hot tempered self immediately wanted to stand my ground and throw punches, or maybe a few rocks while I was it. But my cousin all but dragged me home, holding on to my hand with a white knuckled grip, signalling me with her eyes to keep quiet every time I opened my mouth to say something, hurrying as fast we could without actually breaking into a run, and we didn’t stop until we were inside the main gates of the house and the security guard threw the lock behind us.

This was not a big city where crime was rampant. This was a small town in southern India, where my cousins and I couldn’t walk down the street without ten aunties calling home to check whether our mothers knew we were wandering about “like vagabonds”. That day when we came back home and told our mothers what had taken place, my aunt simply informed us that we were not to go to the store any more and could send one of the servants to buy whatever we wanted.

We were not poor and we were not defenceless – perhaps the two of us couldn’t have taken them on the way I wanted to on the street, but there was plenty we could have done. Yet the easiest solution was to apparently take away our freedom because who wanted to get involved in that kind of mess? Dealing with the police, registering complaints, and all for what? So some guy could get a few licks of some constable’s cane and spend a night breaking the government’s bread before he went back on the street and possibly created more troubles for us?

It was the first time I’d ever been harassed on the street and I’ve undergone the experience plenty of times since then, but what sets that one incident apart in my memory, is the laughter of those men as we ran into our house. Perhaps what he did that day was nothing more than idle amusement for him, and he really didn’t mean anything by it. Perhaps he was a bully and this was how he got his kicks. I don’t know. I remember feeling vaguely threatened, eleven year olds not being used to much sexual banter at least in my day, but what I remember most clearly is the feeling of impotent rage that shook me when I heard that man laugh. It stays with me to this day.

This is why that scene in Chak De struck such a chord in every single Indian woman I know. There is not one of us that has not experienced a moment like that one. A moment when we would have done anything just to rip some motherfucker’s throat out but had to satisfy ourselves with a few choice insults or maybe a dignified silence depending upon the circumstances, our personalities and our upbringing. If there’s something that Indian women across caste, class and regional lines can relate to, it’s being harassed. Therefore it was a cathartic moment to watch those guys get beaten up – our long suppressed wishes were being fulfilled on screen in one glorious scene. And unlike other Bollywood movies, where women only get to beat up evil doers in the most “eeks! don’t break my itsy bitsy fingernail” uber-ditsy feminine manner possible by using lampshades and sandals, and that too only with the help of either a cunning, faithful dog or a massive crowd, these women were using hockey sticks, those oh-so-macho tools of every gangster’s trade and they didn’t care if they broke a few tables along with their fingernails.

Reprehensible? Yes. Enjoyable? Hell, yes! Hypocritical? Well… it’s complicated. No, really! Consider:

The Law. Technically speaking, there are laws against eve teasing. Nothing soul destroying but it will get you sent to the slammer for a couple of nights and maybe fined. Reality is far different. It starts with the policeman telling you he’ll “take care of it” and not to bother your pretty little head about it. The “taking care of it” might entail his rushing at the man or the group of men in question and making them run away by waving his truncheon threateningly at them or maybe giving them a “good scare” by threatening to lock them up and then finally letting him go after he’s emptied his pockets.

The Family. If, by some miracle, you manage to get someone arrested for their nasty behavior, then it’s very likely that your family won’t be too pleased. Going to the police and registering a complaint against eve teasers might end up harming the victim‘s reputation. You’d think this is ignorant rural bumpkin behavior. You’d be wrong. Take one of my cousins who just abandoned her degree at a famous engineering college because a group of male students had developed a habit of bursting into the women’s hostel in the middle of the night to create a ruckus every time they got a good drunk on. This is a girl whose maternal uncle is a Minister, whose parents are well educated professionals settled abroad, and who is certainly not hurting for money. Rather than place a few calls and take a stand, her family chose to forget the three years she’d plugged into her engineering degree and place her elsewhere because, I suppose, least said soonest mended. And even if your family stood by you and wanted to bring the guilty to justice, the perpetrator’s family would probably slip immediately into denial mode and refuse to believe that their dear child could be capable of such heinous behavior and strive to portray themselves as victims of a heartless Westernized, feminist culture out to destroy their values and their lives. Which would, of course, make no sense logically but would set off deep alarm bells because it used the five-alarm words “Western culture” and “feminism”. And at the end of it all, the man in question would have learned precisely nothing from his experience.

The Culture. This culture of silence, deflecting blame and taking the path of least resistance floats on the fact that a lot of Indian men and women have limited social skills when it comes to the opposite gender. Not all of them, but a lot of them, especially in smaller cities and in less advantaged or more conservative communities where segregation is the order of the day.

There was this kid in my high school who really liked this one girl who was a year junior to him. She was a brilliant student, very fair skinned, soft spoken and all her close friends were girls. All important requirements for a proper girl in our hometown. He was lucky not to flunk out, very dark, and addicted to displays of machismo that were all too likely to backfire like the bits fluff he grew on his upper lip. As per the dynamics of conservative small town South India, there was no way in hell the princess would even look at him, especially because she was also a Good Girl and didn’t do things like that because it offended her moral principles. So what’s a guy to do to get her attention? He pulled off her dupatta in the stairwell during recess which nearly (or maybe it did?) drove her to tears. And then he followed her around everywhere she went, offering her little gifts and sweet cards from Hallmark. She did what soft-spoken, moral girls do all over India when faced with a situation like this – she tied him a rakhi and hoped that was an end to it.

She thought he was a scumbag. Every single girl in school thought he was a scumbag. And all the guys rushed to tell us that he wasn’t that bad, he was actually a good guy, he didn’t mean anything by it. The faceless 21 year old in this article, Raja Kumar, puts it best: “I was never really taught how to act around a girl. I thought teasing was the way to get them to notice me.”

And he isn’t entirely wrong. I’m sure he’s closely related to one woman at least and he doesn’t usually interact with her by complimenting her ass, so with a little thought I’m sure he knew what he was doing was objectionable. But there actually are men and women who think this kind of behavior, as long as it comes from someone they like or consider personable, is romantic. If that boy in my school had been better looking or more charismatic, I bet there would have been girls who thought his behavior deliciously deplorable rather than just plain old deplorable.

This is why it’s “cute” and “fun” when a Bollywood hero (or a hero from any of India’s fim industries for that matter – this is a national sterotype) stalks the heroine and “teases” her unmercifully until she “realizes” that he’s being an asshole because he “loves” her. But it’s terrible and threatening when the villain does the same thing because well, he’s kind of unfortunate looking and is clearly motivated by impure thoughts rather than pure ones. The hero is the guy who stalks the girl because he wants to marry her and father adorable little babies with her; the villain is the guy who even if he wants to marry her and father adorable little babies with her, only wants to do so via some athletic, kinky sex unimaginable and shocking to those who’re pure of heart.

So when those 16 women in Chak De India took up their hocket sticks and laid all those men out, they were fulfilling the fantasies of millions of Indian women who’d never seen anything like it before.

[WaPo article via Jezebel]

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Posted by on August 26, 2008 in Entertainment, Life, Movies, Personal, Video