Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Panties, Pubs and Protests

A couple of years ago, a friend was on a business trip from Delhi and we decided to head out to Brighton for the weekend. Not, mind you, because Brighton was particularly attractive but because she had read about the place in all those old English romance novels. Then a couple of other friends - also from Delhi and travelling through the UK - joined us. Finally, there were about half dozen Indian women, all in our thirties and forties, who hit Brighton night-life on a balmy summer Saturday.

Many drinks later, while sitting out on the hotel balcony, my friend turned around and asked, "When we met all those years ago, could you have imagined we would ever do this?"

Her eyes were wide with wonder. And perhaps just a dash of tears. Nostalgia or perhaps just too many gin and tonics.

All of us knew exactly what she meant. We had all grown up in small towns in India in conservative families. Most of us did not count as the colonial elite, separated from that echelon by economy and politics. Perhaps, out of the group, I had the most international upbringing, more thanks to my father's government job rather than any active parental choice. Many of the women on that balcony had been brought up with limited dreams: go to university, get a (respectable!) job, get married and raise a family.

But we had fought hard to find new dreams, and then to make them come true. Every woman on that balcony had forged a brilliant career, often rising to the top against all odds in her chosen field. There were extra-marital and pre-marital sex, divorces, schisms with the family, travails of being a single mother in fairly conservative society that linked us all together. We had rebelled and we had survived.

And through out it all, even ten years ago, we could never have imagined that motley group of friends could ever manage (or even afford to) travel overseas, shop, party, bond, just live on our terms!

We - from the generation born in the 60s and 70s - were lucky to grow up in times of tumultuous change. The choices we had made would have been impossible for our mothers. The country's steadily improving economics through out our lifetimes has meant that we can have careers that could not have been imagined even in our own adolescent years. We are the first fortunate ones.

Just as the ones who have followed are the next generation. They are products of an era that can push the boundaries of change further. My mother's generation had to choose between studying science and arts: "tradition" decreed that "good" girls studied arts, especially since science involved "mingling" with boys. My generation fought to wear jeans and "western" clothes because "good traditional" girls didn't wear those. And now the next generation is fighting to be hold hands publicly with their partners, to travel safely on public transport with their friends of a different gender (instead of curtailing their movements), and for the right to unwind in a public space after a hard day's work. Same war, different battle.

The weapons of this new battle are different too. Our generation struggled mostly alone, enlisting help from friends and family, but rarely a larger like-minded community. Our battles were often fought with cunning, secrecy, never fully and openly challenging the cultural and moral thekedaars of our society. When we made our choices, we knew we would take the consequences and prepared for them: we went home early so as to be "safe," walked the streets armed with a hockey stick, learned martial arts. And somewhere deep inside, we hid the quiet despair of having to fight for what our male counterparts took for granted.

No more. The current battle has been taken to the moral thekedaars: on facebook, by internet, in pubs and across the world. The pink panties protest is an apt response to the attempts at terrorising innocent young women for daring to choose their own lifestyles.

It is particularly effective tactic because for many decades, the foul-mouthed moral thekedaars have used vile language to intimidate and disgust us. Many of us have chosen to ignore their disgusting language and actions. And they have constantly benefitted from the idea of "good" Indian women - who are too "delicate" and "well-bred" to engage with their thuggish tactics. Their formulation of "good Indian women" (the ones who don't take them on) vs the "westernized bad" ones (the ones who will) has long helped them dominate and control the discourse about women in the country.

The Pink Chaddi campaign has only just begun to change that dynamic. Finally Indian women have begun to claim space on the political turf: once the moral police crossed that final line of maryaada, there is nothing wrong with using knickers - pink or otherwise - to shame, horrify and fight them.

One final word: the moral thekedaars have already shown themselves ignorant of history of India and its traditions. Seems that despite their delusions of religiosity, they are also as ignorant of religion, especially Hinduism. Otherwise they would realise that the time of Sita and Draupadi is well over; the time of Durga and Kali begins now!