Do young girls grow breasts like how rainflies grow wings? I was in my home town in Kerala last year on a short visit, when this thought had occurred. The newspaper that day was screaming of yet another women-abuse story. This time a 23 year old medical student, Jagruti wanting to return home after watching a movie, boarded a city bus in New Delhi. The bus driver and his friends pounced on her to rape and then torture her to a painful, senseless death. Just the kind of story that stuns you with its sheer brutality and leaves you melancholically lost in thought. And so I gazed absentmindedly at the movements of rain flies buzzing around the oil lamps that are lit every nightfall in most homes in this village. The rain flies appear at the start of monsoon season every year, get their wings, get attracted to light emitted by the oil lamps and then get burnt to die a meaningless death. So common is the sight that we just stop noticing or caring. Just like stories of crime against women.
However few other stories do stand out. Like the incredible story from across the border in Pakistan that grabbed headlines earlier, of an Education Activist, Blogger and Chairperson of District Child Assembly of the impoverished Swat Valley, Pakistan. Impressive set of titles, especially when it is of a girl still studying in school. This was the time when Taliban had just taken over the region and had begun brutally banning TV, music and girl’s education in the region. Yusufzai Malala aged 13 and still in Grade 7, began writing blogs for BBC describing life under Taliban regime. By 15, she was championing the cause fearlessly. “How dare The Taliban take away my right to education?” spoke Yusufzai in a speech that was covered by all newspapers and television in the region last year. Taliban’s response was swift and involved shooting her point blank on her head and neck while she was returning from school and proudly claiming responsibility.
Cross the Indian Ocean and you reach Kenya, home of the famous Masai tribe, one that Kakenya Ntaiya belonged to. A bright girl, she was set to follow the traditional path for girls born in this part of the world. Engaged at the age of 5, she was expected to participate in a female circumcision ceremony as a young teenager and then get married. With rusted kitchen knives being frequently used, and with no pain killers and medical attention, female circumcision is extremely painful, with girls bleeding for days and without proper medical care some even die. Desperate to find a way out, Kakenya made a deal with her father. She would undergo the traditional Masai rite of passage of female circumcision if he would let her go to high school. A decision that would one day, change not just her life, but her community as well, forever.
Come down South from Kenya and you are in Malawi were Chisomo Kamanga lived a good life thanks to a family business that she and her husband started more than a decade ago. Now they owned a house, car and had 2 daughters. Then one day her husband died in a car accident. Just a couple of days later, while still in mourning, her husband’s relatives descended and took everything away from her, her house, car and property, throwing her on the street. That’s how it’s been in Malawi, since women are not expected to be capable of earning anything and so normally don’t own anything, by virtue of being a wife. Her own family then started pushing her to undergo “widow cleansing”. A practice that requires her to have sex almost immediately after her husband’s death, so her husband’s spirit does not visit her and curse her family. The practise involves having unprotected sex. Most villages have a professional cleanser who charge exorbitantly for providing his services. And since the cleanser, Chisomo chose was HIV positive, she got it too, to add to her woes.
Down south from Malawi, is South Africa and Durban where I live. Living in our suburb is young Jesse Ford. She had taken her dog for a walk at the nearby Inanda dam one afternoon with her father. Four men attacked them, tied her up and raped her, while her father was forced to watch.
When I finally woke up from my reverie, it was late at night and the rainflies by now were all dead around the oil lamps, even as the lamp kept flickering all through the night. Just another tradition that has carried on in our family for countless generations – no not my dad but from my mother’s side (surprise, surprise!). You see in Kerala we had this unique matriarchal system called Tarwad, that survived for almost a thousand year. “Tarwad” refers to a family unit which consists of all descendants of a common ancestress in the female line. Women marry and have the comfort of staying back with their mother, instead of going to their husbands’ home. They enjoy equal share of family property that is administered by her brothers. Hence women did not suffer from the 3 scourges of Indian marriages – the financially crippling dowry system, tantrums of her husband & his family and finally the socially induced tragedy of widowhood. Any wonder then that Kerala became the first province in India to achieve 100% literacy. Again, any wonder then that Keralite women today have ventured out to every corner of the world taking on jobs such as nurses, teachers, doctors etc.
Sadly, Tarwad system has been a glorious exception of our past. Fact is, at the start of civilization history does show that we did start with men and women being equal, before we lost our ways. Today the advent of democracy, education and technology is helping correct things at a rapid pace. The impact of it all becomes evident when we see developed countries. USA and Europe have witnessed women outpacing men in educational achievements. Their struggle is of a different kind. They are battling to figure out why in spite of the academic performance, women are still under-represented in leadership positions in most fields. Sheryl Sandberg COO of Face book, in her latest book “Lean In”, suggests that changes in mind-set are required. For example, she refers to a study that shows success and likability are positively correlated for men and inversely correlated for women. Successful women are seen to be “pushy” and “arrogant” whereas the same quality is looked up on men and admired as being “ambitious”. How woman are short selling themselves, due to their fear of having an ambition and giving up on their dreams all too quickly after finishing their education. Sheryl wants to see a day when the world has equitable number of men and women leaders.
Sheryl’s prescription applies to Africa and India just as well, since it is about women discovering their own strengths and living up to their potential. It’s already taking place as can be seen by revisiting those stories again. The bullets could not kill Yusufzai Malala – physically and spiritually. Miraculously she is back from hospital and in news nowadays, signing multi-million book deals and taking on the cause with new vigour. Kakenya’s father kept his promise, so she could finish her high school and then went on to get scholarship to study further in USA. Today she is doing well in US and visits her home town to build a number of schools for girls that is changing traditional customs and practises against women. Chisomo was found by a social activist, who fought for her in courts, and got her property back. Jes Ford used her ordeal to start “Jes Ford Foundation’ to assist and educate rape survivors. Finally Jagruti– means Awakening in Hindi (a name given by the media) ended up achieving something absolutely incredible. Her death quite simply, woke up a nation’s conscience to the horrors that women’s suffer daily, silently. She’s become a symbol of a fighter, an inspiration and a catalyst of change. Today in India, as a result, laws are getting changed and police, courts and media are becoming more sensitive to women’s issues.
Very late that night, as I wiped away the dead rainflies spread around the still burning lamps, I finally figured. Women: her time has come. And it does not matter what you throw at her she will not be rainflies anymore, fated to die at the altars of oil lamps at home. Instead her destiny is to be the oil lamps themselves bringing light and life to every household and create a humane society.