I remember attending a meeting in which I was addressed as “behn” (sister). I had exchanged looks with the friend I was with and wanted to snigger but had managed to control it. Such a word had come from someone who was much elder to me. I was also a bit stunned as it is definitely not a general practice in Delhi. However, I didn’t exactly mind it as it is nothing to get offended about.
But today as I think about this practice being common in some parts of the country, I see it with the state and nature of women empowerment in our country. In the backdrop of recent reported cases of crime and violence against women in India, from the religious, spiritual and intellectual experts to the common people have raised their opinions about violence and women’s status in general. Even barring the infamous suggestion to address the rapist as “brother”, the propaganda generally addresses women or the potential victims as someone’s sister or mother. So in this way, there is an attempt to reach out to and pacify the potential rapist by telling him about his own “insecurity”. Even in general, women are often identified primarily as someone’s sister, mother or wife. We should respect women because they are mothers and are responsible for our birth. We should respect them as they are sisters and sacrifices for us. We should respect women because they become the wives who are primarily responsible for the nurture of the household and the family. These roles sanctify their identity as women. These roles sanctify the relationships so we often have a man declaring a female friend as a sister or like a sister and vice versa to “sanctify” the relationship.
But these norms and logic have certain problems. What about women who are neither anyone’s sister, mother nor wife? Is it fine to question their character or dishonour them? The society says yes.
Traditionally, women were confined to the domestic sphere and rarely, ventured out in the public sphere. Their relations and interaction were also often confined to the domestic sphere and so primarily with females. So a woman was discouraged to speak in front of not just someone beyond the threshold of the house but even to the male members due to the assumed lack of enough “skills” and “knowledge”. Those women who defied these norms have often been labelled as women with a “loose character”. The definition of the “women with a loose character” has undergone changes but the concept has not been dismissed.
So today, with women venturing out in the shining sun and returning with the moonlight, the definition has changed a bit. So it is ok to not only share the same classroom with boys but also the same workspace. So the interaction has increased. However, the concept of “maryada” and “women with loose character” has not been shunned. They have acquired different meanings in contemporary India. And this is where I talk about the continued obsession with fitting women in the roles of mother, sister and wife. The inter-gender interaction has been allowed but the relationships still have to be sanctified. In a country that boasts of women empowerment and bringing women at par with men, women are still seen only as mothers, sisters and wives. They still struggle for an identity, to be accepted and seen in the role they want to be seen in.
Why can’t we see a co-worker as a co-worker and not always as a female co-worker? Why does a woman with mangalsutra and sindoor is more respected? Why on earth do they anyway need those symbols? Why do we always have to tag a relationship of interaction, why do we always have to specify or justify our relationship with a woman? Why is a sister more respected and accepted than a female friend? What is the fear behind having women as friends?
Because for a woman, morality is still identified with her roles as a mother, sister and wife. Even though some of us have accepted that they should “venture out” in the public sphere, that they have proved their capabilities and they are at par with men, they still should be in their boundaries. And these boundaries of morality have been defined by a restricted and much controlled mobility and interaction. They still have to be weak and dependent on the male members of her kin and to be still protected and guarded. They still need to be tamed.