Margaret Mead and other anthropologists have conducted cross-cultural studies that show women can be as fierce as men in self-defence. Think history and mythology.
Women from Kali to Razia Sultana to Rani Jhansi have all borne arms in major wars and fought pitched battles to defend the family caves, forts, or land against invaders.
Yet the perception in India persists that women are weak and passive by nature and faced with physical violence at home or outside, are easy pushovers. And indeed, given their social conditioning, most Indian women are incapable of swift and violent retaliation when threatened. This proverbial worm may be turning in western Uttar Pradesh, which has been registering the highest number of crimes against women in India.
Neglected and exploited by patriarchal society for centuries, the long-suffering women here seem to have wised up to the fact that virtue may not be its own reward, but gun ownership certainly is. So, in both the urban and rural areas, they are fast arming themselves.
A rise in women’s applications for gun licences at the offices of district magistrates confirms this fact. In rural Meerut, of 9,000 registered arms, 1,000 are owned by women. In Meerut city, out of 11,000 gun owners, at least 900 are women, and according to police sources, some 7,000 applications for gun licences from women are pending approval.
The numbers have shown a 20% increase per year since 2006, with at least 700 women applying for licences in 2008 alone. Out of every 10 applications for purchasing firearms in Meerut district today, at least three are filed by women.
On P.L. Sharma Marg in Meerut, which is lined with shops selling licensed arms, dealers testify to an increasing interest in firearms among women. It has become, one dealer said, like an expensive piece of jewellery—they display it among friends to earn their envy and admiration.
The urban women, it seems, prefer pistols or revolvers they can carry around in purses, but their rural sisters want the big ‘uns, rifles that they flourish to great effect as they move about in the village.
The western part of India has traditionally been wilder than the east. Actually the more prosperous an area, the more people it attracts across its borders for easy pickings. Western UP is no exception. Gangsters flock here from as far as Bihar and Mumbai and kidnappings for ransom, rapes and abductions are common.
The area also has a tradition of violent crime and family feuds that carry on for generations. Most are traceable to one of the three perennial sources of fratricidal wars: gold, women and land (zar, zoru and zameen).
In most families involved in such feuds, women make soft targets. Also, it is believed that by attacking and molesting women, the rival clans can easily denude the family of izzat (honour) and lower the moustache of their proud male owners (moonchh neechy ker detey hain). So, women are now freely allowed and even encouraged to buy guns, both for self-protection and enhancing the family’s izzat.
And no, sons and husbands will not talk them out of this obsession with arms. We are told that today they actually encourage them to acquire guns and even attend training schools so they know how to use them effectively. The local district rifle association reports a rise in female membership. Women, we are told, do not sneak in here. They are usually accompanied by husbands.
While urban women still fight shy of displaying their fire power and keep their preferred weapon—pistols—in bags or out of sight under pillows or in drawers, rural women display their rifles proudly. In courtyards or in the fields, they can be often spotted sitting on a string cot with their gun next to them. They like to flourish their rifles as they watch over their fields, to keep scheming rival clans away.
Women in villages such as Bhadaura, Jhinjhokhar and Karnaval that belong to families involved in feuds carry their guns at all times to avoid being shot at or molested in the fields. Wives of many local political leaders, most of whom invite intense jealousies and rivalries, are also opting for licensed firearms.
Then there are women who may have acquired guns not because they wish to use them but because their husbands are history sheeters and their licence has been revoked due to their involvement in some kind of criminal activity. Such women know nothing whatsoever about handling a gun, and when quizzed about what they have bought it for, innocently reply that ‘he’ (married women here will not take their husbands’ names) has got her to acquire it and only ‘he’ knows what it is for.
One such wife of a leader from an eminent political party said she got to know of her application for a gun licence only when her husband’s personal assistant came to the house to get her signatures on the application. “I was making roti,” she said. “I washed my hands and signed. What I signed I do not know. He only said it is to get a gun in my name for him.”
What if gun-toting women were in time to learn the same defiance that the Indian sepoys showed in 1857? What would happen if all those battered wives and raped teens raised their guns against all their tormentors as the baghis (dacoits) of Chambal?
Remember bandit queens Kusuma and Phoolan Devi?
Maybe men should think twice before making guns women’s only source of self-defence.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org