Phool Bai, of ward No. 15 of Kurwal village in Vidisha district in Madhya Pradesh, has been ostracized by her community of Basods, a scheduled caste that produces bamboo goods. The charge levelled against this young woman is that she was seen speaking directly to her father-in-law. The community leaders say she has challenged the tradition (shared in some degree by most traditional communities in India), which decrees that young daughters-in-law must speak only when spoken to, and use emissaries (ranging from children to the husband’s younger brothers and sisters), if need be, to convey urgent messages to the senior males in her father-in-law’s house. When Phool Bai’s family approached caste elders urging forgiveness, they were told they must pay a fine of Rs20,000 and organize a bhoj (feast) for the entire community for the rehabilitation of the guilty daughter-in-law, or else they too would be excommunicated.
As media, we usually chase the spoken word: talks between heads of state, speeches made in Parliament or outside on the streets, lectures by eminent thinkers, the chatter of Page 3 socialites and the resounding fury of public processions and riots. To embellish the stories, we chase the leaders some more, asking them for comments and sound bites. But we seldom notice silence: the deafening silence that reigns over city parts during a curfew, the silence of a crowd witnessing a woman being thrashed or molested, the silence of a church burnt down by armed miscreants. Silence is not always peaceful. In fact, peace is hardly ever totally silent. It is filled with all sorts of soothing gentle sounds: a breeze among the trees, the lapping of waves, the distant cooing of doves and a mother humming a lullaby. Total silence takes the mind close to death, hence terms such as “deathly silence” or “ominously quiet”.
The tabloid report on the Phool Bai case did not explore the silence that surrounded the story. What was so vital that she was moved to break the enforced silence and speak directly to her father-in-law? Was she ill and in need of medical attention? Was she being ill-treated in his house beyond endurance, and ultimately sought his intervention as the head of the family? Or was it just some simple joy she wished to share with her husband’s father, whose house was now her home? Had the correspondent probed this, he would have unveiled strange hidden depths in the lives of millions of married women.
The enforced silence that women such as Phool Bai must suffer in the name of tradition or religion is a weapon forged in the domestic labs within homes. From there, it gets picked up by tyrants of all kinds and used to great effect to subjugate and rule. Many fathers, primary schoolteachers, religious leaders and heads of state still use their traditional authority to enforce silence, segregate the weak from the strong and then ensure that the weak remain perennially weak and pliant to their will. All through history, the silence of the lambs has helped sustain gender, caste and race hierarchies. Such silence is contagious. Once a few members of a group get severely punished for speaking out of turn, the rest can be easily converted into timid approval seekers who will stifle their real thoughts and articulate only those prescribed as correct. As researchers, TV anchors and gynaecologists will testify, women, compared with men, find it extremely difficult to say what needs to be said precisely by focusing on the content instead of “correctness” of posture and tone. They mostly struggle to balance what they are saying with what they actually wish to say, and get angry or tearful in the process. That’s when onlookers will wrinkle their noses and say you are wasting time on empty-headed chatterboxes. The truth is that the amount of talk by women has been measured less against the amount of male talk than against the traditional expectation of silence from women. And a child-like or flirtatious vocal style that society foists upon women as truly feminine, also becomes a drawback when they demand a powerful role.
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Given the politics of speech in the subcontinent, most women have come to prefer talking in their own single-sex groups for the double advantages of having a real conversation and being listened to. But often that is not enough. The community elders who chose to punish Phool Bai for talking out or lashed a young teenager in Swat are actually fighting to preserve a way of life that suppresses dissent and subjugates women. Because women have not dared to articulate their objections to this, it still justifies and sustains tribal caste panchayats (councils) that go on to prescribe stoning of dayans (women deemed witches) in Bihar, death for eloping lovers in Haryana and Punjab and excommunication for families whose women dare to open their mouths in front of male elders in the family. They are afraid that once women such as Phool Bai find their tongue, the democratic village panchayats may become the favoured arbiters of justice. And armed as they are, with a million women elected under the reserved category, they will see to it that tribal laws that guarantee a male supremacist society become the stuff of history.
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org