“The difference between smiling and laughing is fascinating,” says social scientist Deepa Narayan, author of a new book, Chup: Breaking The Silence About Being India’s Women. “Smiling is good, girls are trained to smile, because that’s pleasing to others. But when you laugh, you have a self, if you have a self, you exist, and if you exist you have power.” Congress leader Renuka Chowdhury, who was recently mocked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for laughing uproariously, would agree with the thesis Narayan puts forth in a powerful chapter on the unbridled, raucous laughter of women that shatters the silence surrounding their right to be heard.
Chup is filled with stories of rebellion, resistance and resilience. Consider Meera, for instance, who ran away from home at 17 to escape the casual tyranny of a benevolent man who controlled the finances and fates of the women in the house. It’s a story that plays out with predictable monotony in the emotionally vulnerable spaces women occupy in Indian households, often silently, brokering deals with their most intimate abusers every day, just to remain alive.
“I remember that deep sense of choking,” she tells Narayan. “In my family, as a child, I learnt to observe too much, silent, listening. My mother is a good listener; not my father, he is very dogmatic, always strong opinions. My father is a liberal in his thoughts, ‘you are free to choose anything, it is your life’ but ‘being a doctor is desirable.’”
Meera eventually took a train to Chennai, with no money or means to sustain herself, and found shelter with a group of sex workers. She looked after their children while they were away at work in exchange for money to study the subject she loved (psychology) instead of the one she had been forced to take for her father’s approval (medicine). It was the safest she had felt since leaving her middle-class home in New Delhi’s Saket—living under a bridge in a colony of sex workers.
Interviewing 400 women, Narayan documents in a style that is almost clinical, many accounts of abuse, patriarchy, coercion, even complicity—some of which turn into tales of breaking free.
For many women in India, the gang rape and murder of a physiotherapist in 2012 was the catalyst for a major churn. The moment spilled over into their most intimate spaces and conversations, forcing, perhaps for the first time, society to break the conspiracy of silence around sexual abuse. But it was not until the recent outpouring of rage on social media, under #MeToo, that the universal resonance of gender violence became truly comprehensible. “There was a lot of public discussion on law, order and ‘culture’ (after the 2012 incident),” Narayan says. “(I wanted to understand) what is it about culture that could explain violence against women.”
She came up with two questions that defined her project for the next three years: “What does it mean to be a woman today?” and “What does it mean to be a man today?” In spite of their deceptive simplicity, the questions brought out the rawest emotions in most people, even among the most diffident.
Narayan was a victim of sexual violation when she was 7, but didn’t speak about it to anyone. This silence is the thread that binds the women in her book and gives it its title. In Chup, even the most vocal, strong-willed and independent-minded women admit to losing their voices in situations that thrive on systematic exploitation.
“Chup is used so frequently that the Oxford English Dictionary has now accepted it as an English word,” Narayan says. It is a word familiar to women in the subcontinent from their early years; they are usually told: Don’t talk too much. Don’t laugh too loudly. Don’t explore your bodies. Don’t make allies. “Chup is an entry point to ‘shutting down’. It’s not just about the voice, chup is about negating your entire existence,” Narayan argues.
Woman after woman in the book recalls related experiences: from being violated on public transport to being solicited for sex in exchange for a legitimate job opportunity. Some of these accounts are particularly heartbreaking.
Take for instance, the story of a girl who was raped at the age of 13 on her way back after she had invited friends to her birthday party. “Nobody cared about me. Everyone, my parents, the neighbours and the police, only wanted me to answer questions about my virginity,” she tells Narayan. “Nobody came to my birthday the next day…. The police ate my cake and I hated that…instead of telling my parents to take action, they discouraged them. ‘Don’t do it,’ they said. ‘Aapki beti hai, naam kharab hoga, jaane do (It’s your daughter, her name will be spoilt, let him go)’. I guess, somewhere, my parents also thought like that. Since then I’ve stopped celebrating birthdays,” she adds.
“The fact that women put each other down is also part of the strategy to keep them divided. When women get united, there will be change,” Narayan says. “The moment a woman stands up alone, she is challenging the system. In India, the battle has to become collective. Only numbers have the power to change the system.”
Can men, even feminist men, be real allies in the fight for equality, given that they, by default, come from a pre-determined position of privilege?
“I don’t think we’re going to see massive change without men as allies. Unless you can work with people who hold the power, you would be fighting forever,” Narayan adds, quickly clarifying that this does not mean women should negotiate with their oppressors. “If we say that the cultural system has to change, both men and women have to change. It has to be as much a revolution for men as for women. I’m not excusing men’s behaviour, but keeping aside the criminal issues, in everyday sexism, men often don’t know they are being sexist. They have to be educated.”