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What do you remember of your 20-year-old self? Perhaps you were a student in college, discovering your world. Maybe you fell in love for the first time. Discovered poetry and the power of words. Found a new passion—painting, photography, saving baby sparrows.
Whatever it was that you were doing, I can only hope that your time in college was a time of passion, idealism and discovery. Of animated conversations that stretched late into the night. Of discarding philosophers and embracing new ones. Of believing in yourself and in your world; of being convinced that you had the power to change things for the better.
Perhaps Gurmehar Kaur is that kind of 20-year-old who believes that holding up a series of posters will bring about world peace. I’m pretty sure you know the back story as told through a four-plus-minute video made a year ago: She was two when her dad was killed in Kargil, at six she tried to stab a woman in a burkha in the mistaken belief that all Muslims were somehow tied to Pakistan and was then told by her mum that “Pakistan did not kill my dad, war did” and so on.
You are certainly free to disagree with that view. Maybe you never liked those candle-wavers at the Wagah border either. Maybe singing Hum Honge Kamyaab makes you cringe. But in the political fallout from the explosion of the Gurmehar video—or at least one selected clip—you would be forgiven for believing that Gurmehar Kaur was not just another college student but, in fact, Public Enemy #1.
This was not hawks v doves. This was national politics through the prism of student activism and its ongoing quest to define nationalism. Instead of leaving it alone, everyone jumped in with various pronouncements, leaving behind the unmistakable reek of patriarchy.
On the one hand you had assorted athletes, entertainers and politicians question the source of pollution of this young girl’s mind—because don’t we all know that women are incapable of thinking for themselves?
So, someone sees her as a political pawn, another asks who is poisoning her young mind and a third writes an open letter admiring her “pluck and courage” but then proceeds to mansplain—if you ever wondered what the word meant, this was an excellent time to learn—war and peace as a matter of course correction.
Never mind that some of the tweets actually became a signal to launch a troll attack leading Gurmehar to withdraw from the ongoing Save Delhi University campaign as she had “gone through enough.”
Yet, the liberal counter-narrative was, in large parts, equally condescending. In its over-reach to see her as some kind of modern Joan of Arc—if the video was a year old, then that heroism surely is moot—then the point that Gurmehar Kaur is just another student was lost. In its bid to see her in epic frames, the epithets included heroic, brave, warrior, we see a modern-day replay of how patriarchal societies view women as either devis or devils with no space for a middle ground.
In the days running up to 8 March, International Women’s Day, the central point about the Gurmehar Kaur controversy was not nationalism nor politics but a more fundamental question of women’s agency and the right to script their own destiny, the right to hold their own opinions.
It’s not a coincidence that at around the same time, the Central Board of Film Certification should choose to ban a film about women’s sexuality, Lipstick Under my Burkha, on the ground that it is too “lady-oriented” and shows “their fantasy above life (sic).” Incidentally, members of this board might want to look at an ad by Benetton currently showing on your prime-time TV screen that includes a brief clip of a woman initiating—gasp—a sexual advance.
It’s no coincidence that the controversy comes at a time when the National Family and Health Survey-4 shows an increase in the percentage of married women who participate in household decisions from 76.5% in 2005-06 to 84%.
It’s certainly not a coincidence that in Manipur, Najima Bibi has invited a fatwa for being the first Muslim woman in the state to contest an assembly election.
If we are to celebrate anything this Women’s Day it is this: Women’s articulation can no longer be suppressed. Gurmehar Kaur and thousands of others validate that hope everyday.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.
Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare