A fashionable cultural conservatism dominates a land in the throes of the seismic shocks of liberalisation and westernisation. Elaborately dressed ladies lined up on karva chauth to view their husbands through sieves and fast for their eternal health. Sex ratios may decline, attacks against women may increase, politicians like Sriprakash Jaiswal and Narendra Modi may brazenly utter anti-women statements in public and be applauded, yet at most Indian festivals, women continue to fast and pray for the well-being of men. In a son-worshipping culture like India’s, there are no festivals that pray for the well-being of women.
Cultural conservatism is now labelled as a return to roots and the combination of tank tops and elaborate rituals have become a familiar feature. India’s modernity is one where we may work as cutting edge software engineers and scientists, adopt American accents at call centres and aspire to be fashion models in Paris, but we’ll still wallow in the intricacies of male-oriented festivals like karva chauth, bhai dooj and Shivratri, without a modicum of questioning because after all these represent a return to our hallowed roots. Tradition has returned with a bang and asking questions about patriarchal festivals or the glorification of wifehood is seen as anti-national, anti-tradition, in short a spoilsport in the return-to-roots party. No wonder increasingly the modern woman is Public Enemy No. 1 and assertive women in public are vilified as creatures who deserve a public stoning.
In the new glossily packaged pseudo-tradition-for-the-shopping-mall, violently anti-modern feudal attitudes coexist easily with the hi-tech consumerist era. Educated folks do not hesitate to classify a woman as either a virgin or a whore; if a woman is not a sloppily dressed mostly silent “good wife” then she must be a social climbing bitch determined to get ahead in life. When Modi chose to attack Sunanda Pushkar and Shashi Tharoor on alleged corruption, he could easily have alluded to the corruption charge directly and fulminated about the alleged controversies surrounding IPL Kochi. Instead he chose to speak about Pushkar as a “50 crore girlfriend”, a woman not just costing R50 crore but also a “girlfriend”, the word ‘girlfriend’ redolent with prurient moral fury about a woman who has committed the ‘sin’ of being desirable and in the public eye.
Modern women or the idea of the modern woman who is different from the stereotypical bharatiya nari is on a collision course with an already patriarchal society like India in the throes of rediscovering its traditions. While a colourful fiesta of annual rituals are happy and positive features, yet when they go hand-in-hand with upholding backward values, they start to become deeply dangerous.
When the management of unaided schools in Kerala demand that all teachers wear aprons or overcoats on top of their sarees to keep off the prying male gaze of students, the assumption is that the woman’s body is at fault, not the leering voyeurs taking pictures of bare midriffs. When a khap panchayat orders that women should not be allowed to use cellphones, the assumption is ‘modern’ women or women with access to modern technology are a threat to a male-dominated social order.
Modi’s comments about Pushkar are only a small part of the larger trend of hatred against the modern woman. A society that is in the throes of a flashy return to tradition, where the NRI effect of living in New York but keeping up Indian traditions as noisily as possible is dominant, the modern woman swims against the overwhelming tide of a mass nostalgia for an Amar Chitra Katha-version of “ancient India”. So feverish are we today in resisting the ill-effects of westernisation, so keen to recapture an illusory pristine Hindu India which existed before the British (and even the Mughals) that women who exemplify modernity in their actions are seen as deeply offensive to the virtual journey back towards Ram and Sita.
Collective nostalgia for “ancient traditions” has made us incapable of forging new attitudes to women, sexuality, even social class. Jairam Ramesh’s sensible statement on toilets and temples was attacked by the self-appointed guardians of bharatiya sanskriti as outraging Indian culture when a mindset change on toilets is the urgent need of the hour. That toilets are not dirty, they must be kept as clean as temples, are surely ideas that every progressive Indian must embrace not reject as anti-mandir. The argument is made that women are responsible for their own fall from respect. The cult of the sex symbol has become so powerful that even top Bollywood heroines now vie with each other to perform item numbers rather than play roles of women as individuals. It is argued that an alien sexuality has been grafted onto a traditional society and women are cheapening themselves by placing sex appeal at the centre of their identities. Modern women are thus giving themselves a bad name by compromising on their dignity in the way they dress and behave in public.
So are sexy elite women compromising female dignity and causing their less-protected sisters in small towns and rural areas to be set upon by hot-eyed louts, crazed by media images of bare breasts at Page Three parties? Or has the modern woman today become a symbol of everything that’s wrong with Indian society because of a romanticisation of the traditional past? Whichever it is, it is open season on ‘modern’ women in a tradition-entranced society.
Sagarika Ghose is deputy editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.