Young girls everywhere: Just say no
In Simone Biles’s decision to quit, lies a crucial lesson for young women everywhere. It comprises a single, two-letter word: No.
Biles’s decision to pull out of the Olympics does more than shine a welcome spotlight on mental health. By prioritising her own well-being over every tribal call for team and nation, she has reclaimed the power of saying “no”.
In a month when the Norwegian women’s handball team has been fined for refusing to play in bikini bottoms and choosing shorts, like male players, the word stands out like a flashing beacon particularly in cultures and societies like ours where good girls don’t say no; where they are brought up to never complain, never ask for anything for themselves; where they put family first and eat last and the least. From their birth, girls are indoctrinated into submitting to the unquestionable authority of patriarchs: Fathers, brothers, husbands, and fathers-in-law. Please “adjust” is what they are told when they are pulled out of school, made to do housework unlike their privileged brothers, or, find themselves in abusive marriages.
Even the slightest deviation cannot be tolerated. And, so, this past week, in Savreji Kharg, Uttar Pradesh, 17-year-old Neha Paswan was beaten to death and then strung from a bridge, allegedly, by her grandfather and uncles, for saying no to changing out of the pair of jeans that she had chosen to wear for a religious ritual.
Earlier in July, a 19-year-old woman in Alirajpur, Madhya Pradesh, was beaten up and hung from a tree for refusing to return to a violent marriage. The main accused are her father and two cousins.
In Dhahod, Gujarat, in June, two girls, 13 and 16, were thrashed by a group of 15 men in an incident that was videotaped. Their crime? Talking on a mobile phone.
These incidents are part of the every day normal for young girls who cannot be allowed to cross male-ordained Lakshman rekhas. This is a world where mobile phones are out of reach for women of a certain impressionable age, lest they do the unthinkable: Strike friendships with boys, break caste and gotra endogamy, fall in love, perhaps, run away and elope.
This view of the hapless young woman, incapable of making her own decisions, who must be protected by her father and brothers, her husband and father-in-law, her village elders, and even the laws of the land and the courts is pervasive. It’s what leads to a 23-year-old woman’s father convincing a judge of the Kerala High Court that his daughter could not have possibly converted and become Hadiya of her own free will.
It’s what has led to the enactment of so-called “love jihad” laws in four Bharatiya Janata Party-run states despite the National Investigation Agency telling the Supreme Court that there is zero evidence of a “conspiracy” to lure and entrap innocent Hindu girls into marriage, and conversion, by Muslim men.
In this normal world, a 19-year-old adult Hindu woman and a Muslim man arrive at the Ballia district magistrate’s office to marry under the Special Marriage Act, 1954. The marriage is thwarted on the basis of a complaint by the woman’s father. For good measure, members of the Karni Sena group are on standby to physically prevent the marriage. Like old Hindi movies, the police turn up in the last scene, find no evidence of love jihad, but arrest the man anyway, on charges of kidnapping. The woman is handed over to her father and, a day later, issues a statement saying she was being tricked by the man.
What kind of law subverts the agency of women who are guaranteed the status of equal citizens by the Constitution of India? Worse, perhaps, is the silence of Opposition parties and, even, the higher judiciary. It is a silence borne of the certainty of majoritarian public support in favour of “controlling” daughters. It’s a silence validated by the data that tells us that even in urban India, 93% of all marriages that take place continue to be arranged marriages.
But Simone Biles also tells us that saying no carries a price. For putting herself above her team, there has been applause for sure, most critically from her own team, but there has been no shortage of critics, including the odious Piers Morgan and a troll lynch mob that hides bravely behind anonymous handles.
Women should not have to pay such a high price for asserting themselves. But they do. It is absurd that a woman who speaks up about workplace sexual harassment should be dragged to court by a boss whose entitled predatory behaviour was an “open secret” for over two decades. It is shameful that a woman in a rape trial should have not just her identity revealed in the court judgment, but also details of her private life. Women who protest in public are shamed in public, as students at Banaras Hindu University were when they marched against a molestation incident on campus and were ticked off by their vice-chancellor Girish Chandra Tripathi that they had “sold a woman’s modesty and brought dishonour to the university”. Launched to protest against discriminatory curfew hours in college hostels, Pinjra Tod founders Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita were arrested in May 2020 under anti-terrorism laws and released 13 months later on court orders.
Simone Biles might have just made it that much easier for young women everywhere. Her decision tells girls that they matter, their voices are important, and that it’s okay to put themselves first. It reclaims the first word that every girl must learn because it is raw and powerful and has the capacity to bring about change.
Namita Bhandare writes on gender
The views expressed are personal