Portrait of a murdered young woman

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – this proverb, sometimes used in jest by men referring to an ex, sometimes said in all seriousness by men and women – flies in the face of all recorded evidence about relational violence across the world. If Chennai techie Swathi’s case is anything to go by, there doesn’t even need to be a relationship, but a mere obsession, and a spurned man can decide to kill you.

 

I had been mulling about this piece since Swathi’s family first came out with an appeal to not tarnish her character, but wanted to wait till the culprit was caught. Now that Ramkumar has been arrested, one hopes, the police builds a water tight case against him and secures justice. But Swathi’s death has burst the bubble most of us urban women live in, a world where the woman has agency. It has proved once again that it is the woman’s sexuality (character for the more morally inclined) that trumps everything, even death.

 

One can’t really blame Swathi’s family for spending more time talking about her character than raging about public apathy or the need to catch a killer who has exposed the lack of safety in Chennai’s middle class neighbourhoods. Their fears were proven right each time after all. When a young woman is murdered in India, if she is unmarried, the first things that come to everyone’s mind is a rape attempt gone awry or a stalker (jilted lover is a euphemism just like eve teasing, please don’t use it). The unfortunate part is that whichever be the case, it is considered to be the girl’s fault. If a girl raises an alarm about a stalker, she is first asked if she smiled or spoke to him a lot and encouraged him somehow. Or she is asked if she angered him somehow. The onus is always on the girl. One doesn’t know if Swathi’s family buys this argument, but they surely knew that the society jumps to this conclusion, hence the fervent appeals to not tarnish her.

 

In this twisted world of patriarchal assumptions, a girl’s life is worth less than perceived assault to her character. An FB post was circulated all across Tamilnadu within days, where a deranged boy had posted that all girls who betrayed lovers should be killed like Swathi – the underlying assumption, that every man is entitled to romantic reciprocation. Yet another Whatsapp message circulated, claimed responsibility for her murder, slandering her with exaggerated claims of her love life. Fed up with all this, Swathi’s sister, whose own life had come under scrutiny, wrote a well-meaning, if misguided note on FB, talking of how her sister was a pious girl, always visiting temples, always saying her prayers. Her post underlined the cultural narrative that bad things happen only to bad girls. We only have to look at Suzette Jordan’s case to understand what happens when bad things happen to a girl whom society deems bad. Which is why when bad things happen to normal girls, everyone has to overemphasise her goodness, we have to give her names like Nirbhaya.

 

Then of course, gossip mongers got to know about Swathi’s male friend. That this male friend was Muslim and was close enough to have come to the crime scene when the police reached, seemed to be enough for the rumour mongers to make claims of love jihad. Wild allegations were made about how being upper caste meant she wouldn’t get justice in caste conscious Tamilnadu. One piece even went on to talk of how her body was not touched because she was a Brahmin girl who cannot be sullied by the hands of commoners, even in death. Both sides of the caste divide did their best to exploit this; to what end, only they know best. As for the religion angle, less said the better.

 

The accused Ram Kumar comes across as a loner who perhaps bought into the narrative that every man is entitled to the love of the woman he fancies. Moreover, romantic companionship is perceived to be the only companionship worth having and also the one that solves all the other problems in one’s life.

 

The conversations around Swathi’s murder have proved once again that we delude ourselves when we are surrounded by people like us, that women have progressed in our country. The truth is agency and consent are still mostly only available to men.

 

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Indra Nooyi and her children

In a Forbes interview recently, Indra Nooyi trashed the idea that ‘Women Can Have It All’. Speaking about her own experience balancing personal and professional life, she said,

I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all. My husband and I have been married for 34 years. And we have two daughters. And every day you have to make a decision about whether you are going to be a wife or a mother, in fact many times during the day you have to make those decisions. And you have to co-opt a lot of people to help you. We co-opted our families to help us. We plan our lives meticulously so we can be decent parents. But if you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom. I’m not sure. And I try all kinds of coping mechanisms.

 

The internet erupted in a fashion similar to the one witnessed when a Washington high flyer had written about quitting her job and deciding to stay home. Back then, there had also been an interesting perspective by a male columnist about how men also don’t have it all. I do not wish to add anything more to this never ending debate. What I want to focus on though are the following lines from Nooyi’s talk :

But if you ask our daughters, I’m not sure they will say that I’ve been a good mom. I’m not sure. 

 You see, I was somewhat that kind of a daughter and so were some of my friends, male and female, who were the few who had working moms in an era when it was still catching on. My mom only spent half a day away as she was a teacher but even so at times I remember resenting it. Now when I look back at it, I find it extremely silly, because it wasn’t as if mom wasn’t there when needed. 

So why did this feeling even arise? Also, wouldn’t Nooyi’s children have got the benefits of the many perks that come with having a corporate rock star for a mother? So why is it that still they should feel cheated of a good mother, if they do feel that at all. After all, why do we as kids, feel so entitled to our mother’s time, indeed her entire life and personality? 

The answer I believe is partly cultural. If every mom worked in the society, no one would actually ask the kid if he/she feels left out because mother wasn’t there. In fact, working is a way of life for farmers and labourers who are women. No one I guess would ever ask their children if they were emotionally damaged or felt abandoned because their mothers worked. 

But I do remember questions and assumptions from those around me about my ‘working’ mother. I also remember the few times I’d be home alone while the neighbourhood auntie was with her kid. However, none of my major needs were ever unmet by my mother. So the only explanation for this kind of feeling that me or any of my others friends had was this cultural notion that we as kids also bought into the cultural trope our mothers loved us only if they were always around us, if they made gaajar ka halwa, mined Tarla Dalal’s treasure trove every weekend, were always at our beck and call and put aside everything for our homework (though most mothers do this last one). 

A good level of engagement with the child is necessary when the child is an infant and can’t meet most of his/her needs. Of course, there are some really self absorbed and careless mothers who scar their children. But most women are just trying their best. There is no need to have the black and white good mother, bad mother categorisation. Even a home maker cannot be hovering over her child every moment. It just isn’t possible. It is necessary to change our cultural dialogue in such a way that children also see their mothers as human beings, people liable to make mistakes, people who have their own dreams and interests other than being a mother. It is time that being a mother and wife is demoted from the position of a full time job, so that a working woman can go work at hours that suit her and a homemaker can have a girls day out without the guilt of being a less than perfect mother. 

For a man to be labelled a bad father, he needs to be a wife beating, severe alcholic/spendthrift, good for nothing. For a woman to be labelled a bad mother, she just has to be 5 minutes late in coming from the kitchen while the child is crying in the living room. That needs to change.