Women, Belonging, Ownership

When I was much younger, I used to enjoy reading Richard Bach. Today I find a lot of his writing too sentimental, pompous and sometimes even naive, but one of his books, The Bridge Across Forever, made a point which I appreciate even more with time. It talks about relationships in which people grow together, rather than away from each other. And in these relationships, he compares both people to balloons, free to go up on their own, not weighted down by love, but empowered by it.

The reason I was thinking about this was, how in a lot of cases, relationships are really not bonds of mutual trust or love, but bonds of ownership. While possessiveness can be a trait of either gender, our society perhaps acknowledges it as ‘right’ in a man over ‘his’ woman. Which is why, ofcourse, until recently, marital rape was not considered a crime in India. Women ‘belong’ to their men. This is why many men, , will find nothing objectionable about harassing a random woman on the streets – they are not ‘bound’ to protect her, the laws of common decency don’t apply.

Many of our movies portray this, overtly, or subconsciously. One of my biggest problems with the blockbuster Kal Ho Na Ho, is that SRK’s character simply “decides” that the girl he loves needs a better future than what she can have with him. This is not about sacrifice. This is about assuming that the girl cannot be trusted to decide for herself. The men in her life must make the best choices for her, even if this means lying to her so that she changes her mind and decides to go in for another man. (who has been suitably vetted by SRK ofcourse).

However well meaning such decision making may be (he just wants her to be happy, isn’t it), they have no place in a truly adult relationship. The concept of ‘belonging’ intrudes into our lives in many other ways. In many communities, married women wear sindoor, wear a mangalsutra, or special bangles, like the Bengali shakha-pola. One is really forced to ask, where are the equivalents for men? The answer is ofcourse, that men don’t need to show their belonging. Since they are the owners. Women on the other hand, need to be marked out as already belonging to someone, so that they are not approached again. (In practice ofcourse, married women are harassed as much on the street, since the sickos who harass, are not that discriminating).

Belonging also means that women become part of another family, the starting point being, moving into the husband’s household. Today this is not a given, in many urban families. But not all women have these options. And a woman who wants to live independently with her spouse, will often be branded as breaking the family. As I mentioned before, the joint family did have some advantages. But coming from a three-daughter household, the injustice of a patriarchal set up strikes me acutely, and not just in a theoretical manner. If our Indian system places such a premium on caring for one’s parents, how come girls’ parents are left out? Its a short step then, to preferring boys who will care for you in your old age. Thankfully, there is more space for negotiation now, as opposed to the earlier “compromise”, a word I hate. (Having heard it enough as a sort of ‘mantra for young women getting married’)

In such a situation, there really can’t be any balloons floating up. I’d like to think that atleast us urban, affluent types are no longer in such a situation. But while we may have a lot of freedoms that our mothers and grandmothers didn’t, unless we can still belong* to ourselves post marriage, there is a long road towards equality.

*I use the word belong in the sense of have and assume responsibility for our own decisions.