There used to be this ad on TV years ago. I don’t remember what it advertised. I remember the last few seconds only. A woman, short hair waving in the wind; one toned arm resting on the steering wheel of a convertible as she looks at the camera. She speaks about wanting to get away from it all every now and then and feed her wanderlust. Of course this begs the unasked question “But how safe will you be, a woman all alone driving who-knows-where?” She tosses her head back and smiles as a big, gorgeous dog appears next to her. She slides her free arm around him and asks “I have him”.
As a kid, I loved this ad. Perhaps it advertised a watch, a backpack. Whatever it was, I was certainly not part of their target demographic. But the attitude that the came with it, I drank up. How I liked the idea that a woman could just pack a bag, hop into her car with beautiful dog in tow and just drive off wherever she pleased. All she needs is right there. Heady stuff. Today? Not so much. Now, the earlier promise is but an echo. Today, all Indian women would shake their heads and dismiss it as fanciful, forgettable, made to fool. But there are no ads on TV like this anymore. Today’s ads show conventionally pretty, if boring-looking young women, lissome and long haired, fair to a fault, dressed in pastel colors with very little hint of unique, peddling fairness creams and make-up products that come with foolproof guarantee that a similarly insipid man’s eye will be caught by this sight of wholesome, demure, pretty-enough-to-attract-but-boring-enough-to-not-intimidate, feminine “beauty”.
An obscene amount of energy is expended the world over, in some parts more than others, to mold women. She is stifled, oppressed, harassed, silenced. Some display this horror with a sort of sadistic pleasure-power, others will not dive, but will daintily step their toes into it and let it color a few unseen facets of their lives. But it happens, every day. Every one of us has noticed this: this hazy but strong line where admiration ends and intimidation begins. There is a critical point beyond which further qualities that the woman herself might prize, are viewed as liabilities that drag her down. Tell me, have you heard at least once in your life variations of this remark “She is too successful/beautiful/smart/ambitious/confident..”
Unfairness and inequality assault my eyes everywhere I look these days. The more I see, the more I am primed for this sort of news. A vicious cycle is born. Women are advised not to drive their cars alone at night, not to dress in “western wear”, not to go to pubs, not to stay back at work, not to live alone in a new city, not to attract too much attention to themselves, to be comforting and never jarring, to be fair and slim and long-haired, to carry on our shoulders every vestige of traditionality known. They are blamed if they are assaulted or molested. We are judged, every single day, by eyes that never stop staring.
Will the day come when I see a confident, olive-skinned woman with tousled hair and no make-up, ignore the pansy imbeciles that inhabit our television screens and walk out on fairness creams and the unfairness they promote? Walk out on mindless traditions and demeaning expectations? It won’t. There’s too much money and too many industries at stake for the former, too many narrow minded people for the latter. This will take a few generations. But will it happen at least in your neighborhood if not your TV screen? Will it happen in your home? Would you let your daughter befriend a woman like that, be inspired by one? Would you approve if your son fell for one of them?
How many women do you know who have been groped, whistled at, followed during a routine commute, made uncomfortable by leering creeps, abused verbally and mentally, shamed, raped? I lived in Bangalore for a while, falling in love with the city, marveling at how this India seems different and new. While returning home one evening, thinking about nothing in particular, I see a biker driving by too close for comfort toward my corner of road. This is not uncommon, you witness all sorts of vehicular acrobatics. This one rides by me, his pillion rider stretches out a lazy arm and touches me as they go by. I am consumed by thoughts of repeatedly washing my arm as I rush home, my skin suddenly dirty and repulsive. Even as I write this, I feel that same anger. And still I know that this is nothing. I don’t know what violation really is. Thank the Gods I don’t.