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Of Perceptions and Stereotypes

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
June 2015
Of Perceptions and Stereotypes

One bane of our hyphenated lives is that one of the nations that we derive our partial identity from is either uninformed or misinformed of the other. Loved ones in India routinely make broad generalizations about America that are either exaggerated or flawed. On the flip side, we are frequently bombarded with crude stereotypes about India in American media.

Is it any wonder that those with a nationalistic bent are always touchy about how their nation is portrayed? The American cries foul when the world wants to define America by its Fergusons and its prolific gun violence; the Indian sees conspiracies when some governments issue travel advisories about the threat of rape in India, as if it were infested with rapists lurking in every corner.

Recently, British filmmaker Leslee Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Not only is it a chilling account of a brutal gang rape, but at its heart, it raises some disturbing questions: Is India stuck in a deeply entrenched patriarchy where “there is no place for a woman”? Is the gender inequality really that bad that a young bride believes that she is helpless and defenceless without her husband? Do these individual scenarios of male dominance represent the larger reality of India?

A national debate has been raging because people tend to respond in simplistic polarities: “Yes, the film represents Indian culture!” “No, it does not!” Wouldn’t it be wiser to see that the answer is both—“yes” and “no”! Broad generalizations are bound to be off the mark even when judging an individual, let alone an impossibly diverse nation of a billion people. For just about everything that one says about India, the opposite is also often true.

The “Yes, India is no place for a woman” reality is well captured by India’s Daughter. Such entrenched patriarchy is the norm among the rural masses of a large swath of the country. But just because this reality may have a statistical edge, is it truly representative of India? I don’t believe so. Because establishment India—what drives the nation—is not so deeply colored by patriarchy. And also because, historically, this is a culture that has venerated the feminine. (It’s a different thing that over recent centuries this reverence for the feminine has been corrupted.)

My own personal experience also attests that if there are “many” Indias, I grew up in one where women role models were quite common. Both the schools that I attended in metropolitan Mumbai had strong lady principals, not to mention a majority of female teachers, most of whom were paragons of confidence and capabilities. Gender roles—men are breadwinners, women are householders—were not entirely nonexistent; but they were edged out by cosmopolitan sensibilities of urban India.

And it was certainly not a culture where there was no place for a woman. Rather, Renaissance women were quite evident around us. I am reminded of Sumati Morarjee, the matriarch of the Scindia shipping company, who, having started there at the tender age of 20, eventually led it, managing over six thousand employees. (She was also the founder and owner of one of those two schools I attended.)

From ordinary bank clerks to activists and politicians, women had a place in the world that I grew up in. Of course, my worldview is also colored by the fact that the “Iron Lady of India”—Indira Gandhi—was the Prime Minister of the nation in my formative years.

It is the inability to simultaneously acknowledge both these starkly contrasting realities surrounding patriarchy in India that is needlessly making a villain out of India’s Daughter and its maker. Some urban pundits in particularly are lashing out against it as it clashes significantly with their worldview. What they should be doing is holding up the film for its role in raising social consciousness.

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