Imagine a woman walking out of a Delhi pub. What do you see? High heels. Lipstick. Perfume. Perhaps a nice dress. Certainly not what you’d call an average woman from Delhi.
Now imagine the men walking out of the same pub at the same time. What do you see now? An altogether fuzzier image. Unshaven Sarkari babus and suburban husbands mingling with students and corporate types. More nuance. Less sharpness. Harder to generalize. Average.
Why that difference? Is it just bias, or is there some truth to the thought experiment?
I say there’s truth there. Fact is, the average woman from Delhi does not frequent pubs. I don’t have statistics to back this up. I don’t have double-blind surveys. But I do have my everyday experience interacting with North Indian women.
Women, you see, are held to wholly different standards from men. Moreover, these standards are not just different, they are altogether fewer. Men, in the perception of Indian society, fall on a finely graded scale which runs from positively cherubic to positively criminal, with most falling somewhere in-between. For women, there are only two basic standards – vamp and angel.
An old friend, who I’ll call Amirah, had an emotionally (and somewhat physically) abusive husband. He would yell at her for trivial reasons, drag her by the hair if she annoyed him, and threaten to divorce her if she protested his actions. This husband also abstained from alcohol, was a great dad, was deeply religious and gave a substantial part of his income regularly to charity – all of which were points important to Amirah. Therefore, in her eyes, he wasn’t all bad. He just had a few flaws. She took a nuanced view, and I’m sure a lot of Indians would agree with her in that. How many times have we heard much worse abuse being excused for reasons such as “at least he’s not having an affair”? There is a continuum here, not a mere good/bad dichotomy.
That continuum does not exist in any meaningful form when it comes to women. In the view of the average North Indian, a good, traditional woman has no overlapping features with the social butterfly persona of the ‘modern’ desi chick who likes to kick back with a few beers at the local bar after work. Many traditional women, especially after marriage, spend their entire lives proving to the world that they are angels, not vamps, not pub-goers, not short-dress-wearers. They will give up their dressing style, their beliefs, their attitudes, their culture… everything, just to create the perception which they have been taught is paramount in their lives.
Why must we continue to live like that?
Let us move beyond the duality.
Between the extremes of good and bad, there is a moral void, a no woman’s land, a place that is frightening and yet exhilarating in equal measure to the conservative among us. But I personally declare, as a woman and as a lifelong campaigner for equality and justice, that that void is indeed our promised land. It is where we must throng. It is where we must find our niche and make ourselves comfortable.
Let society nurse its false dichotomies. We will, in the meantime, accept ourselves as creatures of the void, for with that acceptance will come illumination, and with illumination will come realization that that void is not a void at all. It is the smörgåsbord of the infinite shades of Grey, the shades define, shape us, and portray us as unique and precious individuals in our own regard. What could be more precious than that?