Being a bystander or being the change

So an out-of-town cop beat up his daughter in public, over an alleged affair.

People, including the girl’s own mother, stood by and watched. I am sure the mother was distraught. But she did nothing. Two women passers-by (may their tribe increase!) came to the girl’s rescue and called the local cops. But in the end, the daughter failed to file a complaint.

No surprises there. Perhaps the daughter is used to this kind of behaviour. Perhaps the mother gets beaten up too, back in their home town. Perhaps both mom and daughter are conditioned to expect this abuse from the husband/father. Perhaps the daughter will go on to marry a man who will beat her up too. And if she has a daughter, than that girl too will grow up thinking this is normal. And the cycle of abuse will continue.

Who is to blame? The person/persons who allegedly told the cop about his daughter’s alleged affair? Her mother for doing nothing? Mind you, she is a teacher. The bystanders for doing nothing? (Someone even took photographs. I wonder if someone else took a video on his/her smartphone. I won’t be too shocked if a video is uploaded soon.) The daughter for not filing a complaint? But then her own mother did not help her when she was being abused.

Oh but I forgot, this is a country where a lawyer actually said on camera that he would burn his daughter if she ever had pre-marital sex. By that standard, what this cop did to his daughter is not that bad, no?

Why are we so ostensibly shocked when such events are played out brazenly in public? Because these incidents happened publicly? After all, these are not exceptions. This is what actually happens in millions of homes. This is the way we think. And this is how we treat wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, daughters-in-law. This is how we treat women.

Let me give you two examples right here in India’s Silicon Valley. A is from a traditional family. Married into another traditional family. Her family and her in-laws are originally from Rajasthan but consider themselves Bangaloreans now. She is an engineer by education married to a software engineer. Her family never allowed her to work. She is now a mother of three boys. The women in her in-laws’ family are seen and not heard. Literally. They are there to cook, clean, look after the children. And I presume, meet their husbands’ needs. This woman’s father-in-law does not look at her, talk to her, or even acknowledge her existence as a human being. Because she is a woman. “If he wants his meals or his tea, he leaves his handkerchief on the dining table–that is our sign to serve him”, she says. I’m told he does talk to his wife though.

Now consider this woman’s husband, a software engineer, who probably works for a global tech company with clients across the world. The husband probably interacts with women software engineers and women clients in the course of his work. Etiquette demands he treats them with respect, right? Never mind that at home, his wife basically doesn’t exist. Surreal, really.

Here’s another example. B is a nurse by training married to a software engineer. Mother of a young girl. And slave to her in-laws. “I go to bed at 1 am, I wake up by 4 am,” she says. Why? Because her father-in-law needs his kaapi at the crack of dawn. And she is expected to make it for him. Through the day, she cooks, cleans, looks after her daughter, is expected to cook for the assorted relatives who keep visiting the house frequently. And she does this every day. Without any help. And it is not as if she gets any praise for her cooking (which is excellent, by the way. I can vouch for it!). “No matter what I make, my mother-in-law will say it is tasteless,” she says wryly. And what does the software engineer husband do to support his wife? Well, he frequently travels to the US on work. Where he interacts with women colleagues too. Never mind that his wife is treated like a slave at home.

Why don’t A and B rebel? Stand up for themselves? Well, how can a woman stand up for herself, if she has no support from her family, her husband, or the society she lives in? Because, not every woman can be Suzette Jordan. This single mother-of-two overcame being gangraped, only to find herself grappling societal stigma, an administration’s apathy and relentless humiliation. (She died in hospital in Kolkata this week. Look up her story if you must.)

Very few people have that kind of courage. The two women who came to that girl’s rescue, however, do. So, yes, there is a brighter side to this story. The girl’s mother was a bystander. But the two strangers, those two other women, came to her aid. They were the change, that day. They also probably saved that girl’s life.

Perhaps one day, the mother and daughter as well as my friends A and B, will stand up for themselves. But will we as a society stand with them, or be against them? Or will we simply be bystanders as they are abused?

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