By Shruti Sunderraman Sep. 26, 2017
The women students of Banaras Hindu University have put up a spirited resistance against an administration that polices their timings and thinks nothing of physical violence. It is easy to resist a university, but what happens when our parents are the aggressors and abusers?
Earlier this week, I watched the horror at Banaras Hindu University unfold with mounting dread. Women students who were protesting the molestation of a fellow student were being lathi-charged, even as a paternalistic vice chancellor decided to victim-shame them. Now, news reports tell us that the women students were cosseted by the university for a long time. Their timings were policed, they were not allowed to consume non-vegetarian food, and they were denied the use of the 24X7 library – privileges that were extended to their male counterparts without hesitation.
But it is easy to outrage at a university that places such restrictions on their students and beats them up for “overstepping their boundaries”. It is also easy to criticise the physical, emotional, and sexual violence that women undergo in their marital houses, often at the hands of their husbands. But there is an aspect of violence that often goes unaddressed, and which even the victims tend to brush over. What happens when our homes turn into violent spaces and the aggressors are our parents? Is it possible for us to rebel against them with the same vehemence, with the force of the same liberal attitudes that we apply to other aspects of our public lives?
Not really, as I found out a few weeks ago, when I discovered that a very “woke” friend had been physically and mentally abused by her parents for her entire life.
At first, Neha’s life resembled no part of mine. She never hung out, never went out drinking, never stayed over, never attended music gigs. Not once in the seven years that I had known her, had Neha even come out for dinner with me once. Her Cinderella alarm rang promptly at 7.30 pm. Without even a slight trace of peer-pressured embarrassment, she would head straight home to her mother. Even on my birthday a few years ago, she left earlier than everybody else. I admired her assertiveness. She knew what she wanted and stood by her priorities – her family.
Four months ago, we met at a coffee shop in Mumbai and lost all track of time. When we discovered it was 9.30 pm. Neha completely panicked. My dad is going to beat me tonight, she cried. I thought she was joking, but she was dead serious.
It wasn’t just the occasional thappad for disobedience, but the skin-you-alive-for-breathing-without-permission abuse. She was hit with a belt for disobeying her father’s command. Slapped for not doing chores or for complaining that her brother never had to do any. Slut-shamed for wearing a lipstick or for suggesting that she’d stay out beyond 8 pm.
She was hit for losing an eraser or a water bottle in school. She was hit for coming home after 9 pm at the age of 25.
All those dinner refusals weren’t out of choice but a result of conditioned fear. The movies she watched, the clothes she wore, how she behaved – everything was decided by her parents. And yet she thought nothing of blindly following their diktat, because she didn’t know it was okay to stand up to them.
Which is baffling for me – I just could not understand how an assertive political science graduate with an endearing kindness could not realise how questionable her own reality was. Outside her home, Neha debated world politics and gender like a pro, read Proust and poetry, attended feminist talks and environmental discussions. At home though, her parents were her Achilles heel. So judgemental was I with all my liberalism, that I’d forgotten the subtle nature of abuse. Neha had no measure of what a normal childhood looked like. As a teenager, her rebellious phase never happened. So when she noticed how other kids behaved in college, she’d feel like they were wrong to rebel against their parents.
Neha’s gradual exposure to the world, however, did have an impact on her. A post-graduate degree in media studies in a different city, surrounded by wokebros quoting Kate Millet, was like waking up to a whole new world. The eventual comprehension of being puppeteered by her parents had violent psychological consequences on her – all of which was directed inwards. Somehow, anyone except her parents could become the target of her anger.
Neha was yet another reminder that the parental discipline trap follows Indians deep into their 20s and even later. No matter how old we grow and are responsible enough to elect the government of this country, our parents continue to wield emotional and mental rods to direct our lives. I could hardly find someone who hasn’t heard the anguished lament, “How can you decide things without asking us?”, when choosing a career or a romantic partner.
And physical violence from our parents is often excused: Remember the recent, harrowing video that showed a crying child being slapped for not reciting numbers correctly, that was widely shared? But even more alarming than parental abuse is our acceptance of it. The deep reverence and acceptance of parental authority in our adult lives is hardly questioned.
At some level, we all suffer from the Simran syndrome – the girl who was brave enough to travel around Europe on her own, but still allowed herself to be dragged to India to marry a Punjabi bird-shooter dudebro selected by daddy. Yes, even the men.
For so many of us, our parents are our immediate support system. We don’t have a “moving out” culture. We live with the unspoken social contract that we’ll take care of our parents when we’re older – just the way they will take care of us even when we don’t need them to. Our sense of duty and obedience is so deeply rooted that we can’t let go of this support system we’ve learnt to fall back on our entire adult lives. If we do tear away, just enough to gain some breathing space from the enforced community, the price we pay is guilt.
I’d asked Neha to speak to her parents, but when she tried it, her father hit her again and her mother burst into tears as though she had advanced on them with a sword. When I tried talking to Neha’s parents, they were insulted at my suggestions and dismissed me for trying to “influence” Neha with my “’modern” way of life.
Is it any surprise then, that our universities borrow this outlook and have such hidebound ideas about how students, especially women, should conduct themselves? Neha’s might be an extreme case, but when we rarely resist this behaviour within our homes, we legitimise it in our public lives too.
Neha is currently learning to undo years of conditioning by seeking therapy and figuring out ways to deal with the backlog of rage she feels towards her parents. She’s built financial muscle, but she is working on the emotional one. Everyday, she tries one act of assertion, one act of resistance, toward her parents. I am hoping there will be a breakthrough in Neha’s life soon – just the way I am certain the brave women of BHU will be able to.
Shruti Sunderraman writes about culture, music, and the human condition. She performs her songs for those who listen and spoken word for those who don't. Say hello at @sundermanbegins on Twitter.