The more intense the oppression against women becomes, the more we are policed in our everyday lives, the more ire we invite over our choice of words or our choice of clothes, the more our anger is driven underground.
I recently had the chance to read Marjane Satrapi's excellent graphic novel, Embroideries. It traces the stories, the gossips, the secrets that nine Iranian women across three generations share over the course of an afternoon tea. Why does a seemingly unrelated book, that was published seven years ago, compel me enough to discuss it in a blog?
I think it's because there's something about this community of women meeting, women sharing stories, that I've come to increasingly identify with, and take part in. Things that are happening around me, whether it is in Tamil Nadu, or elsewhere, do elicit measured, outraged, political responses. At the same time, all writing, and especially writing for an audience of strangers, involves degrees of self-censorship. The need to convince, the need to point out the legitimacy of your anger, overrides your need to share the most intricate details that allowed you to arrive at this position in the first place.
When a Tamil magazine, Kumudam Reporter, clandestinely shot pictures of women wearing leggings, and advised in a cover-story that young women were transgressing boundaries, like everyone I, too, tweeted against it, signed a petition, called out the magazine's double-standards, asked for the mafiadom of moral-policing uncles to stop. The maximum extent to which I could share personal narratives was to speak about a difficult experience in the workplace. But it was in the context of private conversations, that I and my friends felt safe enough to talk about dress codes in colleges, how the idea of "decent" clothing ended up oppressing women, and how saris, which were touted as being traditional, sometimes, were clothes that we felt deeply uncomfortable wearing as we worked an eight-hour day. This is the same Tamil society where women were praised when they carried weapons and they fought shoulder to shoulder with men. When the daredevilry of Tamil women militants did not affect the composure of any of these men, what has suddenly made them sensitive about female body contours being visible because of clothing? Is it not part of the larger trend, this idea about what constitutes Tamil or Indian culture, the need to hark back to a glorified past, which, in its essence, means making women march back into their bedrooms and kitchens?
That was not the first time in the last month that we have been having these kind of conversations. Discussing the present situation in India, where writers and rationalists are being murdered in broad daylight—where beef-eating demands the price of life, where the sex-ratio shows that for every ten men alive there is a woman who has been killed at birth—is a conversation that is riddled with fear and anxiety. The intolerance is no longer something that is super-imposed from above, but something that begins to permeate society, something that brings out the closet-thug and the hate-monger and the patriarch from years of slumber, and exposes these characteristics in people we often took for progressive.
That's, perhaps, why, the story of women in Iran, who gather around the samovar, sipping tea and sharing their stories in the shadow of a repressive regime holds immense appeal. The more intense the oppression against women becomes, the more we are policed in our everyday lives, the more ire we invite over our choice of words or our choice of clothes, the more our anger is driven underground. And it is at a time like this when we realise the profound importance of finding these spaces—of intimacy and trust, of plainspeak and healing, of gossip and gritty details—and look upon them as essential to our survival.