Global Inspiration from Deepa Narayan's "Chup: Breaking The Silence About Being India’s Women"
Thursday March 8 2018
As Indian Women We Mustn’t Stay ‘Chup’ About Our Open Secret: Internalised Sexism #BookReview
Deepa Narayan’s extraordinary book Chup should be the springboard for Indian women to introspect and break the silence around gender inequality.
I began reading Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women, prepared to argue against it. The very premise of the book –that even educated, modern women in India are subscribers to the sexist biases of earlier generations, was unbelievable.
However, the author, Deepa Narayan, observes that as she spoke to urban Indian women in many different settings, in India and abroad, a disturbing pattern emerged. To put it in her own words, “yet another smartly dressed woman, an artist, a business manager, a financial analyst, a professor, a dentist, an engineer, a lawyer, a researcher, a scientist, a teacher, an educated stay-at-home mom, was so unsure of herself. Or that she sounded, after the obligatory gender equality claims and sometimes passionate lecture, like her mother would have sounded thirty or forty years ago.”
Following this, the author made modifications to her research methodology and ended up with 8000 pages of notes from interviews with highly educated women in the cities, and discovered that there was still a huge gap between intellectual beliefs and actual behavior.
From this the author builds her central argumentsthat gender equality is not born from the intellect, but from ingrained culture; that this culture, which currently favours inequality, and explains both sexual violence and everyday sexism, can be changed; and that this change is not possible without the active participation of men, and so the focus should not be on blaming “patriarchy” but on finding ways to educate men and to include them in finding solutions.
Our culture, according to the author, trains women to not exist either by literally killing them (foeticides, female infanticides, violence) or by training them to “disappear” via seven habits, making us “feminists with bad habits.”
The seven habits are: Deny your body, Be Quiet, Please Others, Deny Sexuality, Isolate yourself, Have no individual identity and Be Dependent.
Published by Juggernaut, the book has a total of eight chapters. Excluding the introductory and concluding chapters, each of the other chapters deals with these bad habits. In each chapter, the author discusses, using actual quotes, examples, and anecdotes from the lives of the women she interviewed, how the habit is developed, its consequences and finally offers reflections and suggestions for how these habits can be broken.
In the concluding chapter, the author offers her suggestions for how this culture can be transformed. These are not a list of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ but are general guidelines for action. I especially appreciate the author’s metaphor of gender bias as “dirt” which must be cleaned every day. She makes interesting observations in this chapter about co-opting men as integral to the fight against the cultural systems, about facilitating collective action and ensuring solidarity, and the importance of redefining “power,” before concluding on a hopeful note by asserting that change is possible.
It was a difficult book to read as it challenged so many things I had taken for granted. But now, having read it completely, I feel a sense of relief –a much needed deep breath. This book solidifies and lays out specific changes for cultural modification in a structured manner.
While it is research based, the writing is not buried under layers of jargon and the prose is simple, straightforward and honest. The observations and arguments are interspersed with quotes and stories of real women, making sure that the reading experience isn’t dry and boring. It makes it relatable.
With a length of 300 plus pages including acknowledgements and detailed references, the book is a power packed capsule that contains a surprising amount of condensed wisdom!
This is a book that must be read by both men and women and especially the younger generation. I would sincerely urge parents to discuss and debate this book on the dinner table with their teenage children. While I still do not agree with everything the book has to say (for example, the author’s assertion that intersectionality is an obstacle to collective action) I do agree that it is impactful and starts conversations that we must have.
As I said in the beginning of this review, I found the premise of this book outrageous. “I am not sexist,” I thought. In one chapter, the author mentions that she took the Implicit Gender Bias test available online, and was shocked to realize that she was indeed biased. I decided to take the test myself, and the results revealed that like 19% of other online test takers, I too have a “slight automatic association for Male with Career and Female with Family.” I can only heave a sigh of relief that it is not a strong association. The effect of cultural conditioning on my subconscious is undeniable.
I also felt that the statement, “women are trained not to exist,” is a little extreme. However as the author unpacks that statement and lays out her arguments, the little and big cultural biases that are so much a part of daily life that we take them for granted, become recognizable. Many events over the past month, such as a minister’s comment about girls drinking, or a jibe at a lady minister for laughing, and some unwanted advice about saris, etc. are proof that society attempts to control women at each and every step.
The latest proof came just as I was finishing reading the book. Aayushi Jagad, a female comic, had pointed out bias in the work of the prominent comic group AIB. All Aayushi asked for was for the existence of women to be acknowledged. Where AIB accepted the criticism gracefully, some random men took offence and attacked Aayushi. This to me was a perfect example of society telling women to not exist.
I understood without a doubt then what the author is trying to say. Women are taught not to existby stifling their voice and identity. It is a metaphorical non-existence that limits them to roles and responsibilities (daughter, sister. mother, wife) and murders their individuality.
Ultimately, Chup is a voice that battles this push towards non-existence. It has stood up and shouted out“I’m here! I exist! I deserve to be here!” Now, it is up to us to acknowledge the message and take it forward. Reading the book is a good start.
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Thursday March 08 2018.
End the silence
End the silence, laugh raucously Deepa Narayan tells women in India in a powerful new book By Rituparna Chatterjee
Deepa Narayan’s book, Chup: Breaking the Silence About Being India’s Women, is filled with stories of rebellion, resistance and resilience. (Priyanka Parashar/Mint)
“The difference between smiling and laughing is fascinating,” says social scientist Deepa Narayan, author of a new book, Chup: Breaking The Silence About Being India’s Women. “Smiling is good, girls are trained to smile, because that’s pleasing to others. But when you laugh, you have a self, if you have a self, you exist, and if you exist you have power.” Congress leader Renuka Chowdhury, who was recently mocked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for laughing uproariously, would agree with the thesis Narayan puts forth in a powerful chapter on the unbridled, raucous laughter of women that shatters the silence surrounding their right to be heard.
Chup is filled with stories of rebellion, resistance and resilience. Consider Meera, for instance, who ran away from home at 17 to escape the casual tyranny of a benevolent man who controlled the finances and fates of the women in the house. It’s a story that plays out with predictable monotony in the emotionally vulnerable spaces women occupy in Indian households, often silently, brokering deals with their most intimate abusers every day, just to remain alive.
“I remember that deep sense of choking,” she tells Narayan. “In my family, as a child, I learnt to observe too much, silent, listening. My mother is a good listener; not my father, he is very dogmatic, always strong opinions. My father is a liberal in his thoughts, ‘you are free to choose anything, it is your life’ but ‘being a doctor is desirable.’”
Meera eventually took a train to Chennai, with no money or means to sustain herself, and found shelter with a group of sex workers. She looked after their children while they were away at work in exchange for money to study the subject she loved (psychology) instead of the one she had been forced to take for her father’s approval (medicine). It was the safest she had felt since leaving her middle-class home in New Delhi’s Saketliving under a bridge in a colony of sex workers.
Interviewing 400 women, Narayan documents in a style that is almost clinical, many accounts of abuse, patriarchy, coercion, even complicitysome of which turn into tales of breaking free.
For many women in India, the gang rape and murder of a physiotherapist in 2012 was the catalyst for a major churn. The moment spilled over into their most intimate spaces and conversations, forcing, perhaps for the first time, society to break the conspiracy of silence around sexual abuse. But it was not until the recent outpouring of rage on social media, under #MeToo, that the universal resonance of gender violence became truly comprehensible. “There was a lot of public discussion on law, order and ‘culture’ (after the 2012 incident),” Narayan says. “(I wanted to understand) what is it about culture that could explain violence against women.”
She came up with two questions that defined her project for the next three years: “What does it mean to be a woman today?” and “What does it mean to be a man today?” In spite of their deceptive simplicity, the questions brought out the rawest emotions in most people, even among the most diffident.
Narayan was a victim of sexual violation when she was 7, but didn’t speak about it to anyone. This silence is the thread that binds the women in her book and gives it its title. In Chup, even the most vocal, strong-willed and independent-minded women admit to losing their voices in situations that thrive on systematic exploitation.
“Chup is used so frequently that the Oxford English Dictionary has now accepted it as an English word,” Narayan says. It is a word familiar to women in the subcontinent from their early years; they are usually told: Don’t talk too much. Don’t laugh too loudly. Don’t explore your bodies. Don’t make allies. “Chup is an entry point to ‘shutting down’. It’s not just about the voice, chup is about negating your entire existence,” Narayan argues.
Woman after woman in the book recalls related experiences: from being violated on public transport to being solicited for sex in exchange for a legitimate job opportunity. Some of these accounts are particularly heartbreaking.
Take for instance, the story of a girl who was raped at the age of 13 on her way back after she had invited friends to her birthday party. “Nobody cared about me. Everyone, my parents, the neighbours and the police, only wanted me to answer questions about my virginity,” she tells Narayan. “Nobody came to my birthday the next day…. The police ate my cake and I hated that…instead of telling my parents to take action, they discouraged them. ‘Don’t do it,’ they said. ‘Aapki beti hai, naam kharab hoga, jaane do (It’s your daughter, her name will be spoilt, let him go)’. I guess, somewhere, my parents also thought like that. Since then I’ve stopped celebrating birthdays,” she adds.
“The fact that women put each other down is also part of the strategy to keep them divided. When women get united, there will be change,” Narayan says. “The moment a woman stands up alone, she is challenging the system. In India, the battle has to become collective. Only numbers have the power to change the system.”
Can men, even feminist men, be real allies in the fight for equality, given that they, by default, come from a pre-determined position of privilege?
“I don’t think we’re going to see massive change without men as allies. Unless you can work with people who hold the power, you would be fighting forever,” Narayan adds, quickly clarifying that this does not mean women should negotiate with their oppressors. “If we say that the cultural system has to change, both men and women have to change. It has to be as much a revolution for men as for women. I’m not excusing men’s behaviour, but keeping aside the criminal issues, in everyday sexism, men often don’t know they are being sexist. They have to be educated.”