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Devis, daayans and dehati aurat

Every day is a crisis at a national level. Some manufactured, and some real. But there are really no normal days. The other day, coming out of a theatre after watching The Lunchbox, a friend and I chatted about the dreariness of routine that afflicts most lives which was depicted perfectly in the film. A fear that many of us city women have: of getting stuck in a rut like the woman protagonist in the film. Breaking free and doing one’s own thing without upsetting the universe around us was the leitmotif of many of us city girls.


Stuck in a rut: The Lunchbox reflects the dreariness of routine, a fear that many city women have: of getting stuck in a cyclical, monotonous existence 

And yet sometimes, just sometimes one looks at the lives of women outside the conveyer belt and yearns for some normalcy. A slower pace. A time to look at the world. To stand by a balcony and just gaze at the traffic go by. Do women in those little chawls or mud huts also have migraines like us? Do they also worry about expanding waistlines? What to pack in the lunch box? Calcium levels? Getting a voter card made? Do they worry about the larger problems facing the country… rising communalism in polity, price rise, Chinese incursions on our border, Pakistan talking to the TTP, government shut down in the US, Berlusconi’s imminent expulsion? After all, what we print in our newspapers may not really matter to so many women who pick them up only in their afternoon down time.

Not all city and village women are what people like Nawaz Sharif assume: dehati aurat who cribs and complains rather than solve problems (yeah yeah, he may not have actually said it, if you believe Hamid Mir, the journalist who quoted or misquoted his own prime minister talking about another prime minister).

Why did that comment infuriate so many? A prime minister who wore a million dollar watch for his swearing in ceremony obviously has a lowly opinion of a dehati woman who voted for him. The Indian prime minister, by contrast, is austere in his lifestyle. He never uses loose terms. Despite being a Punjabi like Nawaz Sharif, our prime minister has never expressed gender regressive opinions. Being a father to three high achieving daughters makes one gender sensitive, one presumes!

Why are we furious when somebody in power uses these words which we hear so commonly used around us? In Delhi you hear it all the time, “janaaniyan vaalia gallan na kar” (don’t chatter stuff like women) “chudiyaan pehen ley” (wear bangles like a woman because you really are gutless), why are you crying like a girl? We have grown up hearing fathers, uncles and aunts use these terms. It jarred then and it jars now. But there is a difference. Now it angers people enough to write about it and admonish people who refer to working women as ‘dented-painted’. In the 21st century, women are ready to have it all.

And make compromises and reject traditional roles, if necessary, to at least try to have it all.

You can read about the 44 year old CEO Helena Morrissey in London who oversees investments worth $72 billion at a money management group, Newton.

She has nine children, the oldest being 22 and youngest four years old. Married to a finance journalist, she has had all children from one marriage and juggles career and home, stumbling along the way, and picking up awards and well, having it all.

Then there is Birangana Roma Chaudhury in Bangladesh who has never worn footwear as a mark of protest from the time she was raped by Pakistani soldiers at her home in Boalkhali in May 1971 during the Liberation War. Roma’s two young children died soon after her house was burnt down by the soldiers who raped her. This ‘dehati woman’ walks the streets of Chittagong barefoot selling the 19 books she has authored. That is her routine. It may appear dreary and tedious but hundreds of women like her in Bangladesh have fought of the Jamaat’s attempts to scuttle the trials against the perpetrators and abettors of 1971 war crimes.

Society, still male dominated, erects barriers and tries to fix women into role models as either devis or daayans. That mould is slowly cracking. If women have conviction and ignore heretics, they can attempt to break away from the routine drudgery and monotony of their lives. In the film The Lunchbox the woman protagonist hopes to run away to Bhutan where she hears people are happiest. But it is here and now that women are finding it all. There is hope in the outrage that the dehati woman comment provoked. 

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on Twitter @smitaprakash

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