Rosalyn D'Mello: Out of the dark, into enlightenment

Jul 28, 2017, 06:10 IST | Rosalyn D'Mello

Lipstick Under My Burkha has sent a message out that Indian women have long since arrived will no longer be made to cower by patriarchy

A still from Lipstick Under My BurkhaA still from Lipstick Under My Burkha

Considering Kolkata's reputation as a literary city, I wasn't surprised to find a brief but odd collection of books on the shelf above the bed in the ground-floor room of the Blue Chip guesthouse. The one that caught my fancy had an illustration of a Padma peeth with the legs of a woman upon its surface - Great Women of India, published by Advaita Ashrama on the occasion of the birth centenary of The Holy Mother, Shri Sarada Devi, the spiritual consort of Shri Ramakrishna of the Ramakrishna mission.

When I returned to the guesthouse after dinner at Kasturi, I quickly abandoned my phone and iPad to their respective chargers so I could plop into bed with this book. The first essay was intriguing, "Ideal and position of Indian women in domestic life", surveying the role of women in the early Vedic period, when they were still, allegedly, allowed access to education, had a role in religious life, and were granted a status that seemed not too unequal from men. In fact, there were notably two classes of educated women: the sadyodwahas, "who prosecuted their studies till their marriage" and brahmavadinis, "who did not marry and pursued their studies throughout life." The most notable of this category were women like Gargi Vachaknavi, Vadava Praitheyi, and Sulabha Maitreyi. The author of the essay, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, goes so far as to state that the status of women in the Vedic age was much higher than in any other ancient society that we know of, those of Greece and Rome not excluded.

It's strange to even imagine a time when Indian women were presumably empowered by society, even if it still preferred the birth of boys to girls. Majumdar traces the devolution of women's rights to the discontinuation of their access to education. It's amazing that few people are able to perceive the connection between education and empowerment, especially in the case of women. I know that growing up, whether in my school in Kurla, or when I was at St Xavier's, I always wondered why my female classmates, like me, had a significantly higher appetite for knowledge than our male counterparts. Was it the generational consequence of the centuries-long famine that Indian womankind had experienced?

I always suspected that the reason women were deliberately kept in the dark was because patriarchal forces were aware of the disruptions we would cause otherwise. I think Lipstick Under My Burkha is an amazing example of what ideological chaos women are capable of provoking. Look at Rihanna, the Muslim girl in college who uses her burkha to shoplift. When her parents have to get her out of jail for her role in the protests against the ban on jeans, the primary punishment her father envisages is to stop her education and marry her off. Rihanna is like a younger version of her neighbour, Shireen, who yearns for the financial freedom she has proved herself capable of having, but is continually clamped down by an unsympathetic husband who uses rape as a way of admonishing her for trying to assume the role of provider. The sad truth is that the characters in the film, including Buaji, are so flesh and blood, we all know real-life equivalents of them.

The real lesson that Lipstick Under My Burkha has for contemporary Indian society is not encoded only in the film's ending, which certainly furthers the empowering cause of the sisterhood, but in the film's very existence. It casts itself as a prototype for even more daring, provocative, 'lady-oriented' filmmaking. It's success has sent a message out to not just the censor board, but the many patriarchal forces it critiques, that Indian women have long since arrived, and while we have a lot of catching up to do to get up to speed with men's achievements, the distance is condensing quickly, and is not infinite. The trolling and the maligning, as evidenced in the comments on YouTube to the trailer of Aditi Mittal's stand-up show on Netflix, or the incessant death and rape threats that outspoken Dalit women like Meena Kandasamy get, will not deter us.

We, who are enlightened, who are woke, and conscious of our humanity, we will not be threatened into submission. We will no longer be made to cower by patriarchy. We will not tone down our irrepressible voices that carry the revolutionary might of centuries of oppression. We will not only speak for ourselves, and our desires, but we will introduce other women to the tongues we have taught ourselves so that they, too, may lay claim to the right to agency we have had to steal. We will not apologise for being too loud, or for not catering to any patriarchal notion of femininity, or for our just anger and inherited brilliance. We shall not be moved.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to

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