I was in transit through Delhi recently when I spotted an ageing gentleman at a metro station. He stood out in the evening rush hour crowd because he was in a dhoti and short kurta, with assertive white moustaches.
Every other man — and there were thousands, of all ages — was in western-style trousers or jeans. I began to wonder what would happen to a young man in our modern metropolises if he went to work in a dhoti, or a churidaar with a flowing angarkha-style kurta. Or even if he just wore surma in his eyes. I suspect he would be ridiculed. And a lot of this ridicule would find expression as questions around his sexuality. And there will be some who insult or hurt him because his sexuality is different.
It made me sad to think of how narrow our own lives have become, how we restrict our own sartorial or lifestyle choices, because we are afraid of being punished somehow. And I was even sadder to think that people believe they can punish a citizen for being born into a certain gender.
This isn’t really about Pinki Pramanik, and it isn’t only about India. There has been a small furore in the USA recently, where a transgender woman has been sent to jail for killing a man, but will be housed in a male prison. What makes it complicated is that Cece McDonald, a black woman, had stabbed a white man who was part of a group that had attacked her both physically and verbally. It is believed that she acted in self-defense, but now she must live in a male prison for 41 months. Reports suggest that transgender women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted in US prisons than non-transgender people.
But this isn’t about transgender people either. This is about gender violence and letting people get away it. It is about the 150 Afghan girls who ended up drinking poisoned water recently at a school in Takhar.
This is about the teenaged Lal Bibi who was kidnapped, raped and tortured, allegedly by a gang of Afghan police officers. It is about a culture where a raped woman is seen as ‘dishonoured’, and therefore must either be killed or kill herself. A culture where a rapist can claim innocence just because a local mullah has declared him ‘married’ to his victim.
So far, Lal Bibi has refused to punish herself for being attacked, and her family has chosen to seek punishment for the rapists. But some Afghan officials remain ambiguous about the case, or deferring to traditions, where the girl cannot choose who to marry. And so, this is about a global political culture where we pour ‘aid’ money into countries that refuse to take an unequivocal stand on women’s sexual right, knowing that most of that money is spent on arming men and training them to use guns.
It is about punishing gay activists in Russia for “distributing information that promotes LGBT rights and equality to minors.”
It is about men hacking into medical records, to steal information about women who had abortions, and try to ‘expose’ them on the internet. It is about refusing emergency abortions to women on the grounds that it is against the ‘religious beliefs’ of a hospital employee.
It is, finally, about trying to control someone else’s life. Because you are afraid of sexual freedom. Because you haven’t realised that the next humiliation or act of violence might be directed against you. And the danger is ever-present because you have not helped create a world where sexual violence is not tolerated.
First published here