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Rita Banerji: Breaking the Silence around My Grandmother’s Memories

February 18, 2011

my grandmother by Rita Banerji

My grandmother’s story is perhaps the story of thousands of Indian women even today. As a vivacious, young woman, she had attended college more than 73 years ago, at a time when most Indian women, even in the middle and upper classes were illiterate.  She dreamed of becoming a lawyer someday, like her father.   She would fondly recalls how in college she had played the role of Portia (who takes on the disguise of a male lawyer to save a friend’s life), in  Shakespeare’s, The Merchant of Venice.  But my grandmother never got to be Portia in real life.

She was forced to marry a man that her family considered to be a good match for her — an engineer, who had just returned from England, and had his own flourishing firm.  However he did not appeal to her and she made that clear from the start.  But her wishes and desires were of little consequence, and she was pressurized into the marriage.  It was not just a marriage that was the equivalent of  rape, but for more than 50 years she also had to endure terrible emotional and physical violence.

The first time that my grandfather had slapped her, she had turned around and walked out of the house just as she was — barefeet and in her dressing gown. She walked that way right across town, back to her parents’ house, and refused to return to her husband.  It is something that women in the middle and upper-classes in India  simply did not do!  And still don’t.  For a society that places the highest premium on “a family’s reputation” — the pressure is that much more on women in the educated and elite sections to remain silent, and return to their marriages to their prisons–of rape, violence, and torture–to keep up social appearances.  In the end that is what my grandmother too had to do.

I look around, among the middle and upper educated classes in India,  and see my grandmother’s story repeating over and over again, even today!!   How do these women endure the betrayal of their own parents, snuffing out their dreams and forcing them into unions that are nothing more than rape? How and why do they endure the continuing violence — and a society that remains blind and indifferent to the injustices of their lives, while it continues to exalt marriage and traditions as it supreme altars? Why, when they are educated and working, do these women not break their silence; break the tradition of enduring torture in the name of family and honor? These were my reasons for writing ‘My Grandmother’s Memories.’

Click here to read  ‘My Grandmother’s Memories’ here in The Wordworth Magazine (click on Columns).

ABOUT THE WRITER

Rita Banerji is an author and gender activist, and the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign to end India’s female genocide.  Her book ‘Sex and Power: Defining History Shaping Societies, is a historical and social look at how the relationship between gender and power in India has led to the ongoing female gendercide.  Her website is www.ritabanerji.com She blogs at Revolutions in my Space and tweets at @Rita_Banerji

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 18, 2011 1:00 pm

    thanks for that story… yes, there is a lot to do on the way to women’s liberation – in many countries …

  2. cynthia rodrigs permalink
    April 13, 2011 10:43 pm

    Dear Rita,
    What you say is correct. We are so much consumed with issues involving children, cooking, etc… that we forget to live and stand up for ourselves. Why mothers dont teach sons respect the girls and teach them to cook and clean the house as much as they make girls do? In this modern world girls are equally educated and get jobs like boys. They have started to earn and share the financial burden like men but the household chores are not shared by the men.
    In marriage even educated men and women dont put a stop to dowry. Why…?
    Once a girl is married, her life revolves around her husband and in-laws and children while husbands do so. Am trying to find out why this is happening to Indian women… Hope I will understand before it is too late.
    Cynthia

  3. Melanie permalink
    April 29, 2011 6:52 pm

    Rita,

    Thank you for sharing your grandmother’s heartbreaking story. You are so right. The voices and stories of these women need to be heard until people start to realize that not all traditions are worth keeping.

    My mother is from Colombia, and in my own family, there are many sad stories of injustice against women. Daughters were taught to do domestic work day and night to please the males in the family; sons were taught to feel entitled in every way. My mother learned how to iron handkerchiefs at the age of 4! Some of the women were abused by their male cousins or husbands, and instead of supporting them, they were shamed and practically abandoned by their parents and siblings. Although things are improving, it is still a male dominated culture in many ways.

    The struggle continues in many parts of the world. I want to share a song by an artist from Burkina Faso. There is a movement there by the younger generation to speak out against arranged/forced marriage. In this song, she says that she will marry the man her parents have chosen for her in order to obey them, but reminds them that a marriage without love is a life of pain and sorrow. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScExJt5LSKU

    This is important work!! In solidarity,

    Melanie

    • April 30, 2011 4:51 pm

      Thank you Melanie! The right link is in now 🙂 We hope that women will soon learn to sing that they won’t marry to please their parents. That it is their body and no one has the right to control it or subjugate it to their will in any way.

  4. Partha Roy permalink
    March 19, 2013 6:28 pm

    Feel sorry for your grand mother. But why your grand mother did not protested when her marriage was arranged . Why she did not fled from her place of residence just before her marriage . No body could had forced her to marry unless she wanted to marry for whatever reasons other than sex. Did not your grandma felt socio -economically powerful than her peer group members in family & society at that point in time by getting married to foreign trained Engineer with his own business & offering privileged social life . Please do recognise socio -economic reasons in a marriage . Many women marry purely for economic reasons rather than love & affections across the world. I do recognise woman ‘s sexual need , sexual preferences , freedom to indulge in sex at their own sweat will . But if a woman ‘s honour ,dignity ,freedom is important so does a man ‘s honour , dignity ,freedom & financial security equally important . It is extremely unfortunate you do not recognise contribution of your grandfather who must have worked hard to earn enough to raise his child(ren), one of them is your biological parent (hope you are not adopted child of your parents). Can you say your grand mother never used financial & material security provided by your grandfather ? Can you say sexual interaction abberation /dysfunctions do not exist in marital relationship in the west from last 500 years?

    • March 25, 2013 1:10 pm

      You are Indian, and you are pretending that you don’t understand the kind of emotional and psychological badgering that women are subject to by their families to get married to men they don’t want to marry or even if they don’t want to get married? When you say that women agree to forced marriages for “sex” it is just another perverted form of denial!! My grandmother got married in the 1930s. Not only did she have no option then, but even now there are hundreds of educated, often working women who are blackmailed into marrying men they don’t want to marry. Women are often times isolated, locked up and forced to get married. All these marriages are rapes and the families are committing crimes! When I hear Indians talking like you, in denial, and defensively, I find it’s often because either they themselves have committed these crimes, or have watched it happen in their families or among friends. But they don’t have the honesty and integrity to call it by name, and stand up to it! Which is a shame! India’s denial and defensiveness is BECAUSE OUR FAMILIES AND TRADITIONS ARE BUILT ON MAKING A SACRED THE CRIME OF RAPE AND VIOLENCE! Secondly, even if a husband or father (my grandfather included) worked hard, and was wealthy and provided for his wife and children, it does not give him or anyone the right to inflict violence on their wives and/or children. That is something that slave-owners did! As long as India permits rape and violence within homes, in the name of family and tradition, we can never be a civilized society. The change begins with your mind-set!

  5. March 20, 2013 3:11 pm

    YES RITA ! WHY NOT A GOOD SONG ?
    Rita , you said :”We hope that women will soon learn to sing that they won’t marry to please their parents. That it is their body and no one has the right to control it or subjugate it to their will in any way.”
    THAT’S AN IDEA ! couldn’t any good compositor create a hit song that every girl and boy would like to sing ?and that every progressive radio , media , charity or vip could help to circulate , why not ?social revolution has sometimes strange paths …We could also broadcast it in our western countries to tell our solidarity with our hurted indians sisters …
    It is essential to say that women deserve better , than every one , children , men also , deserve better than all those miseries , than every one deserves respect and love ,WHY NOT ALSO SING IT ?
    WHY NOT OPEN A MEDIATIC COMPETITION ABOUT SONGS FOR PEACE AND RIGHTS OF WOMEN ?

  6. March 25, 2013 1:11 pm

    Francoise, Maybe some day. But frankly I do not think there is a broad momentum or uprising among Indian women yet. There is a lot of denial which we need to confront I think and change.

    • swati permalink
      April 30, 2013 9:21 am

      @Rita Banerji you are right .I have seen this happening with the girls in my circle of relatives.The moment they go in the final year of the graduation,they parents’ start arranging for their disposal process(they call it marrying off their daughter).I don’t understand whether they really deserved to be called as parents or not.And those girls are now fortunately single,educated and financially secure but they still can’t disobey their family (as if they still don’t have any rights over their bodies).Indian women(and men too) must realize that they have full control over their body and that following their own heart in the matters of marriage and sexual relations is not unethical.I hate this word’marrying -off’ sounds like somebody is disposing somebody off.If any culture prevents them from having their way,then it is the culture that is wrong.The culture in India is so oppressive on women that it took a toll on my mind when I stood up for myself .I was threatened by my father.I was labelled as ‘disrespectful’ by my own mother.She did not treat me properly for months.it was becoming unbearable for me to live at home.But I didnot budge an inch patiently waited for the time I had to move to the other city for job. Since then there is a lot of peace in my life.I have understood if my parents force me to marry ,they are not my well-wishers.So there is no pint of keeping any relation with them.

    • May 1, 2013 12:23 pm

      Swati — this is exactly what all women need to do. First establish that it is wrong, even if that wrong is done by parents. And then make a choice and plan to make your life and well-being a priority and work towards it steadily. We sometimes encounter Indian women, who for the longest time stay in a denial mode, refusing to see the abuse of their own situation. And then overnight want to get out when it becomes unbearable! But the first step is recognizing the abuse. The second step is — planning for your life independently and then working towards getting out. You are an inspiration for change for women in India!

  7. swati permalink
    May 1, 2013 5:01 pm

    @The 50 million missing campaign….thanks for your kind words.That is why I feel getting independent(both financial and emotional) is the first step towards liberation.I was given a deadline of 25 by my father at the age of 21.Though I was young that time ,I retorted back.I told him I had a career plan and was not planning to marry before 27.He got angry.May be he could not digest the fact that his daughter was disobeying him.So he very angrily gave me deadline.I was wondering what wrong did I do for having a career plan I got very scared that time and then I decided ,then I have to do something to support myself.When I turned 22 and got a job my parents told me that they will marry me off within the next two years as I was their responsibility and that my wedding would involve a huge expenditure that my father will have to pay(as we are two sisters so one more person with a huge disposal cost).I will always be their responsibility(a euphemism for ‘liability’) even though currently I am saving to help them out in paying the mortages of their brand new apartment.(If next time they call me a liability,I will withdraw my financial help’).
    But after seeing my firmness they gave me a condition if I like a groom(but it always felt like if they were forcing me to consider marriage).But when I told them about my career plan my mom told me to look up to other girls for inspiration who respect their parents.Still I was adamant.I felt very bad for some months that how can my parents force me to do something just for the sake of money.It was then I realized how pathetic Indian parents are. Anticipating the family pressure ,I purposefully chose a job location that is far away from my native place.So that I don’t have to visit my family often(I was very young so made all the childish decisions,I am regretting it now but really it helped in living peacefully and gave me ample time to reflect back on the mentality of Indian Parents).Some months after I joined job ,I revisited my family then this issue again popped up. When I told them I can marry in a simple ceremony also then they gave all those lame excuses of society and culture.I told them firmly that when I will marry and whom I will marry is my decision and family does not have any say in that.And I hate this concept of forced arranged marriages.Later when a marriage proposal again popped up ,I told them firmly that I will marry a person of my choice only my mother was unhappy with me for a few days.But later she also yielded to my firmness.Now I am 24.I don’t know whether they have started respected my choice or not but at least they are now not forceful.May be by now they must have understood I am no more under their control.But still they hope that I will obey them in future which does not seem very certain to me.

  8. swati permalink
    May 1, 2013 5:17 pm

    I want to give this message to all the Indian girls.Always strive to be financially independent so that you are well-equipped to be on your own and need not succumb to the societal pressure.But the most important thing is to realize that by succumbing to the societal pressure or parental pressure you are not doing anything good or virtuous in fact you are preserving what is already bad in our society.Many Indians even don’t use the right word for this oppression ,they use ‘tradition’ instead of ‘patriarchy’.Change comes from within.Remember somebody had to take a strong step in order to bring the change,if you won’t ,who else will.

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