As I sat down with the morning e-newspaper on my laptop, I was greeted by a photo with a caption underneath, ‘women ISIS members in the ISIS training camps’. Behind the darkness of a black ‘Burkha’, a robe that covers the body from head to toe, and a veil to cover the head and the face, there were approximately 10-15 women in the photograph with sophisticated guns in their hands ready to plunge into the sea of ‘Jihaad’. From a netted window on the veil, these young or old women were making a life changing decision! The hands which once rocked a cradle were now getting ready to silence one!
A certain video featuring some of Bollywood’s leading ladies had struck the headlines a fortnight ago. The video spoke about women empowerment. It showed how women had a right to their body as well as their minds and no one else has the right to dictate terms on how to use them. A very powerful video, with a very powerful message, especially given the current circumstances in the country and elsewhere on the rising crimes against women! The video incidentally also said that it is the choice of the woman whether to have ‘sex’ before marriage or after marriage, in marriage or out of marriage while staying married! When the video had started to make sense, this particular section made me think of what does ‘Woman Empowerment’ mean to these ladies who feature in this video! Made by one of Bollywood’s promising directors and featuring some well off independent women does this video really show what is meant by ‘Women Empowerment’? Yes! I agree ‘Women Empowerment’ means the right to make a decision and take a decision without being questioned, yet on whether to have ‘sex’ outside marriage even while you are married, is definitely not empowerment; rather it is voyeurism in disguise! My idea of ‘Women Empowerment’ encompasses when a woman takes a decision of not letting go of her orphanage in the name of marriage; a woman deciding to go out and work as a maid inspite of an abusive drunk husband just to pay the bills; a woman deciding to realise her dream of becoming one of the world champions in boxing inspite of all the odds in life; a father deciding to make his daughter one of the world’s best shuttler in spite of his family not approving a girl child and refusing to see her face after she was born; or for that matter choosing to continue work or just enjoy marital bliss is called empowerment; having a baby and getting to choose whether to rearrange the priorities in life that is called empowerment; or a simple decision of not letting go of your food habits and personal choices just because they are different from your husbands is empowerment for me! The list goes on but somehow the idea of ‘sex outside marriage’ being a point of ‘Woman Empowerment’ does not really fit in my list.
When I finished reading ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khalid Hosseini, one looming question kept on revolving in my mind, what would life be for an ordinary Afgan woman who had seen freedom at its best when everywhere else in the world the so called ‘weaker sex’ was still striving hard to carve a place for herself. A woman who had the freedom of decision making! Whether to pursue her studies, to choosing her life partner, an Afgan woman was envy of all! And then suddenly one fine day everything she had ever known was gone within a wink of an eye! A right forcibly taken away from her and pushing her into a world of darkness and a forbidden life of restrictions.
So when Reader’s Digest, a popular magazine in India, decided to ask its readers a question that if you had a chance for a day to switch places with someone who would you choose, my obvious choice was evident; ‘I would switch places for a day with an Afgan Woman to see what she feels about her changed times and switched places’! It was not that the she was only the rarest of the rare, given similar conditions prevailing in India where women in many parts do not enjoy any kind of rights; her only safe place was among the four walls of her house. When she left the walls of her father she entered that of her husbands’. There are women whose fates are decided by an alternative court of law, ‘The Khaps’. A group of senior male members of a village, who boast of self-attained wisdom, sitting down to decide the future course of life for the women in that village. When if found guilty the punishments range from banishment from the village boundaries to death. The whole idea of living the life of an Afgan woman was solely driven by a solitary thought, how much courage and patience does it takes to live a life of perennial penance and confinement after getting a taste of free living? A life of liberation which was incised upon brutally and taken away!
Whether it is these ISIS women comrades or the women in the Naxal hit areas of India, the pictures of women swishing guns dangerously on the face of the innocents, forced me to rethink my idea of ‘Women Empowerment’ and the ‘Right to Choice’. Does it only mean brushing shoulders with men with similar thinking of ‘we kill if you don’t believe?’ Or does it mean giving up the role of a nurturer and instead vandalize life? Or does it simply mean getting out of the four walls of the house only to intimidate others to take your place inside? The darkness of the veil doesn't come because of the cloth that gives a feigned perception of anonymity. The darkness comes because one chooses to live in the world of ignorance. A world where if the perception on the path of righteousness doesn't match, then you lose the right to life! The whole idea of the ‘Right of Choice’and 'Women Empowerment' gets diluted when the ‘Choice’ chooses the wrong way!
‘Right to Choice’ can only come through the ‘Right of Knowledge’. And knowledge doesn't come in by getting university degrees. Knowledge comes in when you realize how critically important life is, both for you and the ones you are sneering to take away. Everybody has a right to live and a right to choose. And when you have the right to choose on anything from as simple as what to wear, to which religion to practice, what to eat, to when to go out of the house, and when to come back, empowerment is what follows. The darkness of ignorance is more sinister than the darkness of the veil because it is this lack of knowledge that preys upon us from behind the veil! This ignorance needs to be denounced and the light of knowledge needs to percolate inside. Knowledge is the only recourse that can be taken to enlighten this forbidden world of iniquity and the darkness behind the veil!