by Nida Sheriff
Soon after I landed in Bangalore in October 2014, I read a news story about a young Indian North-Eastern couple who were beaten up by a group of nationalist thugs in Bengaluru, the very city where I was born. They called them “NRIs”–a now-pejorative term for Non-Resident Indians; and deemed it appropriate to assault and berate them for daring to exist in their (the aggressors’), state.
I was, until very recently, an NRI myself. Recent rampant nationalism that sprung with Narendra Modi’s inaugural term as our Prime Minister brought to the surface a question that many Indians, including myself, did not previously think necessary to answer– “How Indian are you?”
To the nationalists, Indian-ness is synonymous with Hindu-ness. To those who chose to cross the freshly drawn line in the sand in 1947, nationality was redefined by the God they chose to pray to. Many are just Indian because they were born on Indian soil, in this world we live in, where our identities are defined by arbitrary borders on a map.
To outsiders, or foreigners, as we like to call them even in their own countries, India and Indian-ness is an ever changing diorama of spirituality, color, festivals, foods, cinema glamor, and our shifting poverty line. Recently, however, this rainbow diorama took on a bleaker shade. Today, to the outside world, India has become a country that hates women. Indian-ness is now equated with the probability of rape – as evidenced by the German professor who refused to give an Indian male student a research position because she perceived him to be a potential rapist solely based on his country of origin.
Soon after I arrived in Bengaluru, I became a volunteer for Chayn, a group founded by a friend of a friend that uses technology to empower female victims of domestic violence. Hera Hussain, the founder, and a team of amazing volunteers in India and abroad decided it was time to launch a chapter in India – the fourth most dangerous country in the world to be a woman according to a Thomson Reuters survey.
The first step, of course, was researching relevant content for the website. What I found shocked me. While NDTV hosts political debates on television about the controversial ban on beef, every nine minutes an Indian woman is being physically assaulted by her husband or family. As we cheer on our cricket team in the World Cup, a dowry death occurs every 77 minutes. Even more shockingly, 51% of Indian men think it is okay to hit their wives and 54% of Indian women agree. Marital rape is legal in India – a factoid that only recently came to light in a meme poking fun at the absurdity of the new beef possession laws.
Armed with this heartbreaking information and new resolve, the team of volunteers pulled together to launch the Chayn India web portal on International Women’s Day. Twitter was abuzz with hashtags celebrating women, men rushed around buying flowers and making plans to celebrate with their daughters and wives, and we got several calls from journos interested in the launch and what we do. The next day it was all over. While it was a nice 24-hour period dedicated to women, Women’s Day did not live up to the expectations that I had as an Indian woman. On Facebook, instead of asking people to nominate a woman they admire (almost always their mum), should we have asked them if a woman they know has been slapped, kicked, punched, or bitten by her husband? Would any of the responses have been “I really admire my mother for the way she raised me, but I routinely beat up my wife in front of our children?”
We’re a country obsessed with rape, and rightly so. I’m glad we’re ready to encourage discourse on the state of sexual crimes against women in India. But are we only interested when the rape is an act of black-and-white aggression that complies with our pre-existing notions of female purity and body horror? Is it only wrong to us when a woman or young girl is attacked by strange men on the street? As a country we’re equally obsessed with marriage, but why don’t we take to the streets in protest when our Bollywood-inspired romantic notions of union come crashing down when a husband gives his wife a black eye or broken ribs?
As a third culture kid, my identity as an Indian has always been my fierce pride in the importance we place on family and community, both seemingly synonymous. Now, at 24 years old I’m not so sure. I’ve failed to see the long heralded strong familial and communal ties that we think sets us apart from the rest of the world, in personal experience and in reading astonishingly apathetic and sometimes even cruel comments on social media. When a family friend casually mentioned in conversation that her acquaintance confided in her about the abuse that she was suffering at home, the conversation took a turn I had never expected it to. As a new volunteer for Chayn, I was all about taking action and what I could do to help a woman in distress. Instead, we went from expressing our dismay at harrowing details of the victim’s abuse to commenting on the conventional good looks of her abuser–“he doesn’t look like the type.” Harmful myths about domestic violence continue to run abound but we seem to be more comfortable with myths than with the truth.
Indian culture is still a misogynistic mess and we seem to be more interested in gossip than sisterly protection. The sands are shifting beneath our feet but what we really need is an earthquake to shake the very foundations of our culture. The values that we Indians are so proud of upholding in front of the world are being tested every single day that we brush aside domestic violence, blame a rape victim, or pretend our women are not being violently assaulted and abused.
Volunteering for a domestic violence charity has not only opened my eyes to the experiences of women all around me, it has forced me to confront what I thought my entire cultural identity was founded on. As an Indian, the need to become the safe, nurturing community that formed so much of my identity is not only my national duty — it’s in my blood.
Politics, religion, and nationalism are only distractions from what is really important in India. What makes a good Indian isn’t the language you speak, the God you worship, or the shape of your eyes. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said,
“The measure of a country’s greatness should be based on how well it cares for its most vulnerable populations.”
It really shouldn’t matter that I am a Muslim ex-NRI who can’t string together a sentence in Kannada. I’m an Indian because I’m trying my best to uphold the values that I always believed India was built on by empowering its most valuable asset — its women.
Nida Sheriff was born in Bangalore, India, and raised in Dubai. After completing my degree in Film Studies in London, I flew back to a strange new place – the city I was born in, Bangalore. I currently divide my time between funemployment (when you’re unemployed but live with your parents), working for Chayn India – a charity that aims to empower women in domestic violence – and writing plays, short films, and screenplays that I hope to produce myself soon.