Five years ago, the brutal gangrape and murder of a young woman on the streets of Delhi shocked our nation and forced open difficult conversations about women and violence. Most urgently, it led to the strengthening of India’s rape laws and compelled the media to amplify its coverage of sexual assaults. Even more heartening is how many young Indian women found their voice after December 2012 – whether to take on unreasonable hostel curfews discriminating against women students (#PinjraTod), menstrual taboos shaming them (#HappyToBleed), frankly discussing sexual harassment, consent, assault and perpetrators (#MeToo), or asserting women’s right to public space (#IWillGoOut).

What does it mean to be a good woman?

In spite of these positive shifts, a lot more has not changed and in fact only worsened. There’s been a rise in the reporting of violent crimes against women, both within the home and outside (Kathua and Unnao are unfortunately just two instances of many), and women are still often held responsible for assaults perpetuated against them. This despite the steady increase in the number of Indian women pursuing higher education and work in diverse fields and their enhanced visibility in the public sphere. It is precisely this dichotomy that social scientist Deepa Narayan sets out to unmask in her new book Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women.

After 600 detailed interviews, primarily with educated middle- and upper-class young women between the ages of 17 and 35 in Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai and Ahmedabad, Narayan concludes that regardless of their education, class, financial status, professional success and family background, Indian women continue to be under-valued, violated, fearful and unsafe. This, she argues, is the result of a regressive cultural ideology that continues to keep women repressed, isolated, invisible, shamed, and silent – that is of course, if they manage to stay alive in the first place.

Over three years, Narayan asked Indian women she met the ostensibly simple question: “What does it mean to you to be a good woman?” The answers might surprise and shock you but mostly they will sadden and anger you. Sad because they expose the extent to which women embrace negative views about themselves. Angry because they reveal how much and in what ways Indian society reinforces and bolsters those views.

Habits of non-existence

But Narayan does more than that. She presents us with a framework of how to view those answers – by slotting them in what she calls the seven “cultural habits of non-existence” that all Indian women are trained to adhere to as they grow from girlhood to womanhood. None of them should really jolt us since they are so normalised in our everyday cultural landscape. But when viewed collectively, they hold up a mirror to our deeply troubled society.

  • Deny the body: Women are told not to talk about their bodies and the worst consequence of this is the silence and shame built around sexual violence and abuse. They are taught to diminish their bodies by disguising it in every possible way including hanging their heads and hunching their bodies. According to Narayan, women learn to distance themselves from their bodies by being discouraged from movement and sporty activity.
  • Be quiet: Girls are constantly reprimanded to speak softly and less, be “sober”, shun loudness, only listen, not be opinionated or argumentative. The result is persistent self-doubt and low confidence that Narayan says silences women from voicing their opinions and asking for their due in the workplace.
  • Please others: Girls are regularly badgered into pleasing and adjusting to the needs of others, feeling guilty about saying no, and disguising their own hurts or feelings. Smiling but not over-smiling; definitely not laughing loudly. This takes a toll on their mental and emotional health and on their ability to make decisions, initiate action and take on leadership positions.
  • Deny your sexuality: Narayan lays out story after story where women talk about how at puberty and after, all aspects of their sexuality including their developing breasts, hips, body hair, menstruation and sexual desire are buried in denial and shame. The consequence of this is not that women don’t indulge in sexual exploration – on the contrary, casual sex is on the rise across the country – but that due to lack of training in healthy sexuality (based on consent, equality, respect and trust), women are left vulnerable to sexual violations and abuse within homes, in offices and public spaces.
  • Have no individual identity: Many women interviewed in the book express anger at society viewing them only as mothers, daughters and wives but buy into that rhetoric themselves, speaking incessantly in the language of duty and sacrifice to describe their role as women.
  • Be dependent: According to Narayan, women’s systematic training in physical, material and psychological dependence on men and fear of being alone makes women unable to trust themselves.
  • Isolate yourself: Narayan argues that since we carefully groom our girls in fear, insecurity, and distrust, women don’t build enough communities of caring female groups. Instead women doubt each other and backbite.

Whither patriarchy?

I disagree very little with Narayan’s thesis that the constant training and double-messaging we subject our daughters to since childhood ends up negating their very personhood, suppressing their desires and ambitions as adult women. However, as a life-long proponent of surrounding yourself with tight circles of women friends, I found Narayan’s point about women not trusting women a little less than credible. I often find that women do trust and reach out to each other.

My bigger issue is that Narayan dismisses patriarchy in her author’s note as “the old explanation for gender overused that it has become flaccid.” Instead she insists on using the term “cultural habits” but all the “habits” she outlines can be understood in terms of patriarchy, not apart from it. Even her final point on “culture bestows power on men and morality on women” has its basis in how patriarchy constructs men and women.

My other quibble about this interesting book is the blurb on its cover that targets the book to women. “This book will hold a mirror to every Indian woman,” it reads. But most Indian women, whether they articulate it or not, are already well-aware of the reflection they see in the mirror. They should read this book in any case but what we also need is for everyone else (read, men and those in structures of power) to be exposed to these thought-provoking ideas as well.

Chup: Breaking The Silence About India’s Women, Deepa Narayan, Juggernaut.