What happens when women break out of the rigid code of conduct set by religion and society? Sometimes they survive, and sometimes, the worst happens.
Movie still from film Aise Hee
There are a million things that divide religions, but most do have a common thread- a rigid code of conduct and moral righteousness assigned to women. Be it regulations of how they should dress, or how they take their place in society, religion can play a vital role in controlling women.
The German film ‘A regular woman’ showcased in MAMI Film Festival 2019, portrays the real-life fate of Hatun Ayhnur Sürücü, a Muslim woman of Turkish descent, and her struggle for a free, self-determined life after escaping an abusive child-marriage. Her conservative family members refused to accept her new lifestyle; insults and threats continued to escalate. Ayhnur, however, still bound by familial emotion wanted to mend fences. Even though she moved out, started training for a job and cared for her child on her own, she kept in touch with her family believing they would someday accept her. Instead, she was ultimately subjected to an honour killing by her brother.
Is that what happens when a woman decides to do something as innocuous as expose her hair, or get a job? In India, most honour killings are linked to notions of caste purity and controlling women’s sexuality. The family honour seems to reside in women’s vaginas, their hair, their clothes, their fraternization with men, in effect- women are treated like a possession that needs to behave in a certain way, “or else”.
Over 200 women are killed in the name of “honour” every year in India. In 2006, a Supreme Court judgement called such incidences "barbaric”. Ironically, no separate law exists to punish those found guilty of such murders, and prosecutions are usually among various sections of the Indian Penal Code for homicide and culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
For so many women, it is difficult to imagine that their own family members could want to kill them. Most don’t see it coming. But even if they do, is the system on their side? Ayhnur had reported the threats she received from her brothers to the police. No one intervened, no action was taken. Ayhnur was killed in 2005. Almost 15 years later, the same story would repeat because nothing has changed. Would Ayhnur have escaped to a far-off land and cut all ties with her family if she had known they were capable of killing her? Maybe we’re too emotional where family is concerned. We forget that the so called ‘family honour’ is bigger than women’s lives.
Ayhnur’s story weighed so heavy on me and I was pleasantly surprised by my next watch, an Indian movie called “Aise Hee” which was also about a woman’s self-determination, but had a positive outcome in the end. Aise Hee is also the winner of this year’s Film Critics Guild Award and is a must watch. There are so many amazing moments this movie where the audience couldn’t help but burst into loud applause and cheers. One of these moments comes when the leading woman, a Hindu widow, saves a Muslim tailor she has befriended from a potentially dangerous group of Gaurakshaks. The way she uses her position and privilege to protect her Muslim friend is genius and hilarious at the same time.
As an elderly widow, she’s expected to behave in a certain way- wear ‘sober’ clothes, go to Yoga, visit temples, and also empty out her portion of the house so that her son can lease it out for rent. Through the course of the movie, she defies each and every one of these expectations. She takes midnight walks at the riverbank, goes to a mall alone to eat ice-cream, refuses to hand over her husband’s pension to her son, gets a beauty treatment, and allows herself to breathe freely. Obviously this aggravates not just her family but the entire neighbourhood.How dare an upper caste Hindu woman spend her days with a Muslim man learning embroidery?How dare a ‘husband-less’ woman nearing her 70s enjoy her life?
She refuses to be manipulated by anyone and does what she pleases. Ultimately, she quietly leaves the judgemental people in her life behind. The wonderfully sensitive portrayal of the lead by actor Mohini Sharma has won her the Special Jury Mention for Best Female Actor at MAMI 2019.
The two movies “A Regular Woman” and “Aise Hee” stand in contrast with respect to what happens to the woman defying societal and religious norms, yet they have so much in common. It makes one wonder why society is so concerned with what women do in their lives. It runs deeper than ‘family honour’; moral policing extends to any and all women. Random men feel the need to comment on women’s clothing, as witnessed in the case of the Bengaluru man who stopped a woman on the road to yell at her for wearing shorts because they do not conform to ‘Indian rules’.Social media is overflowing with strange men commenting on women’s characters and issuing rape threats to women for simply existing. The misogyny has been passed down for generations to uphold patriarchy and ‘social order’.
So what happens when women manage shake up the foundations of systematic subjugation with small acts of freedom? They add up and amplify, they inspire and validate, they build something new, something better. The question is, will you build with them?