The Battle Plans of Feisty Parents

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Bringing up daughters in India is a battle parents dare not lose. Here is how they are arming themselves

Images and idols of Jesus, Mary, Zarathustra and the Laughing Buddha watch over dentist Kamal D’Mello from a shelf in her cabin in Khar, Mumbai. Kamal is having evening tea with her friend Prafulla Srikanth. A partially-eaten slab of Cadbury Celebrations chocolate lies on a plate on the table. The women, both in their thirties, know each other because their daughters go to the same school, Lilavatibai Podar, in Santacruz. The girls are still very young, ranging from six to seven years old. But already, their mothers’ waking moments are tinged with a perpetual worry that is the sole curse of parenthood. There was a time when paranoia visited parents only of teenaged daughters. That has changed. “No matter what age, [no matter] how you look, a creep is a creep,” says Kamal, whose concerns haven’t diminished her chirpiness.

Parents, especially of girls, can never drop their guard in today’s India, an increasingly askew country fast losing direction and decency.

Prafulla goes to the bus stop ten minutes before the school bus drops her daughter off near their home in Bandra. “It’s not that she cannot walk back, but it is too dangerous,” says the mild-mannered former employee of the Taj Group. Prafulla also has a two-year-old son whom she plans to teach cooking once he’s older so that he does not grow up with a sense of entitlement.

When Kamal’s daughters went for a school picnic to Jogger’s Park in Bandra recently, she briefed them as if they were going to Afghanistan. “I must have told them ten times, ‘See that you can always see your teacher’, ‘If a didi takes you to a corner, don’t go’, ‘If a teacher takes you to a corner, don’t go.’ ‘Be in a group.’ ‘Always be in sight.’” Asked if she thinks she was overdoing it, Kamal replies, “Not anymore. I would not think like this two years ago. But seeing all these incidents, [you realise], ‘Hello, this world is going mad.’ You have to be overprotective.”

Sameera Khan, journalist, researcher and co-author of Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets (with sociologist Shilpa Phadke and architect Shilpa Ranade), has two daughters aged six and almost 11. Her words suggest that the balance between being protective and paranoid is elusive. “I think it’s the unenviable job of parents today to be both protective and paranoid,” she says.

Asked of her approach to parenthood, Sameera says, “I am trying to have honest conversations with my daughters about the facts of life, about choices, and about practical things to keep yourself safe… good touch/bad touch, contact with strangers, contact with people-known-to-us-but-who-make-us-uncomfortable, trusting your instincts, paying attention to things around you when you walk on the street, taking karate classes, etcetera. My biggest dilemma as a mother of a pre-teen daughter today, especially in this last year that we’ve seen great public violence against women being reported, is ‘How do I explain sexual violence to her when I have barely begun to converse with her about the changes in her body and about sexuality in general?’ I do not want her to associate intimacy and sex only with violence.”

Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the religious leader of Dawoodi Bohras, watches over Abizer Manaswala from a large frame on the wall as he sits on a couch at his home in Santacruz, Mumbai. His wife, Sabiha, is busy with the day’s chores. Their two young daughters are playing, haring in and out of the room, laughing and squealing. In the balcony of the girls’ bedroom is their pet bird Rocky. The bird is safely confined, which is not an option for the girls. The Manaswalas are a spry couple despite indulging their sweet tooth almost every day. But dessert cannot ease their worry over their daughters.

“You cannot even trust family members or priests today,” Abizer says. “Culture is getting corrupted. Vulgarity is too out there. TV channels, item numbers…” Earlier, his elder daughter went to school with other children in a rickshaw. But he realised the risk involved. Two years ago, he bought a Suzuki Access scooter for Sabiha so that she could drop their daughters to school herself. Though he does not trust everyone in his religious fraternity, he does draw strength from the Syedna, whose picture he frequently points to while speaking. “His holiness is progressive in his thinking,” says Abizer, “For example, he lays a lot of emphasis on the education of girls and in fact advises against [having them marry] before they are educated.”

An anguished statement D’Mello often makes during our conversation is “Earlier there was no fear,” or variants of it. That carefreeness is now a distant memory. The crime rate has been rising sharply, with risks lurking wherever one’s daughter goes. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the number of rapes in the country went up from 16,075 in 2001 to 24,923 in 2012, while assaults on women with ‘intent to outrage modesty’ went up from 34,124 to 45,351 over that period. These are only reported cases, of course. It can safely be assumed that the actual number is many times more.

“We were not scared. We Were Not Scared,” Kamal says of her college days. “I don’t think I will send my daughters on public transport. But we travelled to college (DY Patil Dental Institute in Navi Mumbai) by train or bus. I’d travel from Sanpada to Bandra [where we lived] via Kurla even in the evenings. I have taken a rickshaw or driven back from DY Patil to Bandra at 10 pm after annual day functions. In five years, there were probably [only] two incidents. Once, a man flashed us. Another time, someone behaved funny or tried to press against you. But you did not think that you would be raped or killed. For my children, I’m scared. [Because] people now are not scared of doing wrong things.”

Prafulla spent the first 25 years of her life in Delhi, among the worst of all Indian cities for the safety of women. While she had to be careful, she saw no need to turn herself into GI Jane, armed with chilli powder, sprays or karate blows. “One of my friends would carry things,” she says, “We would tell her the more she worried the more the chances of her being harassed.”

Now she as well as Kamal plan to enroll their daughters for karate classes, where tender limbs prematurely learn self-defence so that they do not fall prey to this country’s men, be they strangers, known faces or even family members. Before Mumbai, Prafulla lived in Dubai (from 2004 to 2012). She misses the sense of security she had there. Safety wise, she says it is a better place to raise children. “I have done grocery shopping at midnight leaving my daughter at home, just informing the neighbours or watchman. There is little risk of something untoward happening because the laws are so stringent. Nobody dares [break them].”

The Indian male is often an abusive, insecure control-freak. Don’t be fooled by his maths score. Harassment of women, obvious or discreet, is not uncommon in educated homes either. As Sameera says, “By definition, home may be a safe place for women. But often it is not.”

Karate classes apart, what are parents doing to shield their daughters from this abomination? One is that boring but important word: communication. As Kamal says when Prafulla brings up the subject of peer pressure on boys, “In this day and age, would peer pressure on a girl be any different? Boys are smoking, girls are smoking. Boys are doing things, girls are doing things. There’s nothing that a girl doesn’t do that a boy does. So the whole thing is about constantly talking to your children.”

In what detail one should acquaint daughters of dangers is a difficult call. Journalist Deepa Deosthalee did not expressly discuss the recent Mumbai rape with her daughter, who is almost 12. “She hasn’t read about it and I did not volunteer information,” Deepa says. “At her age, she is going through her own issues. I don’t want to add to her worries.” But she adds that at a theoretical level her daughter knows girls can be touched inappropriately and harmed.

Also, while she worries about violence and public apathy, Deepa prefers not to panic, saying that both safety and women’s harassment always existed in India. “In the early 70s, my parents were robbed at knife-point at Malabar Hill one evening. Then too, there were people around who did not do anything. So the fundamental problem is not rape per se, but Indian society, which is unequal. For a while in the 80s, we lived in Delhi. Our house was in Defence Colony, an affluent area. A prominent politician’s daughter lived there too. Her husband would beat her up. Her [life] did not improve even though she was a minister’s daughter. I know a well-educated man who left his wife of 22 years for another woman. Worse, he froze their joint account to which she had also contributed. She is penniless. Marital rape is widely prevalent, and to be raped by your husband is worse than a stranger. These are the larger issues.” (According to NCRB statistics, the number of cases of cruelty by husbands or relatives went up from 49,170 in 2001 to 106,527 in 2012.)

A discussion of possible solutions brings up Why Loiter? The book studies women’s attitudes towards public spaces in Mumbai and the forces that keep them from inhabiting these spaces freely. Co-author Sameera says, “We found that even in Mumbai, which we believe is a relatively friendly and more comfortable city for women compared to other cities in India, women do not enjoy an uncontested claim on the city. They have to strategise and negotiate the city, always manufacturing purpose and respectability for being out in public. While accessing public spaces for purposes of work and education is largely acceptable [to others at large], to access it for pleasure is not so easy. The freedom to hang out or loiter is not really given to women even in Mumbai.”

Would more women in public spaces reduce assaults on them perhaps? “Look, the crimes won’t stop,” says Sameera, “There is no magic bullet for that. But the more women there are in public spaces, the more comfortable other women and families will feel. And yes, this could be a deterrent to attacks. The critical thing is that space for women should not shrink. Unfortunately, that is what happens when there is an incident like the [recent] rape. One-by-one, areas become out-of-bounds for women, while the culprits move around without fear. [Therefore] our larger goal as parents, especially of daughters, is to protect their freedoms. These freedoms have been long fought for—the freedom to study, work, walk the streets, make their own choices—and I am determined that my parental paranoia does not limit my daughter’s access to the world out there in any way.”

Valuable lessons for girls also come from external sources such as sport and art. Deepa, a cinephile, was delighted when her daughter watched and enjoyed Kunku, a film made by V Shantaram in 1937 that came down heavily on the unfair treatment of women by society. “I hope these images make a lasting impression on her and guide her along, because I have learnt most about life from cinema,” says Deepa, “But I don’t expect things to change. My daughter will have to be mentally strong to withstand the hard knocks that life will inevitably subject her to.”

Mental strength comes from a lot of things, one of which is financial independence. Parents may have varying points of view on some subjects, but almost all people interviewed for this article say that they want their daughters to have successful careers. Some would prefer their kids going abroad. The safety of women may be a source of tension even in the West, but at least the dice is not so loaded against them since the security apparatus and judiciary are far more reliable there. “What is there in Bombay or India? You are not getting your effort and money’s worth,” says Kamal, “Bombay is messed up in every way.” She and her husband have also decided that they’d buy homes for their daughters. “When you are not dependent on that A-hole, you have the confidence to pick up the bags and l-e-a-v-e,” she says.

Another parent of a young girl who does not wish to be named makes a pertinent point. “Leave aside what parents of girls are doing, what about parents of boys? For the situation to improve, there has to be a change in the way boys are brought up. Often if there is a daughter and son in the house, the daughter will make the bed while the boy watches TV. There are any number of examples in my family where men don’t pick up the broom or wash dishes. Teach the boys to do chores, [it’s as] simple as that. Then they will know that they are not special. And as far as sexual urges go, it is natural to have them, but if the girl says ‘no’, it is a ‘no.’ Be gentlemen, not animals.”