Many years ago, I came across a thin, nondescript book in my college library titled “Women in Moslem Paradise” (1). It was written by Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist lawyer . Little did I know then that the sentiments she shared would be embedded in some part of my psyche. It would add to the foundation of my views on women’s rights. Her verses were written in the context of Muslim women, but the underlying sentiment was really about every woman.
I wrote down some of the verses painstakingly, in a small orange notebook with Garfield on the cover. I have since outgrown Garfield, but I hold on to the battered notebook. On days when I feel bruised and in need of inspiration, I still read though them.
The last time I took out the notebook was in the winter of 2012, in the horrific aftermath of the Nirbhaya rape case in Delhi. A young woman had been barbarically assaulted because she had dared to resist a rape and fight back. The case shook the conscience of a nation for it was apparent that something was fundamentally broken, and needed urgent fixing. Thus there was outrage, unprecedented protests, new laws and electoral consequences.
This resulted in some degree of change, as the media started reporting rape cases that were hitherto ignored. The police, at least in the metros, came under pressure to act swiftly. Well-connected, high-profile people like Tarun Tejpal went to jail for bad behaviour. Best of all, it started a debate challenging the old narrative that liked to pin the blame on the woman, implying “she asked for it” somehow.
Despite these changes, there are still miles to go. The incomprehensible rape and hanging of two teenagers in Badaun is yet another grim reminder of how much needs to be done. Mindsets need to change. As long as women are viewed as a commodity, to be used as objects of lust, or pawns in power games, or as punching bags for compensating personal inadequacies, things will remain the same. Moreover, the state needs to act swiftly, decisively and brutally. Unless the state is able to strike absolute terror in the hearts of beasts, they will continue to prey. Without these changes, women’s safety, dignity and empowerment will continue to be pipe dreams.
Today, I am in despair once again. The images of the young, lifeless bodies hanging from a tree haunt me. I have turned to my Garfield notebook for comfort, yet again. Only, this time, I share my favourite passages with all women who share my anguish. This is a call to imagine can be. This is a call to keep the dream of paradise alive.
From Women in Moslem Paradise:
“Paradise could simply be a place where I feel good about myself
A place where I feel beautiful, strong, loving, lovable,
A place where I feel witty, funny, sexy, bright, attractive.
Paradise is a place where I don’t have to fight to prove anything at all
Paradise is a place where I feel my simple existence is a gift to the world, and to myself
Paradise is a place where I have a strong sense of my worth
It is a space where my creative capacities are not limited to producing children who belong to their father, or to typing
It is a space where I am free to develop the qualities, which attract me the most; for they are freely available to everyone, they are no longer the monopoly of a particular group according to sex, race, diploma or skill
Paradise is where there is no limit to what you can become
Paradise is where you can think, sing, dance and feel that all this is equally vital to people around you
Paradise is a space which mirrors your beauties
Paradise is that place where a woman or a man can sit for hours doing nothing without feeling the need to justify her/himself
Paradise is to be many things at once, a dancer and a writer, and a cook and a thinker and a dreamer and a banker…
Or just to be nothing…
Just a calm look at the world on a sunny afternoon
That is Paradise…everything is possible in it, even just being nothing and being happy about it
Paradise is not having to live up to someone else’s standards and expectations, even GODS…”
(1) Mernissi, F. (1986). Women in Moslem paradise. New Delhi: Kali for Women.