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FAMILY VALUES

Myths surround women in India. When a society tries to disguise its hatred and aggression towards fellow members — and women are fellow members, like it or not — it develops soothing myths to pretend all’s right with the world. And with women — if only they’ll listen to sage, restrictive advice. One of the favourite myths, also used by well-meaning citizens jumping on to the protest-against-violence-against-women bandwagon, is that the family is the safest place for girls and women. If there are rapists abroad, run home and stay there, because at home women are presumably not beaten up, locked in, starved, molested, raped or killed, sometimes before they are born or immediately after. Yet this is one myth that spontaneously combusts almost every day. A 16-year-old girl in her grandparents’ home in Nadia set herself on fire and died after sitting her Madhyamik examination. Her parents, who work in Delhi, were urging her to join them because, she had discovered, they wanted to sell her off. They did not stop at urging, they beat her up violently because she refused.

According to the grandmother, the girl wanted to continue studying. Certainly she did not want to go into sex work. In this deeply unsettling reversal of family roles, the grandmother, who had brought up the girl, reported the matter to the police after the suicide and her son, his wife and the wife’s brother have been arrested. For this young teenager, as for many other children all over India, the immediate family was — or is — at least as dangerous as the predatory world outside. The assumptions on which a household or family is built can be turned on their head in a jiffy with transgressive greed and violence. Of the two sets of parents in this incident, one drove the offspring to her death and the other got the offspring arrested for abetment. When thinking about women’s empowerment, it should be acknowledged that the family home can be a dangerous place unless values and attitudes undergo a change.