Tuesday, May 17, 2016

She's Dangerous!

Published as part of the Dangerous Women Project on 17 May 2016

This is the first time my piece has been published by an institution in the United Kingdom. It is also the first time one of my artworks has been published alongside my article. It's amazing to be featured with some very accomplished academicians and writers. Here's presenting, "She's Dangerous!" for the University of Edinburgh's Dangerous Women Project. I could not have achieved this without two very valuable inputs from my dear friends Neo-Salma Noureen from Charsadda, Pakistan, and Muhammad Qasem Jami from Herat, Afghanistan. Thank you Smeetha Bhoumik for this lead. Hope you guys like it.

“What kind of women would be deemed ‘dangerous’ in KP?” I texted Salma, my friend, who lives in Charsadda, a small town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Pakistan.

“Here, an independent woman is a ‘dangerous woman’,” she replied.

I love Salma. She’s a social worker, an education inspector and is trying to finish her PhD in Chemistry in one of the most conservative parts of the world. She calls herself a “gypsy” and that, in a culture where women are supposed to be behind closed doors, is dangerous.

I was sitting on a sofa in front of the television in my parents’ home in Mumbai, India, processing Salma’s words when the screen lit up with a 1960s Bollywood cabaret. It was Helen Richardson Khan, the Burma-born cabaret queen and India’s favourite vamp on screen. With their sexy high heels, smoky eye make-up, cabaret dances, skimpy outfits, feathers and plumes and a viciousness that is both seductive and repulsive, the vamps of Indian cinema define what dangerous women are like in a country where women of virtue are worshipped as goddesses and daughters are often treated as doormats.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, there were two stereotypical women characters in a Hindi film: The innocent leading lady and the bitchy vamp who smoked and drank in the villain’s den. The vamps were vain. To an audience that grew up watching and idolising the ‘heroes’ in these movies, the vamp was a symbol of everything an Indian woman shouldn’t be and shouldn’t do. They were too independent and too friendly with men. The vamps loved dancing and were greedy. They were bad role-models for millions of young impressionable girls who would beg their parents for some pocket-money to buy tickets for the matinee shows at the cinema.

A beep on my mobile phone distracted me from Helen’s performance. It was my friend Qasem from Herat, Afghanistan. After the initial round of greetings in Dari, I asked him in English, “What kind of woman will you consider dangerous, Qasem?” I almost regretted pressing the ‘send’ button. He’s Afghan and lives in a society that’s even more conservative than Salma’s.

Qasem responded after half an hour. His long text read: “The woman who does not trust others, who doesn’t listen attentively while others are speaking, the woman who is very demanding of others and even complains, who never takes the lead or action in helping others, especially her close friends, one who doesn’t like to take responsibility at home/work, she who shares her married life issues with others without consulting her husband, someone who does not consider or doesn’t understand others’ values, personality, preferences or choices, etc.”

I was amazed. The man did know a lot more about women than I had given him credit for. I asked him, “Is a woman like that dangerous or simply irritating?”

“Dangerous because you cannot trust her. Irritating because she doesn’t act her age,” he said and added that he had seen plenty of such women at conferences and among hundreds of his relatives. He then shared with me ‘Common Characteristics of Dangerous Women’ by Charles E Corry, PhD (do a web search for it, if you wish).

“Wow! That’s very comprehensive, Qasem,” I told him. This one time, he did not understand my sarcasm.

While I didn’t agree with many of the points Qasem marked as ‘dangerous’, I did agree that a woman you cannot trust is a woman you should fear. I asked my 81-year-old grandfather in Kolkata, “Give me an example of a dangerous woman.” Granpa chuckled. “Mata Hari!” She was ‘dangerous’ because she was promiscuous and hence could not be trusted. “Crazy in bed means she is almost certainly crazy in the head,” Corry writes in his post about dangerous women.

It’s interesting to see how easily we label a woman as dangerous. If a woman climbs up the career ladder, she’s believed to be manipulative and bitchy. If a woman is too beautiful and shows off her beauty, she is a threat. If a woman is financially independent, she’s considered a bad example for the rest of the girls who live in a culture of obedience and dependence. And in India, a ‘dangerous’ woman is often compared with a tigress, one who is revered and feared till she is caged and tamed.

My fingers scrolled down news stories on my cellphone – stories about women suicide bombers, mothers who murdered their children, desperate drug-addict sisters who prostituted their younger siblings to get money for their next fix, women who slapped fake dowry harassment cases on their husbands or perjured in court and sent innocent people to jail. They were all cunning, self-centred, manipulative and destructive.

Then I came across the headline, “Royal Brunei Airlines’ first all-female pilot crew lands plane in Saudi Arabia – where women are not allowed to drive", a story published from 15 March 2016 in The Independent newspaper. The picture showed them in the cockpit smiling at the camera.
They are a threat to patriarchy.
They are the ‘dangerous women’ we desperately need.

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