The panel comprised of Ramita Navai (representing Iran), author of City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the search for truth in Tehran, Elif Shafak (representing Turkey), author of Honour and The Forty Rules of Love, and playwright Sharmila Chauhan (representing India) of Born Again, The Husbands and 10 Women.
The discussion was opened by the amiable Radhika as she asked Sharmila Chauhan her views on the role of women in Indian society today. Sharmila began by reading out a few lines from the play ‘Two Sisters’ by Rabrindranath Tagore where a woman is described as either ‘Mother’ or ‘Beloved’. Sharmila felt that this description of a woman still rings true in Indian society – on one hand she is worshipped (goddess) and on the other hand she is subjugated.
Sharmila explained to the audience that although India is embracing modernity, practices like dowry, female foeticide and infanticide and the importance given to the boy baby are still pervasive in a major part of Indian society.
The importance of marriage is ingrained in the Indian psyche and although young people choose to get married later than “normal” e.g. age 28-30 as opposed to 21-22, it is important to note that marriage is always the ultimate goal – It can happen later, but it has to happen. Radhika asked whether the concept of arranged marriage is still popular to which Sharmila said that it completely depends on where in India, what class/caste etc. I definitely agree with Sharmila here as it is almost impossible to make generalisations about Indian society because of the sheer diversity of the populace. Sharmila did say that arranged marriages and the process that precedes it is seen more like families getting one introduced to a prospective match rather than forcing that match.
It was interesting to see how Sharmila linked the influence of Bollywood on women and their perception of sex/love. I do not entirely agree with this observation as besides Bollywood, the youth in urban India are much more influenced by western media and in trying to blindly ape the west, much is lost.
Sharmila spoke of how cohabitation is not unheard of in the middle and upper classes but this fact is often hidden from one’s parents.
In conclusion, Sharmila in response to Radhika’s question about ending relationships stated that divorce is much more common in India today.
The conversation then progressed to Iran where Ramita Navai told the audience that very recently, there has been a sexual awakening within the Iranian middle classes and sex is often seen as an act of rebellion by the youth. Ramita emphasised the impact of the internet and western television in contributing to this awakening. Ramita clarified that Tehran is very different from the rest of Iran in terms of societal transition.
When asked by Radhika about the importance placed on virginity, Ramita was quite confident in her assertion that the middle classes are more liberal. The average age of marriage is slowly increasing for educational and cultural reasons and divorce is not taboo even in conservative, religious families. Ramita stated that cohabitation is confined to the middle classes but it is not kept secret.
An interesting phenomenon that Ramita touched upon was that of ‘temporary marriage’ that a couple enters into so that they can show a temporary certificate when booking into a hotel for example whilst on holiday. The State quite naturally perceives this concept as being a threat to the institution of marriage.
On the topic of single women, Ramita said that it is a popular notion that single women have loose morals and there is a huge stigma which translates into single women finding it difficult to rent somewhere. A single woman past the acceptable marriageable date is known to be ‘pickled’.
In response to Radhika’s question, Ramita clarified that men do have double standards in that they will be open to having sex but will want to marry a virgin. Marriage is very rarely forced as it is important for both families to agree - ‘Khaastegaari’. Child marriage is more prevalent in the rural areas of Iran and the increase to the legal age of marriage from 9 to 13 has gone in some way to alleviate this social evil.
Going back to speaking about sexual awakening in the youth, Ramita shared her observations about how this is demonstrated in dress e.g. tighter overcoats, rolled up trousers/sleeves etc.
Finally, Ramita spoke about how it is acceptable for women to have jobs but pursuing a career is a completely different ball game. The former is obviously ok because of financial implications for the family but the latter would indicate fulfilment of the woman’s own ambition which is not given importance.
Elif Shafak was the last panellist to speak about similar issues facing Turkish women and she did so with such poignancy and sincerity that she held the audience’s full attention. Elif started by saying that whilst it is good to know that countries like Iran and India are showing signs of progress when it comes to the role of women and their rights, she feels deeply saddened that Turkey appears to be taking a step backwards.
Elif went on to describe that how to gain respect within a patriarchal society, it is essential for a woman to be de-sexualised. This is especially true when it comes to the world of Turkish politics. The image of the ‘matriarch’ then becomes a pre requisite to hold a position of authority within society. The manner in which a matriarchal household serves to reinforce patriarchy is saddening. The attitude is similar to “I have suffered, now you will”.
Elif informed the audience about the concept of gender justice propagated by the government as also the Turkish modernity programme. Elif felt that the government interferes with decisions about family to the extent of dictating the number of children a married couple must have – 3, preferably 5!
It was disappointing to learn that a supposedly progressive nation isn’t that forward thinking after all. Honour killing, domestic violence are common place and there is no support for women who are its victims. Even the police lectures women on “how to be a good wife” if the woman was to seek support from the authorities. Single women struggle to be accepted but it would depend on the societal strata that they belong to. Neighbours are often encouraged by the police to keep a look out for young people living on their own and “to warn parents” of their misgivings.
When Radhika asked Elif about the reaction of younger women to the apparent regressive nature of societal norms, Elif said that the attitudes unfortunately weren’t progressive. Elif implied that it is often the one single interpretation of the Quran that is a contributing factor to the stronghold of the extreme patriarchal views and their stronghold on Turkish society.
Whilst Elif drew a grim picture about the welfare of women in Turkey, she also spoke of the importance of sisterhood and gave the example of her own family where she was brought up by two very strong women, her mother and grandmother. She asserted that it is important to recognise and strengthen this bond of sisterhood.
The event came to an end with a question answer round, followed by some wine and a chance to mingle with the panel and others in the audience. I was especially grateful to Elif as she signed my copy of her latest book “The Forty Rules of Love”.