Indians are smart about finding ways to celebrate life. Take Holi, a day of water balloon fights and purple faces. Or Dussehra, an excuse to explode stuff. And then, of course, there’s Diwali, the crown glory of the Hindu festivals. It marks the beginning of the new year, the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, you get the drift.
Last Diwali, my mother and aunt visited me in the village and led a ceremony of prayer to invite Laxmi, the Goddess of Prosperity, into my home. They lit clay lamps holding cotton wicks wet with oil. They placed these lamps by windows, at the entrance, around the kitchen, in the bathroom. They placed an idol of Laxmi in the pot of a money plant. I think she got the message.
This Diwali, I didn’t feel like celebrating. I felt angry.
Allow me to digress for a moment. In Religion for Atheists, Allain de Botton discusses ways in which different components of religious practice can be incorporated in the secular lifestyle. Take, for example, the idea of confessions. They are a space where Christians know what to expect: a box you sit in, a mesh screen, and an individual who listens without judgment. No matter which church you might visit you will know what to expect from a confession. Just like no matter which McDonald’s you visit you will know what to expect when you order French fries. In this way, Botton compares religion and corporate franchise; they offer consistency, and in that consistency, faith. Which brings me back to Diwali.
Religious festivals are reminders. A time to clean the house. A time to call relatives. A time for good to conquer evil. These reminders are no good if I don’t act on what the festival intended in the first place. What use is an invitation to a Goddess if most girls and women I know are being sexually harassed? What use is spending time with relatives if we can’t talk to them about how to remove the misogyny in our family?
I feel angry, and that’s a good thing, India’s #metoo movement has enabled a horde of stories to come out of hiding. Politicians, actors, journalists, activists, comedians, no one’s been spared. We hadn’t just closeted our stories; we had closeted our anger. And now, on Google’s tracker of global #metoo activity, the subcontinent beams with the light of this anger. After this Diwali, I propose we light a different kind of lamp. We call out our perpetrators. We air our shame and allow it to leave us. We talk about how to make our families and schools and workplaces safer for women.
In the sharing of their #metoo stories, women across India have narrated a range of sexually disrespectful experiences. In most of these stories, it was very clear that the woman was not interested, and still the perpetrator continued. However, sexual harassment is not always so clear. Sometimes, there is flirting. Sometimes, there is attraction. I wonder why there aren’t more stories about these grayer instances. Perhaps, women are still afraid of being blamed.
If you wear a dress, if you are drinking, you are in no way responsible for his inappropriate actions. Similarly, if you are attracted to someone, if you are okay with crossing one line, that doesn’t make it okay for him to cross another. Consent, at every point, is everything. It doesn’t matter if you initiated the interaction or if you drove or if you told him he was nice or if you’re married to him. Marital rape in India isn’t illegal, but Justice J.B. Pardiwala of the Gujarat high court believes it should be. He claims, “It is the first necessary step in teaching societies that dehumanised treatment of women will not be tolerated.”
Maybe you lit a lamp. You cleaned your house. You invited the Goddess of Wealth. You said a prayer. What now? You can talk to your parents and children and siblings and friends about how goddesses should be treated. You can tell that uncle/ family friend/ colleague that what he did was not okay. You can be angry. Happy Diwali.
Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and the author of two books, More Than a Memory and Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir. You can follow her work at facebook.com/PragyaWrites