Don’t shut up! Speak out!

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Aarushi, 19-years old, from the upper middle class, says the constant question in her life is whether to speak or not to speak. “Bolun ya nahi bolun? If I say something and I am wrong, what will happen then? Maybe the other person is right. What will everyone say about me, what will everything think about me? It is much better to keep quiet and just listen to the rest of the people…”

Voice is not just about voice. Voice is so fundamental to having a self, that women without a voice loose themselves, they become half-women. Every time a girl is told to shut up or not allowed to speak up or does not speak up, a girl is diminished. Not only is she diminished, but the habit of silence, the habit of not speaking up, slows down her thinking and eventually her ability and confidence to participate in reasoned argumentation.

The problem is that Aarushi is not alone. I have spent the last four years talking to smart, educated women like Aarushi from the middle and upper classes from several metros. And yet I have been surprised at the widespread fear in speaking up. Most women hide this fear because it does not fit with their image of a highly educated, smartly dressed and employed woman. Each woman assumes she is the only one with such fear and it is her fault; women blame themselves; they assume they are the problem. Each woman becomes alone.

When there are hundreds or thousands of Aarushis, the problem is not personal, it is systemic, it is political. It emerges because of inequality in power at home, reflected in the social, economic, political and religious structures of society, which train women not to challenge and not to speak up. A woman who keeps quiet fits society’s definition of a good moral woman. As each woman hides her problems, each woman like Aarushi becomes further alone.

Voice, then, is not just about big protests and fights for justice, but also about the every day issues, every day silences. Silence about big issues starts with silence about the little issues. What movie do you want to see, what restaurant to choose, with whom to go out…

On this Women’s Day, how can we make some permanent changes as individuals and as collectives? I suggest some actions:

A change in systems:

  • Demand that leadership conclaves, summits, conferences have equal number of men and women speakers;
  • Boycott men-only panels at conferences and insist on equal participation of women
  • Pick a systems issue and campaign for it: no more stalking women in romantic films; how to make metros safe for women; meet the heads; start a discussion.

Behavioral change: 

  • Men, stop interrupting a woman when she talks, and listen to her
  • Women, stop saying, “kuch bhi”, anything, “I don’t mind”, and state your preferences clearly
  • Press the buzz button if a woman is being put down by a man or a woman
  • Surround a woman who is threatened with positive feedback; become positive trolls

What is your one measurable commitment to ensure that women’s voices are heard? Share it so that you can join with others with similar commitments.

Deepa Narayan is a cultural psychologist and the author of the forthcoming book Laugh Softly: The Making and Unmaking of Women (Juggernaut Books).


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