The phrase Goongi Gudiya means dumb doll. This is the phrase that was once used to describe Indira Gandhi when she was thrust onto the political stage. It was presumed that she would be a silent, subservient woman, as women are expected to be, and that she would implement the orders of her seniors in the Congress Party. The reality proved quite the opposite. And the rest, as we all know, is now a part of contemporary history.

But in the last month there has been another Gudiya in the news, and even if she has a voice and views, as she must, the media and the events of her life have virtually rendered her mute. I am referring to that unfortunate young woman from Mundali village in UP's Meerut District on whom the media has feasted relentlessly ever since the husband she thought dead turned up to reclaim her.

Deeply disturbing

There are many aspects of this story that are deeply disturbing. Mohammad Arif left Gudiya just 10 days after their marriage because he was called out to duty as a soldier. On September 16, 1999, in the Drass sector of Kashmir, he disappeared. It was unclear whether he had deserted or had been captured by the Pakistanis or was dead.

Gudiya waited for news. After almost four years, she agreed to marry a close relative, a man she had known since her childhood. For the last year she and Taufiq, her second husband, have apparently led a happy life. Gudiya is now pregnant with Taufiq's child and will deliver in a few weeks.

But there is no happy ending to this story. Only a bizarre twist. Arif was not dead. He was in a Pakistani jail. And on August 9 he returned to India. Only to find that his wife of 10 days had remarried and was pregnant. Arif wanted the wife back but not the child. Gudiya wanted to remain with Taufiq, although no one really cared what she wanted. And Taufiq wanted Gudiya and his child.

So who would decide? Not Gudiya who carried a child and whose life was upturned. Instead a village panchayat ruled in the presence of 1,500 people that Gudiya must return to Arif because he had not divorced her and she had no right to divorce him. Therefore, her marriage to Taufiq was not legal and the child she was expecting was illegitimate.

The story still did not end. Now the media came on the scene. And in full public view of TV cameras, a studio audience and various experts decided what Gudiya should do. The verdict? Go back to Arif. Gudiya consented. And what of the child? Arif pronounced, "When the child grows up, Taufiq can take it."

In other words, Gudiya remains goongi. She is not permitted to decide with whom she will live, she is not even permitted to have a say about the child she carries in her womb. When asked what she felt about the turn of events, she told the press, "It was everybody's wish". And what of the future? "Who knows what will happen to me", said Gudiya. "I may die or the child may also die. No one can say anything."

Ugly truths

This story is a reminder of many ugly truths about our society. One, the clear lack of choice that millions of women like Gudiya face. Everyone else decides for them, parents, husband, the panchayat, the clergy and now the media. But their voices are not heard.

The Gudiya story illustrates clearly the powerlessness of women. Everyone else decides for them, parents, husband, the panchayat, the clergy and now the media.
Second, the twist that such stories get when the man involved is a "hero", a soldier. If Arif had been just another ordinary man who landed in a Pakistani jail because he strayed across the border, or because he had overstayed his visa, or he had disappeared in some other circumstances, he would not have gotten this kind of attention. But because he is a soldier, the "national" angle creeps into the story. And suddenly, everyone feels they must intervene to make sure Arif gets what he wants because he "deserves" it. The TV channel that organised the televised media trial of the Arif/Gudiya issue advertised this as "our duty to the nation".

Third, live news television's hunger for the sensational, for continuous coverage of events, for reality television, has driven it to the point of complete insensitivity. People die and you have microphones thrust at their relatives asking them how they feel. Women are raped and their blurred images are expected to narrate what happened to them. "What do you feel?" "Tell us something". The desperation for that "sound-byte" is insatiable and insensitive. And there are few instances one can recall where this hunger was carried to such an extreme as in the Gudiya story.

In the final analysis, neither Gudiya, nor women in general, have been served by this crazy media manipulation of real lives. Gudiya has been virtually forced to make a choice that everyone else thought right for her. The television ad said, "A man gets his life back, a family gets its future". The man has got his life, and his wife, but what about the woman?

And the rendering of this story, which illustrates so clearly the powerlessness of women, like a TV soap opera, means that most people will not read that reality into it. Instead, they will discuss the "rights" of Arif and Taufiq much as they would the roles of popular characters from soap operas. Reality has been converted into a soap opera.