The Pooja Chauhan story has now become familiar to most people in India with access to the media print or electronic. Virtually all newspapers flashed the photograph of this 22-year-old woman, walking in her underwear, in 'conservative' Rajkot city in Gujarat. She carried a baseball bat in one hand and bangles in the other. Her destination was the office of the Commissioner of Police. She walked for one hour. On the way, people gawked at her. Some laughed. The photographs showed men riding by on scooters, craning their necks to get a better look, laughing at her. No one, it seemed, stopped her, or tried to find out why she was doing what she was doing.
For the media, this was a great story. When they finally did speak to her, Pooja told them that she had decided to resort to this form of protest because she was fed up with the police not taking her complaints about harassment and violence seriously. She said she was being nagged by her husbands family to bring more dowry and that they made her life even more difficult because she gave birth to a girl child. She accused her parents-in-law of getting a neighbour to beat her up. A week before this incident, Pooja had allegedly tried to immolate herself in front of the police commissioners office.
What a story! All the elements of a Hindi movie. Yet, although the first stories did report the reasons that provoked Pooja to act in this manner, later reports took a different turn. Pooja's parents were accosted by the local media and asked whether their daughter was sane. "Is she mad?" they apparently asked. Others reported that the story was complicated, that her husbands family had also registered complaints against Pooja. It was also reported that the girl did not live with her husband anymore and was on her own, with her infant daughter.
Behind this entire media cacophony is a real story and a real person. The story is a familiar one. Of women, thousands of them even if you go by official statistics, who are harassed over dowry or over the gender of the child they birth, particularly if she turns out to be a girl. Pooja survived such harassment. Thousands of women each year do not. At a time when India boasts of becoming an international economic giant, its women are being pushed to the brink for dowry, the giving and taking of which was banned in 1961 and is against the law. They also continue to be blamed for producing female children, something over which they can have no control. Yes, this is the same country where we celebrate a woman of Indian descent having been on a space mission even if she is an American.
• Why dowry will not die
• Hitting dowry for a six At the time of writing, Pooja was in a shelter. Although the court had ruled, after a network of women's groups working on issues of violence against women filed a case under the Domestic Violence Act on her behalf, that she was entitled to continue staying in the rented house where she had taken shelter to get away from her abusive marital home, she found she could not in fact go back there as the landlord refused to accept her as a tenant. To prevent her from facing further violence, these women's groups got together and arranged temporary shelter for her. They were moving her to a government-recognised women's shelter so that she would be free to meet people, including members of the National Commission on Women.
In some ways, Pooja is lucky. Despite extreme provocation, she is still alive. Her parents have been supportive. As a result, she was able to move out of her husbands house and into independent rented accommodation. Her strategy of doing something outrageous did work. It got her the attention she desperately sought. Perhaps some positive conclusion will arise from this. And hopefully she will survive the negative side of media attention, that which has spawned blogs where men blow off steam about women who are allegedly misusing anti-violence laws, and the repeated use of her photograph on many sites. One hopes she will not be too badly affected by the unsubtle hints in media reports that she was mad and slightly unbalanced for having resorted to what is popularly being called a semi-nude protest.
Missing the point
The point that the media has missed completely is that the issue they ought to investigate more thoroughly is not the state of Poojas mental health, but what her protest represents. They should remember the naked protest by middle-aged women in Manipur against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Because it took place in distant Manipur, which only springs into the news when something affecting hundreds of people occurs, the actual protest went largely unreported. There were no TV cameras to telecast that image, or to talk to the women, or to ask others whether they were collectively 'mad'. They surely were. Not insane, but mad and angry at a system that refuses to hear the voices of ordinary people, or ordinary women.
Pooja is also mad at the system. Her protest symbolises that. Regardless of the specific details of her story, her protest reminds us again that dowry is alive and flourishing and that women face as much danger to their lives within their homes as they do out in the public space.