Saturday, May 19, 2007

How India Oppresses its Own Citizens By Punishing Public Kissing

Many of you may or may not have heard about the incident about Richard Gere kissing Bollywood (India's "hollywood") actress Shilpa Shetty at a public event in New Delhi, India. This event triggered mass outrage from many in India because of the country's long lasting taboo against public displays of affection.

Sunday's Washington Post* has a story on how the citizens of India are very divided over the issue of public displays of affection, such as kissing. Hindu conservatives are the ones defending the prohibition, whereby police can harass and arrest couples who were seen kissing each other. The opponents of kissing (no exaggeration, sadly) base their views on fear of Western globalization overriding India's culture.

This is disgustingly oppressive, and many of India's citizens, free speech advocates, and civil leaders will agree. Ms. Girija Vyas, of the government's National Commission for Women, says the attacks on kissing are a deadly distraction from the real social problems young women face such as:

  • trying to escape abusive arranged marriages
  • thousands of brides killed each year for not paying their dowry
  • brides burning themselves to avoid unwanted marriages forced on them by their own families
  • women being raped by their brother-in-laws
These heinous acts are the result of a tradition of "morality" that clings in a country where arranged marriage is still a pervasive norm. But don't think for a second that this view speaks for the general public of India. Many Indians are just as disgusted by a marriage without choice as any of us in the West, and many form relationships of choice even against their parents wishes. It is these Indians who are excluded in the attempts to define what "Indianness" is in our rapidly changing world.

Ram Madhav, spokeperson for the Hindu nationalist party named Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said that public affection was a cultural attack on India that began with "...Mickey Mouse and Barbie. Today it has grown into Richard Gere... We should have the right to say no to a few things"

Apparently to Mr Madhav, "we" doesn't include the massive number of Indian couples who were arrested - over 100 in the city of Mumbai - for expressing their love for each other. These Indian citizens didn't get to say no or much of anything - not even to their parents.

I've always known that the norm of South Asian and Asian parents denying free choice to their children is both human rights violation and child abuse, not a joke or merely a "cultural difference". But is an aspect of the culture, entrenched in the parental and community psyche, and even South Asian youth growing up in the United States and Europe, where individual freedom is the norm, have been forced to pay an emotionally fatal price to satisfy these unsatisfiably demanding parents who , whether they realize or not (most don't), place the preservation of tradition far above the humanity of their sons and daughters. The normal journey of financial independence which all youth go through, becomes a matter of life and death, at least psychologically, for many South Asian youth. And even a good salary won't fend off all psychological and verbal abuse, as traditional South Asian parents know how to manipulate their sons and daughters - especially the daughters - with guilt and shame that exists as long as the parents are alive enough to open their mouths.

Every nation has a right to question how much of outside culture is good for diffusing into their own. But when holding and loving a special someone is considered a crime because is it "Western", we know that the desire for cultural preservation has been pushed to sociopathic, and anti-human extremes.

But only the South Asians living in these communities can save their communities. Outsiders can offer help and information, but can do little to intervene because of issues of aggressive imposing. The insiders must be the leaders of change, and tell us outsiders how we can assist.

Then we must assist.

* Washington Post article, for May 20, 2007

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