No one wants to be woken by a trembling loved one in the wee hours of the morning. My mother was shaking, confused, apologetic. Turning on her phone at dawn, she had been confronted with a web-link and an aggressive message: “shocking to see her exposed like this.”
A young friend of hers, a man of my age, a doctor, a bachelor (that’s right, when women are reduced to their marital statuses, why not charge the discussion this way too?), had attacked her through that most quintessentially patriarchal of manoeuvres: by slutshaming me.
The photo in question has me seated on the floor, a foot stretched out to reveal beautiful anklets. My hair is loose, my expression is soft. I am in fading black jeans and a long sleeved blouse, cut low, my cleavage visible. I look like I am dreaming of important things.
The photo in question had appeared only on a single indie magazine, accompanying an interview, not a television channel or mainstream media. There was no chance he had come across it unless he had actively stalked me, or belongs to any of those hideous groups that sources images of women for public shaming and private pleasure. And in any event, that he had not contacted me directly dispels any lingering doubts. Neither the infantilising of an adult in her 30s nor the harassment of a senior citizen are acceptable.
I had that photo taken. I had control over its publication. I look like myself in that photo. My best self, even. A soft, strong woman at ease in her own skin.
The only obscenity in all this was that man’s gaze, and his sinister confidence that my mother would privilege his perverted morality over my autonomy. He used me to hurt her, and used her to further an ancient agenda of oppressing and punishing women. Unforgivable.
Yet how utterly common it is, the policing of women’s bodies. The great patriarchal paradox is that the female body is annexed as the repository of culture and honour, but is also continuously desecrated by word, deed and gaze. So those who entrust a woman to safeguard those civilisational concepts within the site of her body are the same ones who routinely violate them. And her.
Lately, the historical Nangeli, because of whom 19th century Kerala’s casteist, sexist breast tax was lifted, has come back into discussion owing to the erasure of her story from school textbooks. Infuriated at a system that required lower caste women to first uncover – expose – for appraisal, then pay to cover their breasts publicly (itself a colonial influence; traditionally, we were more comfortable with the fact of breasts), she cut hers off and presented them to the tax collector.
Nangeli’s breasts bloodying a plantain leaf. My breasts in a plunging neckline. Kannagi’s grenade-breast, cindering the city of Madurai, dominion of Meenakshi who was born with three breasts. I – the “slut” – dare to link myself to these emblems of “chastity”. Because both words are constructs, designed to eliminate personal agency and misattribute power. Effectively, there’s no difference between severing and showing. If you see a difference, it’s your gaze that needs checking.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 19th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.