Deepa Narayan
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Shah Rukh Khan: "A girl should be seen, not heard." "Be quiet," or, "chup." These words are often used to silence girls right from childhood, well into adulthood and deep into old age.

I'm proud to introduce our next speaker, a true champion of the female voice, an advisor on poverty, gender and development for the World Bank, United Nations and several NGOs in India and the world over. She calls herself a cultural detective. Let's raise our voices to welcome renowned social scientist and author Deepa Narayan.



Deepa Narayan: The goal of every loving parent is to raise good girls, but what parents actually do is to constrain, confine and crush their girls. So as they crush their girls, they prepare them for abuse. This would be so devastating that no parent would be able to bear it, so it's disguised.

In India, we call this "adjusting." I'm sure you've heard the word. "Darling, just adjust a bit. Just adjust. No matter what happens, just adjust." "Adjust" trains girls to be powerless, not to exist, not to be seen, not to have a self, and it trains boys to claim power and authority over the world. And in the meantime we keep talking about gender equality and women's empowerment.

After 2012, after the gang rape in a moving bus in Delhi, I really wanted to understand the roots of abuse. So I started asking a very simple question: what does it mean to you to be a good woman or a good man today? And I was so surprised by what I heard, the answers particularly that young people gave, that the project became a research project and it took over my life.

For three years, I listened to over 600 women, men and children, educated, middle class, and it led to 1,800 hours of listening and 8,000 pages of notes, and it took another year to make sense of it.

Nowadays, we see well-dressed, educated women like many of you in this room, all of you in this room, and myself, and we think the world has changed, but these external changes are extremely misleading, because on the inside, we have not changed.

So today, I'm not going to talk about poor people. I'm going to talk only about the middle and upper classes, because we are the ones most in denial. We are the ones who have said over and over again that when women are educated, when they're employed and they earn incomes, they will be equal, empowered and free. They're not. Why?

From my research, I identify seven habits that delete women, that make women disappear, but these habits persist because they're so familiar to us and we've made them good and moral. Why would you change or drop anything that's good and moral? So, on the one hand, we love our children, we love our daughters, and on the other hand, we crush them.

Habit one: You don't have a body. The first step to make a girl a ghost is to make her body disappear, to pretend that she doesn't have a body. Akangsha, who is 23, said, "In my family, we never spoke about the body, never." And it is in this silence that millions and millions of girls get sexually molested, and they don't even tell their mothers. And it's the negative comments from others that leads to 90 percent of women saying that they dislike their bodies. When a girl rejects her body, she rejects her only house and invisibility and insecurity become her very shaky foundation.

Habit two: Be quiet. Chup. If you're not supposed to exist and you don't have a body, how can you have a voice? So just about every woman said, "When I was little, my mother used to scold me and say, 'Don't speak, be quiet, be chup, speak softly, don't argue and never answer back. Jawab nahi Dena.'" I'm sure you've all heard that. And so girls become afraid, and they withdraw. And they become quiet and they say, "Let it go. Jaane do. What's the point? Nobody listens." Educated women said that their number one problem was their inability to speak up, as if there was a foot on their throat ready to choke them. Silence slices off women.

Habit three: Be a people pleaser. Please others. Everyone likes a nice woman who always smiles, who never says no, who is never angry, even when she's being exploited. Amisha, who is 18, said, "My father said, 'If I don't see you smiling, I don't feel good.'" So she smiles. So her father is teaching her, my happiness is more important than your happiness. And in this business of trying to make everyone happy all the time, girls become afraid to make decisions. And when you ask them, they say, "Anything, whatever! Kuch bhi! Everything goes. Chalta hai." Darsha, who is 25, said with great pride, "I'm highly elastic. I become whatever others want me to be." Such girls give up their dreams, their desires, and nobody even notices, except for depression. It moves in. Another slice of a girl is taken off.

Habit four: You have no sexuality. I think you'd all agree that with a population of over 1.3 billion, sex is not new to India. What is new is that more people now acknowledge that women, too, have a right to sexual desire. But how can a woman who has not been allowed to own her body, who hasn't been educated about her body, who may have been sexually molested, who cannot say no and who has been filled with shame, how can she claim her sexual desire? A woman's sexuality is suppressed.

Habit five: Don't trust women. Imagine how the world would change if women came together in solidarity, but as to make sure that this doesn't happen, our culture places high moral value on loyalty to men and family secrecy. Woman after woman said, "I know only one trustworthy woman, and that's me." Even Ruchi, who is 30 and who works on women's empowerment at Delhi University, said, "I don't trust women. They're jealous and they backbite." Obviously, then, in cities, women don't join women's groups, and when you ask them why, they say, "We don't have time for gossip." It's much easier to demolish a woman who is alone.

Habit six: Duty over desire. Muskan gave a very long definition of a good girl, and she's only 15. "She is kind, gentle, polite, loving, caring, truthful, obedient, respects elders, helps everyone unconditionally, and is good to others and fulfills duty." Tiring, isn't it. By the time you fulfill duty, whatever little desire is left is also lost. And when sacrificing mothers have nothing left to say except talk about food — "Have you eaten? Khana kha liya? What will you eat?" — men like Saurabh, who is 24, call them "boring." A woman becomes a residue.

Habit seven: Be totally dependent. So all these habits collectively crush women, fill her with fear and make her totally dependent on men for her survival, and this allows the system of male power to continue.

So all these seven habits that we thought were good and moral snatch life away from girls and position men to abuse.

We must change. How do we change? A habit is just a habit. Every habit is a learned habit, so we can unlearn them and this personal change is extremely important. I had to change too. But this doesn't change the system that crushes millions of other women. So we have to go to the roots. We must change what it means to be a good woman and a good man, because this a foundation of every society. We don't need elastic women, we need elastic definitions, for men too, and this big societal change cannot happen without men's involvement. We need you. We need men to become champions of change, to develop strong change muscles. Otherwise, it will be two more centuries before our girls, and our boys, are safe and free.

Imagine half a billion women coming together, with the support of men, to talk to one another for conversation, for change, both personal and political, and imagine men in their own circles, and imagine women and men coming together to just listen to each other without judgment, without blame, without accusations and without shame. Imagine how much we would change. We can do this together. Women, don't adjust. Men, adjust. It's time.

Thank you.


SRK: How well said, how wonderful. Everyone, Deepa, please. Listening to her, I realized that even in the simplest conversations that we have with women, we're actually being aggressive. For example, I do tell my daughter sometimes, "Yaar Tu hasti hai to mujhe accha lagta hai varna bura lagta hai". So sorry, I would never do that. Aaj Se main meri beti ko yahi bolunga. Whatever you're doing, mujhe accha hi lagta hai, aur accha nahi bhi lagta hai Toh mera kya, tum wohi karo jo tumhare ko lagta hai, right?


How did you feel, first listening to so many unfulfilled stories, desires, lack of independence, of girls that you normally would assume we think these girls are better off?

DN: Very depressed. It was shocking for me, and that's why I couldn't stop, because I had no plans to do a study and no plans to write a book. I'd written 17 books before, and I thought, "I'm done," but when I went to St. Stephen's College and I heard, at most elite colleges you well know from Delhi, and the young women and the men, what they said about what it meant to them to be a woman and man sounded not like me but like my mother's generation. So then I went to another college and another college. The thing that was striking to me is that each woman felt she was alone, that she hides her fear and hides her behavior, because she thinks it's a personal fault. It's not a personal fault, it's training, and I think that's the biggest revelation is that, if we stop pretending, then the world changes.

SRK: Do you girls all agree with what Deepa is saying?


Already see that young girl saying, "Heard, heard what she said? You say this to me." Yeah, that's the way it should be. You, boy, you adjust. We are not adjusting anymore, OK?


Thank you so much. Have a good evening. Thank you.