Her Gold and Her Body
by Jamila Verghese
Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi,
Second (Revised) Edition 1997
INR 175. 345 pp
Fuelled by outrage, failed by ideas.
The 59 people and 28 institutions whom Jamila Verghese acknowledges in the opening pages of Her Gold and Her Body reveal much about the authors place among woman activists. She is one of the educated urban women who, during the late 1970s and 1980s, formed the core of the womens movement in India. When this book was first published in 1980, it put into words exactly how social institutions were violently oppressing South Asian women. The book, like the movement itself, was fuelled by outrage. Verghese has added more of the same – vivid portraits of dowry, sexual violence, prostitution – in the eight new chapters at the end of this revised edition. She combines journalism, melodrama, and social commentary into a readable polemic on womens rights in India. As she states in the introduction: “I make no claims to erudition or scholarship. I have written a simple book in everyday language….” But coming after two decades of serious work on gender issues, this book would have benefitted from a little less zealotry and a little more analysis.
The first 12 chapters comprise the first edition, and Verghese has left them untouched. It begins with a fictional account of a dowry death, with details culled from true stories – the bride burned in the kitchen and then pushed from a window, a cruel mother-in-law in league with a callous husband, indifferent neighbours, and a courageous whistle-blower. In the subsequent chapters, Verghese intersperses historical background on bride price and dowry with charts, statistics, and more imagined scenes of women and their oppressors. Here, Verghese dramatises how rural debt leads to the trafficking of women to urban brothels:
Sleeping naked under one coverlet that night with his brothers and his wife [Phullo], Suppa turns the idea over in his mind. The more he thinks about it, the better he likes it. Whats wrong with her earning money in this way? Dont we share her here? …Phullo settles down to life in the brothel as Champa Rani. She has to please every customer. She may have to oblige as many as twenty to thirty men a day. She barely gets time off for food, and goes to sleep in the crowded dormitory around I am.
The effect is similar to the street theatre productions staged by NGOs the stories are engaging but too earnest in their message. This is not to detract from Vergheses purpose. Stripped of the whimsical chapter headings (“Catch Me, I’m Worth It!”; “The Gimmee”), the pieces she has stitched together form a sober record of the status of women over the last two decades. The notes at the end of each chapter could serve as a sourcebook for newspaper articles, academic research, and landmark legal judgements.
Missing the point
Her analysis, however, is often flawed. For example, in the section on female foeticide, Verghese criticises doctors who abort female foetuses in the name of family planning and praises Goas “more informed attitude” to family planning. She then notes approvingly that “Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have already achieved a low rate of fertility.” Evidence in other chapters about the dowry situation in Kerala and infanticide in Tamil Nadu, however, signals the inadequacy of using measures like fertility rates to evaluate the status of women.
In her update on dowry, Verghese travels to Kerala, a state with a strange combination of high dowry and high female literacy. Verghese flays the courts for failing to decisively reform Syrian Christian family laws, but she does not investigate how and why these laws are circumvented. Despite Mary Roy’s celebrated challenge to Syrian Christian inheritance laws (ensuring an equal share for daughters and sons when their father dies intestate), many women do not exercise the legal right they have been given. They simply accept a smaller share than their brothers, knowing that their husbands will have received a larger share of property than their sisters. Issues such as the lack of jobs for women who want to remain outside the dowry system go untouched.
Clearly, Verghese has done her homework on legal cases and ancient Vedic texts, but this limits her arguments to two poles: change the laws or change societal attitudes. Women’s organisations throughout South Asia have already discovered that engaging fully in economic and political change (not just cultural awareness or legal battles) is crucial. In the long run, for example, it is impossible to address sexual violence separately from police accountability.
Wall fly’s notebook
In a few instances, Verghese does acknowledge the connections between womens issues and socio-economic inequity. She notes the work of Sulabh International, a group that builds lavatories in rural areas: “This would be a boon for women and girls who have to work or attend ill-equipped rural schools far from home, with no privacy for their special needs. Their parents ever-present worry about the girls losing their virginity, and the heavy work load awaiting them at home, gives the little ones no option but to drop out.” These two sentences capture the way poor infrastructure, sexual violence, ill-funded education, low rural wages, and parental prejudice combine to undermine girls’ education.
Vergheses failure to explore the political dynamic leads to some odd conclusions. She seems to indirectly endorse Indira Gandhis Emergency measures against child marriage and praises Indonesias government for high levels of education among women. She censures South Indian leader Jayalalithas foster sons gargantuan wedding not as a gross abuse of political power but as another example of lavish spending on weddings.
Verghese is at her best in the fly-on-the-wall mode. In the original section on Kerala, she speaks to a mixed group of young people about dowry and marriage. Akkamma comments that she doesnt like the “terrible bargaining just like a fish market”. A would-be IAS officer hopes to be “on the top slab in the marriage market for dowry”. The give-and-take of these dialogues injects life into the dry legal and historical explanations and repeated exhortations on the evil of dowry.
On finishing Her Gold and Her Body, one is left wishing that Jamila Verghese had used her talents and passionate ideas to write a novel or a straight journalistic piece. This book offers outrage in abundance, but fresh ideas are in short supply.