Izzat. Honour. Reputation. Prestige. If you grew up in an Indian household, regardless of religion, you have undoubtedly heard this word before. It has been used over and over, parents drilling into their children especially their daughters about izzat, khaandan ki izzat, maa aur papa ki izzat, the household name, the reputation of the name and the honour that the name brings.
However, it is more typical for these words to be used against women. Especially daughters.
Once when I was relatively young, I had started wondering what sex was, what it was about, what it is like. So I went to ask my mother, and she told me, “It’s the most painful experience, you will bleed a bit, and it is something you only should do with your husband. You must protect your virginity at all cost, Rithaa. It is your virtue. If you lose it with any other man, people will think you are a loose, cheap and a vulgar woman. If you let men touch you, it is dirty, Rithaa. If any other man besides your husband sees your naked body, you will be tainted and have no more honour.” That answer scared my nine-year-old self so much that I never asked nor even thought about sex again until I was 15 and stumbled upon a post on Tumblr. Which talked about sex for the first time and how you are not supposed to bleed so much. And how it is not meant to be so painful and how losing your virginity does not determine your worth.
That concept was a shocker to me. It completely opened up a whole new world to me- a world where my worth did not lie between my legs. It didn’t matter how many men I let touch me or have sex with. It didn’t make me dirty, cheap, vulgar or even loose. And the honour, it didn’t lie there either. But I never knew it. I was raised to remember that my Izzat, my parents’ reputation and my own, lay in between my legs. On a flesh so thin which could snap simply with vigorous exercising, or not even exist at all. Crazy, right? It took me few years to unlearn what I have been taught since I was 9. I had to teach myself not to judge other women who choose to be sexually active. I had to teach myself that having sexual desires is completely normal. I had to teach myself that if one day I too decided to have sex, it would not determine my worth. It would not cause me pain nor guilt, and it would not tarnish the izzat on my shoulders.
It is a burden. The biggest weight a brown girl or woman of colour carries. The burden of upkeeping the honour of the entire household. If the man goes astray, it is okay; all eyes are closed to it. But if the daughter of the house takes a step out of line, all hell breaks loose. You come home late, and you hang out with boys, you wear a short skirt/dress, you drink, you have a boyfriend- all these are considered taboos and brings down your worth as a girl.
Why? Because people talk- “log kya kahenge? kisi tum pe shaadi karogi? tu sharam nahi hai, izzat nahi hai? Besharam! Shame, shame, shame. Don’t you know any better? Do you want people to think of you as a cheap whore? Is that what you want? No man will want you! None!”
But it is those same men who have girlfriends, go out, drink and stay out till morning. And when he comes out of his room, no one says anything, and no one erupts, no one blames him, talks down to him. His mother serves him, and his father does not care.
Izzat. Till today my mum does not allow me to wear short skirts, sleeves tops, short dresses, tight dresses or tops that do not cover my butt. It is for my protection, she says. It is, so people know I come from good stock. It is, so men know I am a woman of virtue. Because to her, izzat does not only lie between my legs; it lies on the fabric I cover myself with. For the first time in 15 years, I wore shorts out when I moved to Auckland for my foundation programme. Men did not stare; men did not come clawing at my skin, no one said anything degrading to me, no one acted like I had just walked out of my house naked- I say this because I was told the opposite while growing up.
For brown women, izzat lies in two places; our vaginas and the clothes we wear. And it is not merely our izzat, the whole household’s izzat. Why is our society so obsessed with this concept? Why is it always a bigger burden on the woman’s shoulders? Why do we shame our women so much for being human, for wearing what they want, for having urges, for wanting to be touched and for having sex but turn a blind eye when our men do the same? Where’s the izzat then? Izzat, to me, is a concept that brown men and families made so that they could keep their women on a leash. So they can control their movement, their thoughts, and shame them into believing that with Izzat, you are everything in the eyes of society.
This issue has been around for generations. We walk around with shackles dragging behind while our men run with the wind. All the women living within me are tired that we have to be virgins to gain respect, that we have to be covered up to be pure.
We need to progress out of this concept because it is destroying our women. Honour killings, acid-throwing, marital rape/abuse, abused by parents, slut-shaming women for showing their knees. All these are for izzat. The things we are willing to put our women through to protect “their” izzat, our izzat. Where is the izzat in that? Amazing.
Izzat. One simple word yet it holds so much weight. We need to stop letting the people us rule our lives, our movements in the name of Izzat. We have to resist, fight back, educate ourselves, unlearn the shame and teach future generations of brown women to come that it is nought but a word.
So where does your izzat lie?
It is yours alone. It bears no connection to your mother’s name or house or your family members. Your izzat does not lie in the palms of a man nor in the hateful words others spew. Your izzat does not lie in the scripture of religion.
And your izzat does not lie between your thighs nor does not lie in the cloth covering this skin.
It is yours. Your choice. Forget the shame your mother has taught you, forget the fears they’ve instilled in you. Fight. Take it back. Your Izzat. It is just a word. It lies with you; it is just a word.
Featured image by Sodanie Chea