A photo showing two mekhela-sador clad women in front of a liquor shop started doing the rounds on social media, and the message was clear: women are not supposed to drink and to be seen buying liquor
by Parvin Sultana
During one of our long evening conversations over cups of black tea, my friend Nizira Brahma talks about the role home-brewed alcohol plays in tribal societies. The rice beer prepared by Bodos known as Zou is a part of their weddings and other festivities. She would lightheartedly remark to her grandma that she drinks and smokes like a man. And her grandma would somberly reply, ‘Who said only men can drink and smoke?’ This conversation came back to me last month, when a photo showing two mekhela-sador clad women in front of a liquor shop started doing the rounds on social media. It was posted on the twitter handle of one of Assam’s leading news anchors. While it did not have any caption, the implicit message was loud and clear – women are not supposed to drink and to be seen buying liquor.
The photograph soon saw netizens divided on the issue. On one hand, self appointed saviours of Assamese culture started beating their chests, lamenting about the fate of our ‘sanskriti’ if our girls who are not only carriers but the very embodiment of culture start buying liquor and drinking. Even worse is when they are clad in traditional attire and not the minis or shorts of a fallen woman! This stand was vehemently criticized by many who saw this as outright moral policing and violation of someone’s individual liberty. While the anchor finally took off the photo and even issued an apology, the incident scratched the surface of a much deeper rot that is pervasive.
Assam Has a Long History of Brewing
This episode just reminded us of what kind of censorship a woman has to undergo regularly. Not only her family, but even the larger society takes upon itself the responsibility of marking a woman’s lakshman rekha – what she can do and what is forbidden. This incident did two things – it exposed the conservative self appointed moral policing that people indulge in regularly, and, secondly, it also laid bare the utter disdain for tribal communities where brewing wine and consuming liquor is a part and parcel of their culture. Be it the Karbi’s Hor, the Bodos’ Zou, the Mishing’s Apong or the Ahom’s Laopani, consumption of liquor enjoys social sanction in these tribes.
Prepared at home, it is believed that the consumption of this liquor in small quantity has medicinal value. Sanjbati is believed to increase life span and even purify blood. Women prepare this in groups. The very act of brewing infuses a communitarian feeling. It is also through this act of brewing that stories are shared, and knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. Budhdhadeb Basumatary, an Assistant Professor, says that this culture of drinking in weddings is waning because of interaction with other communities who may not share the same dietary habits. In a multicultural society, such practices will automatically be fine tuned with greater interaction. A blanket condemnation of drinking, on the other hand, will overlook these tribes’ cultural practices. Assam’s cultural ethos cannot conveniently leave out the tribal communities which form an integral part of the greater Assamese society.
Moral Censorship and the Modern Woman
The Government’s own position on this issue is contradictory. On one hand, it talks of encouraging production and marketing of indigenous liquor, and, on the other hand, it also engages with the demand of the larger society to ban or regulate use of alcohol. Food and drinking habits should be left unperturbed till it does not create a law and order problem. But Assam along with other parts of the country is witnessing an ever increasing number of cases in which people have in fact taken law in their own hands in the name of imposing propriety. Self appointed moral police are those who seek to enforce a code of morality on women through slut shaming, propagation of rape culture and even violence. No wonder a few years back, women were beaten up in a Mangalore pub because they were out drinking with friends. Recently, a woman was attacked in a pub in Pondicherry because she was alone in a bar drinking – something a woman is not supposed to do. And, how can we forget our very own shame – the G S Road incident in which a young girl was manhandled by a rowdy mob because she visited a pub.
Moral policing reasserts the problematic public/private divide. Women should be relegated to the private sphere playing the role laid out by patriarchal norms. Once they step out, they are under excruciating scrutiny. A woman’s access to public space, her mobility is limited by a society which believes that the best way to protect women is by restricting them. Moral policing is promoted subtly as well – dress code for women, different hostel rules and timing for men and women, etc.
To protect women from sexual violence, women are suggested to avoid night shifts rather than making roads safer at night, and anti romeo squads were created in Uttar Pradesh which were busy harassing consensual couples rather than targeting road side romeos. Protective steps tend to put more and more restrictions on women. Challenging such regressive mindset – women activists started movements to ‘Reclaim the Night’ and conversations on ‘Why Loiter’. Organisations like Pinjra Tod came up to challenge different restrictive hostel rules.
A Drink is a Drink is a Drink…
Women in tribal societies are often envied for enjoying a comparatively more equal status. While one can always question how substantial such right is as tribal women might be denied crucial decision making power, a skewed code of morality is not imposed on them. In Assam, we should take cue from our tribal brethren and treat women as fellow human beings who amongst other things also have the right to get drunk. After all, how bad can a bunch of slightly high merry women be.