On International Women’s Day, I am finding myself drawn to a song that I first heard as a child. At the time, I recall being curious as I watched the video (in an Indian film). I wondered why this beautiful woman in bright colours, adorned with jewellery, sang with such sadness, danced halfheartedly whilst searching around her to re-experience the innocence of her childhood.
Many years later, I still marvel at the lyrics of this song, Asha Bhosle’s voice and Rekha’s ability to capture the pain and longing of a woman who has been robbed of self-respect, dignity and social justice.
This song (‘Yeh Kya Jagein Hein Dostoh’) is from the film ‘Umrao Jaan’, a story about a young girl who is kidnapped from her rural village and forced into prostitution. Years later, she returns to her village. Here, she is rejected by her family and experiences the shame, stigma and ostracisation of a woman who is perceived to be tainted.
In this song, Umrao Jaan says: ‘What place is this friends? Wherever I turn I see clouds’. The clouds here may refer to the heaviness in her heart which compels her to see the world through colourless lenses. In addition, she describes this place where she feels intense pain yet is simultaneously unable to contain her joy (‘Na bas khushi hein yaha na gham pe ikhtiyar hein’). Here, she is referring not only to a physical location, but also an emotional place in her own mind, a place filled with longing for a mother’s love and a need to return to the innocence of her childhood.
This song highlights the pain of women who through poverty or violence are forced into the sex industry. It illustrates the social injustice, loneliness, stigma and discrimination of women who wish to rejoin their communities. Despite all the progress we have made for women’s rights, social disapproval and stigma towards these women discourages them from leaving the sex industry to reclaim their lives and live with self respect and dignity.
On International Women’s Day, I pay respect to girls and women around the world who are in these positions and hope for them one day to assert their own identity and be able to celebrate their resilience and strength.