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Minu Mehta

Minu Mehta : Public Choices & Private Voices

A scene from 'Silent Waters'. Credit-

Public Choices and Private Voices: Capability, Functionings and Agency


This paper attempts an understanding of how small individual choices often defy the trend of collective choices and set in motion a tiny current of social change. If picked up by stronger agents, these choices become harbingers of social change and succeed in challenging existing power equations and the prevalent understanding of right and wrong. Sen’s (1993) concepts of capability, functioning and agency are applied to Sabiha Sumar’s (2003) film ‘Silent Waters’1 to study the exercise of choice by the various protagonists under conditions of social turmoil. Issues of women as victims of honour management, survival mechanisms resorted to by people under threatening circumstances and their understanding of their functioning, capabilities and agency are analysed. The film was used as part of pedagogy to initiate a discussion on gender issues and to examine the views of young adults (post graduate management students, in the age group of 22-28) on the issues outlined above.

Functionings, Capabilities and Agency

As explained by Kelly (1988), Social Choice Theory, SCT, analyses the systems and institutions involved in the process of making collective choices that have repercussions for all the group members. The paper uses this as a basic premise to study the impact of this decision making on members characterized by disabilities owing to their categorization as, or affiliations to, minorities with unequal access to decision making. In fact, Kelly (1988) applies a normative flavor to social choice by focusing on how collective choices ought to be made, not limiting the scope to how these choices are actually made. The concepts of Functionings, Capabilities and Agency have evolved through Amartya Sen’s (1977, 1983, 1989, 1993) writings on the Social Choice theory (SCT). 

While Sen (1999) is mainly concerned with application of SCT to as a tool to evaluate policy decisions on groups exhibiting heterogeneous preferences, this paper deals with collective decisions taken by groups without statutory validation. In an earlier study, Sen (1990) takes the position of researchers like Okin (1989), and Phillips (1991) and accepts that gender inequalities are a function of overall inequalities existing in the public sphere and thus validates the stand that SCT could be applied to gender relations in general. 

Study of decision making by groups, according to Wulf Gaertner (2006), has a long history going back to Cusanus (1401-1464), Borda (1733-1799), and Condorcet (1743-1794) who devised strategies based on voting systems to study individual preferences culminating in collective decisions. However the focus of this paper is to study the impact of social choices on marginalized individuals who sometimes do not get to articulate their preferences or even if they do, they are not in position to make a choice favorable to them in the absence of options available. In addition, the paper analyses the importance of deviant choices made by individuals as a symbol of defiance against popularly accepted social logic. As Sen (1990) rightly argues, preference based evaluation criteria cannot capture the subtleties of gender politics in family roles and so need to be evaluated differently, for which he suggests the concepts of capability, functioning and agency. The superiority of this approach lies in its ability of not concluding that choices based on overtly expressed preferences and actual decisions are always indicative of the person’s best interests. The element of unequal access to options imposing a disability on one’s agency is important as it presents the possibility of normative discourse and policy initiatives. However, Sen’s (1990) argument is based on the presumption of women’s incorrect understanding of their self interest. In this regard, Agarwal (1997) disagrees and feels that women do not necessarily comply with collective actions not favoring them, because they misunderstand the impact thereof, but because of lack of options, precisely what this paper tries to study.

Though nuances of the capability approach are visible through the writings of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and Marx, as acknowledged by Sen (1993), in its popular contemporary form, capability approach owes its origin to Sen (1980, 1984, 1985, 1992, 1993, 1995), Nussbaum (1988, 1993, 1995, 2000, 2003 and 2005) and Sen and Dreze (2002). An important aspect of this approach is functionings, which Sen (1992) describes as the ability of a person to do and to be. Capabilities are the combinations of functionings which a person can achieve. Thus they refer to the various possibilities of alternative combinations of being and doing open to a person. In simple terms, functionings tell us about the actual achievements of an individual whereas capabilities tell us about all the potential possibilities the person could have taken up. Thus capabilities are a function of two variables: one being the functionings and the second being freedom to choose different combinations of functionings and the impact of these on one’s quality of life. Agency for Sen is the ability to personally choose the functioning as per one’s set of values which might not always guarantee or be pursued with the aim of maximizing one’s personal self interest. Thus agency analyses one’s ability to choose one’s doing and being without blockage of access imposed by socio-economic or political barriers.

The Story

The central protagonist is Ayesha, a middle aged widow in a village called ‘Charkhi’ in Pakistan in the late 1970s. She seems to be living a peaceful, though frugal life, making ends meet with her husband’s pension and the tuitions on Quran given by her to the village girls. She is seen making pickles, attending social functions and persuading her lazy good-for-nothing son to take up some work. It takes a while for the viewer to decipher her painful past associated with the village well. It unfolds that Ayesha is actually Veero, a Sikh girl who had defied her family’s diktat of honour death during the 1947 riots when India is partitioned as Pakistan is carved out as an independent country. The fleeing Hindu and Sikh men suddenly decide to end the lives of their womenfolk - wives, daughters, sisters as they feel inadequately equipped to protect their honour from the marauding mobs chasing them out of their homes. Veero’s mother and sister jump into the village well as per the orders of the men who are in a hurry to flee to India and do not wish to deal with the liabilities of dishonor, raped wives and daughters and their damaged protector-hood.

Veero escapes death enforced by her family only to fall in the hands of chasing rioters, for whom her only importance lies in defiling her as a symbolic revenge against her group. She experiences a reversal of fortunes as one of the abductors protects her and even marries her. Veero thus becomes Ayesha and begins a new life with a new identity. She integrates herself in the system, converts to Islam, raises her son Salim as a Muslim, and even becomes a religious teacher to the small local girls. Ayesha maintains this routine life even after her husband’s death and manages to rise in social esteem as a respectable elderly lady. Imposition of military rule in the country changes this idyllic life, especially with the entry of two fundamentalists in the village. Their radical interpretation of religion begins to influence Salim, who suddenly feels the vacuum of his listless life filled with the notions of religious righteousness and sense of purpose. He provides the blind obedience and loyalty demanded by his new masters, much to the chagrin of Ayesha, his mother and Zubeida, his girl friend. He rejects both the women and their liberal religious views and becomes absolutely closed to arguments and logic. Meanwhile, a batch of Sikh pilgrims cross over from India to visit the local gurudwara in Charkhi and one of them is Veero’s brother looking for his sister left behind in Pakistan, thirty two years ago. As Ayesha’s identity as Veero of yore is revealed, Salim falls from the eyes of his fundamentalist mentors who begin to taunt him on his own allegiance. Ayesha is asked to publicly declare her religion to protect her son’s prospects of fighting a proxy war against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and of course, India. Faced with persecution the second time, Ayesha offers her last namaz and jumps into the same well that has maintained the silence of the deaths of her mother and sister and so many more women.

The last frame shows a professional Zubeida leaving for work from her upmarket residence in a city. As she crosses a road, a shop on the sidewalk selling television sets shows a clip of Salim giving a rabble rousing speech typical of ideologues anywhere in the world. Ayesha’s death provides relief to different men differently. Ayesha’s son becomes free to pursue his life’s calling of misguided idolatry, minus the liability of his mother’s suspect identity, Veero’s old father can die in peace knowing that his decision of forcing his wife and daughters to die could not have been utterly wrong, as finally Veero has to do just that, although three decades later, and finally, Veero’s brother can rest peacefully with the knowledge that he did his best to trace her, even if it ended up destroying whatever peace she had worked hard to achieve.

Questions without Answers

The very first issue that hits the viewer is the co-occurrence of rape and riots all through recorded history. As Bhasin and Menon (1993) point out, honour, for losing and preserving, is located in women’s bodies. Brownmiller’s (1975) anthropological work shows how rape has always been a tool of domination against women as well as men (the supposed protectors). Coomaraswamy (1999), in her research for UN, found the practice to be spread across countries ranging from Rwanda to Srilanka to India and Pakistan. She found violence against women operate at two levels; one, the act of rape by rioters, and also forced honour deaths by their own family members, similar to what happened to Ayesha in the film. Schneider (1971), Hindlenag and Davis (1977), Olujic (1995), and Cook (2006), among others, share similar details of rapes committed by German soldiers in Belgium in World War I, Nazis raping Jewish women, Russian soldiers raping German women in Berlin in World War II, rape of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers, Bangladeshi women by Pakistani soldiers, Vietnamese women by American soldiers and the infamous rape camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

When discussed in the class, the students agreed about the use of women’s sexuality as a political tool, but there were no clear answers about what could be some probable ways to prevent it. Some said that the trauma of rape was such that it stamped not only the victim but also the family and community with a sense of helplessness and so it was widely used. Hence, if delinking of honour from women’s physicality was possible, it would help. It was interesting to observe management students confident of almost always coming up with workable solutions, fumble and accept that for once, there were no easy strategies.

The discussion turned to Veero’s father asking his wife and daughters to commit suicide. Here, an interesting division of opinion came up. While some boys felt that under the context, the decision seemed appropriate as it was better to kill the women than deal with lifelong trauma and dishonor. A small section of boys and girls said that it would have been more appropriate for the entire family to enter into a suicide pact, rather than asking only the women to kill themselves even as the men escaped to India. A sizeable section of girls and boys said that even though they rejected the honour angle, they would have opted for suicide as it seemed to be less painful than the brutality of repeated rape. Only a small minority of students said they would have chosen life over death despite the dreaded chances of sexual aggression and brutalization. This brought to fore some surprising insights into the question of capability, functioning and agency. 

If functionings are indeed the ability of the person to do and to be, in a situation of social turmoil, men seem to choose the certainty of death to the uncertainty of life traumatized by rape and dishonor for women. Women do not seem to think differently, not because they are not able to perceive the situation properly or their immaturity to understand their best interest. In the absence of life supporting options, when capabilities cease to matter, agency is invoked to choose the least painful option which seems to be death. However, under the very same situations, there are always individuals like Ayesha who read the situation differently and choose to defy the collective choice of men and other women, over their own lives. The students felt that the impact of these exceptional choices can be understood only in hind sight when the principal actors have moved ahead in time. In the case of Ayesha, she happened to be plain lucky to have met a good man who gave her the option of starting a new life. She could have ended up as a mental and physical wreck. The small minority of students who had supported the choice of life, no matter what it threw up at one, said that functioning, capability and agency all become meaningless once one chooses to die. Only if one chooses to live, other options emerge and one gets to make choices again and again, however small the spectrum of options might be.

An interesting aspect of the discussion was the discomfort experienced by the students at Ayesha’s eventual suicide. Most of the students felt that the situation in 1979 in Pakistan was not as bad as in 1947 and that for someone who had survived the partition riots, opting to kill herself was odd. The decision of Ayesha committing suicide at the end was looked upon as an important indicator of agency and the role of personal values. It was felt that since values change with time, the sense of appropriate and inappropriate also changes. 

When Veero chose to defy death and live, she was a young girl in her teens who was willing to give life a chance. When Ayesha chose to die by jumping in the same well, three decades later, she was a woman approaching old age, who was disillusioned and too tired to start a battle all over again. She felt defeated as she saw the inevitable transformation of her son into a radical fanatic, notwithstanding the liberal upbringing provided by her. Her only support was her son’s girlfriend Zubeida, who could not have married the new Salim. With her lost brother openly declaring her Sikh identity, and pleading her to meet their sick father, Ayesha faced a crisis more severe than the earlier one. With change in values, the perception of options as well as the understanding of best interest changes. 

An interesting twist was added to the discussion by an observation that Veero-Ayesha was an independent gutsy woman, who chose to live and die as per her own choice and that even in death, she threw an open challenge to patriarchy by defying her son’s wish to testify in the public square about her allegiance to Islam. The incident is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s (1894) story, ‘A Son’s Veto’, in which the son, Randolph, denies his mother, Sophy, a widow, the chance to marry her childhood sweet heart, not because it would be an act of disloyalty to his father, but on the grounds that her mother’s suitor was a fruit vendor and the match would block his access to the social class he aspired to belong to. Salim’s disgust at learning about his mother’s actual identity is similar to the disgust felt by Randolph on learning that Sophy had been a maid in love with a gardener but got married his father, the village vicar and thus entered a social circle not normally accessible to people of her class. 

The use of agency and display of personal values is visible throughout the film, through characters like Zubeida as she rejects Salim’s understanding of religion, rejects domesticity, chooses to study and emerges as a confident professional. Similarly, the barber and other some other villagers reject the religious diktats of the fundamentalists and continue to be their friendly affable selves not only with the locals but also the Sikh pilgrims visiting their village. Their choices are as deviant as Ayesha’s as they go against the accepted social choices of the larger community and offer insights into the applications of functionings, capabilities and agency. What is fascinating to note is the impact of such deviant choices in shaping the choices of other agents. While it is true that the film shows a disillusioned Ayesha jumping into the same well Veero had rejected, it is evident that Ayesha’s choices have influenced Zubeida in making bold choices and opting for higher education and employment and rejecting matrimony. 


Social Choice sets the parameters of public as well as private action but cannot eliminate the possibility of deviant choices which become catalysts in the process of social change. Thus individual voices, despite their limited strength carry the potential of influencing bigger choices by agents stronger than them and thus set the stage for defiance, challenge and restructuring of the existing structures. Though not all choices attract equal attention, they continue to hold importance on account of the functionings, capabilities and agency they represent. The importance of the film lies in the fact that instead of merely chronicling the impact of political changes on the social scene in a given country, the issues come to the forefront and geography becomes incidental. The secluded well which becomes the repository of violent histories and silent her-stories symbolizes the need for greater inter-disciplinary research into the area of deviant choices, more so of women. 


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1 Silent Waters is a 2003 film directed by Sabiha Sumar.



Gulzar : Guftagu with Sukrita Paul Kumar
Pavan K Varma : In Conversation with Charanjeet Kaur
Atreya Sarma U : ‘The Battle of Palnad’
Sanjukta Dasgupta : Julian Barne’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’
Anish Krishnan Nayar : Poems of Irom Sharmila
Devyani Agrawal : Writing of Khaled Hosseini
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Minu Mehta : Public Choices & Private Voices
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Ambika Ananth – Editorial Comment
Krishna Chakravarthy
Zinia Mitra
Jairaj Padmanabhan
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Sasnarine Persaud
Shobhana Kumar

Gautam Maitra : ‘Varsha’s Encounter ...’
Kanakasabapathi K S : ‘Dora’
Shaily Sahay : ‘Roodrabhisheka’
Tulsi Charan Bisht : ‘Twilight’
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