Every woman’s action has an unequal and opposite reaction
Shame, not culture :: Repeat this: no woman of any age, colour, character, ever deserves to be sexually violated or what some might lightly call 'eve-teased'. She never 'asks' for it. Courtesy: Blank Noise Blog
It isn’t an isolated case. It’s not even an aberration. Within a fortnight, there was another incident, this time near Mangalore. A goon squad of self-appointed ‘moral police’, all from some right-wing organisation that claims to defend “Hindu culture” invaded a private home and roughed up the youngsters at a party there. Young women were slapped around. Many were dragged and forced to face cameras that were conveniently at hand in order to “shame” them. If this is “Hindu culture”, I — and, I believe, many others — want no part of it.
This attitude to women has deep roots. Salil Tripathi, writing in the Mint, points to our cultural heritage and the many instances from our ancient texts and epics that portray just such a vilification of women. A June 2012 report of a global survey by gender specialists ranks countries on various criteria to assess how women are treated. India is a bottom-feeder on this list. There are, indeed, so many instances of female abuse that for many it is no longer even reason to pause: from female infanticide to murder and rape, there is little that is left out. As Samar Harlankar said in the Hindustan Times, “men abuse women in every society, but few males do it with as much impunity, violence and regularity as the Indian male”. And decades ago, Mahatma Gandhi too deplored our attitude when he said “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex (not the weaker sex).” Half a century on, things have become worse, not better. It’s hard to say what, in Helen Pidd’s 23 July article for the Guardian, is more horrifying: the recitation of our atrocities against women or the fact that we seem to care so little. Take the Guwahati case: the police took no immediate action against the assaulters and it wasn’t till a public outcry and after citizens had put up an enormous banner with screenshots of the suspects that arrests were made. Why is this? Do people really believe this woman deserved it? Or that any woman, regardless of the circumstances, deserves to be treated like this?
Even worse are the institutional assaults on women: where men and even women in positions of authority make outrageous statements about how the women victims. A Cabinet Minister from Madhya Pradesh wants women to “dress in a way that earns them respect and not arouse sexual excitement”. Though mutton-headed, that’s not an uncommon view. But when the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women says, in the context of the Guwahati crime, that “women should be careful about the way they dress because such incidents are a result of blindly aping the West”, we should feel alarmed. What is this supposed to mean? That if a woman wears something non-Indian, something a little Occidental (does a sleeveless blouse qualify? What about sequins?), she is advertising her availability for assault and rape? Mumbai’s very own moral Colossus, the redoubtable ACP Dhoble, seems to equate a woman having a drink with prostitution; and, in his book, commercial sex workers — and never mind what the Supreme Court says on the subject — are disentitled to the slightest regard as human beings.
Even the flip side of this thinking is dark, for consider what is says about men: that they are all, without exception, creatures so far down the evolutionary ladder that, at the slightest glimpse of female skin, they are all unable to control the most primal of their urges. Every human being should be twice offended. Even the flip side of this thinking is dark, for consider what is says about men: that they are all, without exception, creatures so far down the evolutionary ladder that, at the slightest glimpse of female skin, they are all unable to control the most primal of their urges. Every human being should be twice offended.
This is where the law fails us. There are enough laws to deal with these crimes and to punish the guilty (assuming that these laws are sufficiently well-enforced, which they are not). But like all criminal statutes, these too are after-the-event, punitive actions that take on what has already happened, and they presume that fear of legal retribution is enough to force attitudinal changes in society. It’s a disgrace to say this, but in a country that has women heading major banks, financial institutions and giant companies, women entrepreneurs and a history of women leaders in politics, we need something more than laws and procedures.
Justice, too, is something that we are happy to see confined to the mumbo-jumbo of law courts and the job only of people in black. This is an easy and comfortable situation: dealing with difficult situations becomes someone else’s problem, and there is always someone to blame when things go wrong. Justice is someone else’s baby, never ours. But for any society to survive and then to evolve into something approaching civilization, justice, in its broadest sense of doing the right thing and being able to tell right from wrong, is the responsibility of every single person in every single situation.
It may seem an oxymoron, but stereotyping women takes many forms: the statue of justice is a female figure; justice is ‘delivered’; and when it is not, there is a ‘miscarriage’ of justice. Buried even in this is, somewhere, the notion of a woman as a receptacle, even if it is not explicitly stated; and as long as that exists, no woman will ever be safe, no matter what she wears. Clothes may make the man, but they cannot unmake the woman.
This is an interesting dimension to the problem. It is not just hidebound and archaic social morés that are responsible for our attitude to women (weird concepts of marital virginity, ‘chastity’, ‘purity’ and a complete denial of the female sexual response and need). They also throw into the tub of ostracisation any form of pre-marital sexual interaction between consenting adults. At a deeply psychological level, this is severely problematic for sexuality is natural, and, as every newspaper’s website shows, consensual adult sex isn’t a furtive rustle of sheets in the darkness of the night with the solitary objective of adding to the population. The way we in India have chosen to live and construct our personal spaces reinforces and perhaps even informs these attitudes. Privacy is not known to be a design requirement of affordable or mass housing.
Hindi cinema has had its share of strong and assertive women characters; but it has also had a liberal diet of the reprehensible Pati Parmeshwar attitude, where a woman’s identity is defined only by her continued kowtowing at the feet of an abusive man.
How are we to change this attitude, one that seems to be governed only by what I’d like to call, with no disrespect to the legendary actress, Nutan’s law: one according to which, unless she is portrayed as demure and docile, a woman’s every action has an unequal and opposite reaction? One way, perhaps, would be to start punishing not just the doers but also the excusers, those who make vapid assertions about how women should dress and behave. Every such statement is offensive and should have consequences. In the West — yes, the one we should sometimes ape — a public figure making a statement about the way a woman chooses to dress herself find himself out of a job in very short order.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Mumbai Mirror, Bangalore Mirror, the Ahmedabad Mirror and in the Pune Mirror on Friday, 3 August 2012. Parts of this article have been updated to include references to events after the first publication of the print version.
What happened in [July in Guwahati to a young student] is beyond horrifying: a woman leaving a nightspot was set upon by an entire gang of men who jeered, shoved, tore at her clothes, dragged her by her hair while a local TV station gleefully filmed it all. Sure enough, [clips were broadcast on television] and started doing the rounds on social networking sites and cellphones. Later reports [accused a single hoodlum and a TV journalist of conniving] to arrange this, something that only exacerbates the crime and calls into question our perverse notion of what is, or should be, "news".
: http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_guwahati-molestation-what-really-happened_1714657 "Guwahati molestation: What really happened, Prashanta Mazumdar, DNA, 13 July 2012"
: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/guwahati-molestation-case-gets-murkier-by-the-day/1/208557.html "Guwahati molestation case gets murkier by the day, India Today, 16 July 2012"
: http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/Guwahati/Guwahati-molestation-TV-journalist-arrested/Article1-892644.aspx "Guwahati molestation: TV journalist arrested, Hindustan Times, 20 July 2012"