SWARNA RAJAGOPALAN | 24 NOVEMBER, 2018
Remember and act to end gender violence.
Since 2012, there has rarely been a time (save demonetisation) when gender-based violence was not in the news. In 2018 were focused on the rapes in Kathua, Unnao and Muzaffarpur, on the systematic gang rape of a girl with disability in Chennai, on brutal rape and murder incidents, and since October on a snowballing series of workplace sexual harassment revelations, involving the media and entertainment sector especially.
Each of these holds our attention for a short while and then is replaced by something else.
Regardless of whether we pay attention, patriarchal violence continues tenaciously everywhere. It is a race between the hare and the tortoise, where the hare is our attention span, quick to flare and die, and patriarchy is the tortoise, literally killing us softly and winning every time.
This is illustrated by three everyday killers that we should not forget: caste based gender violence (or “honour killing”), domestic violence, and gender based violence in militarised settings.
Our constitution was drafted by a person whose life is identified with the ‘annihilation of caste’, but the travesty is that the caste hierarchy, caste discrimination and caste violence are alive, well and flourishing still. It bears daily repetition that caste and gender inequality overlie each other in fatal ways. Crossing caste lines, whether physical ones such as neighbourhoods and streets in a village, or the social lines of diet and endogamy, is punishable by violence.
When young men are killed for marrying women across caste lines, every now and then it appears in the press. We read about inter-caste wars that end in arson. However, the policing of women’s movements and the punishment of even inadvertent transgression through sexual harassment, molestation or rape seems too commonplace for us to notice.
The sense of entitlement that allows men in positions of privilege to blackmail lower caste and working women into sexual submission is violence we turn a blind eye to. We have done nothing to change the social structures that enable this impunity.
An exchange student I met last year spoke about the father in her host family. He groped the domestic worker in their house in front of his wife. Both were silent, and the young woman was a traumatised witness. This sense of entitlement is so entrenched, and again, so commonplace, that we no longer react. Silence and denial are also survival tactics. If you do not educate girls and raise them to be confident, if you raise them to always be someone’s ward, then you leave them with no choice. The violence comes with the territory of financial security and social position.
The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005 protects not just wives, but all women in a household, from four kinds of violence: physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal and emotional abuse, and economic abuse. The lofty arrangements laid out by the law work imperfectly in practice, despite the best efforts of women’s organisations to train and assist.
The best laws and the best support infrastructure cannot help a woman who thinks it is her lot to be abused. That women accept abuse is a frightening reality that stems from the way we raise girls.
We raise them to believe their life has one destination – marriage – and one purpose – to serve their families.
We forget to tell them that they are human beings, entitled to a sense of self and self-worth, to self-care, to self-expression and to self-actualisation.
We tend half-heartedly to shadows that we then hitch to men who have been raised with a sense of privilege, entitlement and impunity, regardless of their caste, class or community.
The result is that we condemn our daughters to live always in the fear of violence. Don’t say this: don’t wear that: don’t go there: don’t dream: don’t speak out.
It is an extension of the impulse that makes some people abort female foetuses.
Among these are the 32,989 women who told National Family Health Survey 4 researchers that domestic violence could be justified for any of seven reasons, as opposed to the 28,918 who identified zero reasons.
For women who live in conflict zones, access to justice is severely limited, especially when the harassment or sexual violence is committed by state forces or insurgents. The Justice Verma Committee’s recommendation to amend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act so that soldiers and officers can be held accountable for acts of sexual intimidation and violence has been ignored.
Where is a woman to go if she is stalked, harassed, has her photo taken at check-points, is strip-searched on her way to work or is raped by military, paramilitary or police staff?
The Indian state likes to say there are no conflict zones in the country, just ‘disturbed areas’. The Indian public goes along with this denial because it is convenient and people in conflict zones are far away, out of sight (out of mind) and to be honest, just different from us. We want to say, and sometimes do on WhatsApp groups, that they must have all this trouble coming to them through some fault of their own. Our everyday conversations on valour and patriotism underscore the idea that those who must fight in distant outposts deserve to have criminal behaviour overlooked – a view, it must be admitted, that some in the army do disagree with.
But we do not question these arrangements, their consequences for democracy and for citizenship, and the shoddy, selfish idea of India they represent – conveniently including and excluding people as long as our own lives and profits are untouched.
Incidents of violence about which we read and are outraged take place in the context of a violent patriarchal culture that includes all these realities on a routine basis. This is not a ‘whatabout’ argument, it is a ‘let us not forget’ reminder. Our energies are infinite and can be stretched to all fronts.
2017 ended with a debate on consent framed in part by successive court judgments in the Mahmood Farooqui case. We have left that debate behind, although it is at the core of the problem of violence. Do we raise girls knowing they have the right to consent and the right to withhold consent? Do we raise boys to accept that decision readily and with respect? Do we teach boys that ‘not sure’ means ‘desist anyway’?
The highest courts held forth in that case about how a ‘no’ should be expressed clearly and firmly, but we tell our children: “Be a good girl/ boy, come sit on my lap, I will give you a chocolate” or “Aunty/ Uncle is calling, you must go.” The child resists, but we use our authority as adults to force the child. Then, we expect them to express and accept ‘no’.
I am more convinced everyday that our problems with violence are rooted in the ways in which we relate to children and in the models of behaviour we present to them.
Finally, let us not forget the silence of the political class in the wake of the #MeToo revelations. The Women and Child Development Minister and the National Commission for Women have moved to act, but where is everyone else?
To newsmaking incidents of gender violence, the political class has one of these stock reactions, by and large:
First, of course, is the party political reaction – a quick condemnation if the accused are from the opposite side of the fence.
Second is the “protect our women” reaction, which is wrong on many levels. Women are not possessions; all women deserve security, not just the ones you may be related to; and finally, “protection” is not the answer, especially because it makes the innocent person responsible for their own safety.
The third stock reaction is a moralistic homily about dress, being outside at night, talking to men, etc.
The last reaction, which has happily become less common now, is to advise the deferment of gender issues until “larger” issues have been resolved.
As we get ready to vote in state and parliamentary elections, let us not forget the men and women of the political class who were silent or ambivalent on the question of sexual and gender-based violence. If politicians cannot come out unequivocally to say that hurting someone to establish your superior position is wrong (which is what sexual harassment is), voters can expect nothing constructive from them.
It is time political parties made a firm public commitment not to (re)nominate those charge-sheeted for sexual and gender-based violence offences, and to sideline those who speak misogynistically to blame women, absolve men or give moral lectures.
If political parties cannot show themselves to be on the side of almost 50% of the population, then they deserve to be thrown out of the business. But are we up to it? Or will we rage through each news moment only to forget at the polling booth?
The political class has failed this exam. It is now up to voting citizens to take it, and pass.
Remember and act.