Think beyond the rape
We must now move beyond sorrow and anger at the horrendous gang rape and lingering death of the 23-year-old woman in Delhi. Since December 16, this one story and its many dimensions have dominated the media. Opinion pieces, talk shows, surveys, documentaries – we have seen, read, watched. The horror of this hideous gang rape by six men in the national capital has finally brought to centre stage an issue that should have been a national concern much earlier.
When the 2001 census figures revealed the drastic decline in the child sex ratio, we should have woken up and asked, what is happening to this country that girls are not even being allowed to be born. But we did not. We dismissed talk of the consequences of this precipitous decline leading to an increase in the levels of violence against women. Yet, a decade later all those prophecies are coming true.
When international studies indicated that too many girls were dying in India before the age of six because of socially endorsed neglect in health care and nutrition, again few were alarmed. This was not a dramatic one-time occurrence. It was a process that was killing off girls. So no one noticed. And few cared.
There are many more processes that continue to disadvantage women from birth, onto marriage and even when they are widowed, abandoned or divorced. But these are processes that lead to subjugation, violence and death. So no one notices. And few care.
Today, women are reaping the consequences of this lack of attention to the details – by policymakers, by civil society and by the media, all those who are now worked up about the issue of rape and sexual assault against women.
At root is the issue of patriarchy – that long word that we prefer not to mention. It is about social systems that sanctify the superiority of the male. It is customs and traditions that socialise women to believe that they are inferior, that they must accept a secondary position in everything. And ones that make men believe that it is their right to dominate, to order, to demand sex and servitude from women, including from those to whom they are related.
Even as we work to make the criminal justice system work for the survivors of sexual assaults, tighten existing laws so that the perpetrators of these crimes do not get off lightly and establish fast-track courts so that cases do not drag on until the survivor is exhausted and gives up, we must delve deeper into these societal structures that ultimately perpetuate and even endorse sexual crimes.
Even if all these legal steps are taken, they will not suffice in reducing levels of violence until the stranglehold of patriarchy is broken. That is no easy job. The system has had centuries within which to perfect itself. It has learnt how to mould itself even as society changes and ‘modernises’. So, even as women are being encouraged to study, to pursue careers, a line is drawn: this far and no further. A career, yes, but only if it can fit in within the prescribed limits of a marriage. Have your own mind and opinion on issues, but not at the cost of alienating the men in your life – your father, your bothers, and your husband. Even if young educated women chafe at these restrictions, the majority of them fall in line.
What greater violence could there be than to tell a young girl that she is a free bird, that she can do what she likes, and then cage her within these resilient societal structures? The price for resisting, for being their own women, is to be confronted with forms of violence that are often not even reported. Those that occur in a public space are noticed. What happens within the confines of homes is never known.
The mothers of these young women lived through this violence. But there is a difference. Their mothers did not demand equal rights to the public space outside the home. Today’s young women believe they have the right. And just that act, of stepping out with confidence, is being interpreted as their being sexually available to men. They are challenging patriarchy. And this is enraging those who believe that a woman is good for only set tasks – as a homemaker and as someone who provides sexual gratification, and of course male progeny, to men. Anyone falling outside this frame should be punished.
Grim as this sounds, there is hope – because women and men are finally talking about these issues, because the media is engaged and because policy-makers are not being allowed to make any more excuses. Yet, after all the shouting is over, those who really want a lasting change will have to engage with the deep-rooted sexism and misogyny in all aspects of Indian society, of which gang rapes and sexual assaults are one manifestation.
Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist, columnist and media consultant. She has been, until recently, Deputy Editor and Chief of Bureau of The Hindu in Mumbai. In over three decades as a full-time journalist, she has held senior positions in Himmat Weekly, Indian Express and the Times of India. Her special areas of interest are environmental and developmental issues. She writes a fortnightly column in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine section, The Other Half, that comments on contemporary issues from a gender perspective. She has also followed and commented on urban issues, especially in the context of Mumbai’s development.
Kalpana Sharma is the author of Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum (Penguin 2000) and has co-edited with Ammu Joseph Whose News? The Media and Women’s Issues (Sage 1994, 2006) and Terror Counter-Terror: Women Speak Out (Kali for Women, 2003)
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