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Violence against women: Blame our prejudices, NOT the victim

July 20, 2012 16:03 IST

It won't be easy to fight entrenched patriarchy and male-chauvinist prejudice without an extensive campaign of social reform, says Praful Bidwai

Recent violence against women, such as the aggravated sexual assault on a young student in Guwahati in Assam, has deeply shocked the public conscience. Yet it's only one small component of pervasive violence against women -- the fastest rising crime among all cognisable offences registered under the Indian Penal Code.

The latest available statistics compiled by the home ministry's National Crime Records Bureau show that between 1953 and 2011, the incidence of rape rose by 873 per cent, or three times faster than all cognisable crimes put together, and three-and-a-half times faster than murder.

In India, a woman is raped every 22 minutes, and a bride burnt for dowry every 58 minutes. The police last year registered 42,968 cases of molestation of women -- a figure that's about 80 percent higher than the number of rapes. The number of crimes recorded against women, including sexual harassment, cruelty by the husband or his relatives, kidnapping or abduction, and human trafficking, exceeds 2,61,000.

Separate numbers are not available for that South Asia barbarian speciality called acid attacks, which disfigure a woman for life as a punishment for rejecting a man's love or, more usually, lust. Nor does the NCRB go into the harassment faced by women for not bearing a son.
 
The gangster-style grievous assault on the young woman outside a bar in Guwahati is a particularly obnoxious instance of sexual violence. The allegation that a journalist instigated youths to strip her so a TV channel could scoop the story and play it to a voyeuristic audience is now all but established. This further aggravates matters. At any rate, many of those present continued to shoot the incident on their phone cameras for many minutes, ignoring a public-spirited citizen's pleas.

The police's failure to respond in time to distress calls from the bar owner is a shameful but familiar part of the story, as is their trivialisation of the incident and lethargy in arresting all the molesters. Even more deplorable is the manner in which the victim's identity was disclosed by the media, by a member of the National Commission for Women, and worse, the Chief Minister's Office -- against all elementary ethical norms.

How does one understand this revolting incident in Guwahati, a city with a relatively polite public culture? Such cities are no strangers to sexual violence. Beneath their placid surface hides a lot of sexual frustration and machismo. This was revealed in Guwahati in November 2007 by the stripping and parading of a 17-year-old Adivasi girl amidst a protest march.

Guwahati may be somewhat different from many other fast-growing Indian cities in that it has witnessed a far more rapid spread of the culture of consumerism and ostentatious spending. Most of the city's 127 bars (a big number) are new, having been opened within a decade, many only a few years ago.

But like elsewhere, they too are marked by raucous music, vulgar display of wealth via designer clothes and accessories, testosterone-driven competition between young men for female attention, male swagger or aggression, and rowdy behaviour, all lubricated by alcohol.

In fact, such behaviour is evolving into a standard pattern found in pricey restaurants, lounges and bars, much like the crude dabangg mannerisms, Mumbai-style tapori lingo, or loud and boastful cell phone conversations that can seen or heard in streets, shops, malls, college campuses and airport lounges, or on buses and trains across the country. 

Young men are often exposed to sex primarily through film songs choreographed to suggestive movements, through "item numbers", or through pornography on the Internet and in books. They are constantly in search of objects of carnal desire whom they must conquer by showing themselves off as desirable through power and aggression.

This has very little to do with a natural, easy, passionate relationship of affection or love to which physical contact comes organically. Even less has it to do with values such as compassion, sensitivity, cooperation, solidarity, and caring and sharing.

Male conduct sometimes bursts into senseless, lascivious, mob-like behaviour that openly visits sexual violence upon women. But more often, it takes the form of lewd taunts at young women, or forced contact with and groping of their bodies. That's why women are, and feel, unsafe in every Indian city and town -- even in broad daylight. 

Beneath the aggression lies deep insecurity and lack of confidence among young men, who are typically under-socialised and denied a chance to interact in a natural manner with women.

Boys and girls are rarely encouraged to meet or play together. In most of our schools, boys are addressed by their surnames, girls by their first names. Sexual segregation occurs at an early stage even in co-education schools, and stereotypes are rigidly formed by the time the young attain puberty, well before they enter the difficult phase of adolescence. Indeed, millions of Indian women are married before they turn 18 and have no experience of adolescence and of discovering themselves.

The stereotypes include "masculine virtues" like bravery, physical strength, "toughness" in language and action, and refusal to cry. They are celebrated. Girls are encouraged to imbibe "feminine" characteristics like modesty, gentleness, keeping a low profile, soft speech and hard work, especially domestic labour.   

These retrograde patterns of inequality are undergoing a change, but not rapidly enough. Meanwhile, however, a new culture bred by India's "fast-track" capitalism, the market forces and rapid growth of the services sector is superimposing itself upon these patterns, producing an awkward amalgam between tradition and modernity. For instance, the incidence of female foeticide is higher among the more educated and affluent layers of society than among underprivileged people.  

As more and more women attend school and college, and join the labour force -- the feminisation of labour -- they become more visible, independent and self-confident. For more than a decade, girls have tended to dominate the toppers' lists in school-leaving examinations. And women are proving more diligent and reliable than men in call centres, offices and outdoor sales jobs. Unlike in the past, women now seek blue-collar employment and compete successfully with men.

This is producing new insecurities and fears among men, who seek to control women and restrict their independence in various ways. Take the recent incident in Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh, where a khap panchayat ordered that no woman can use a mobile phone. The all-male panchayat fears that women might use the phone to talk to strange men and lose their "purity". However, no such restrictions are imposed on the men whom they might talk to! 

Other examples include the imposition of conservative dress codes on women by the principals of numerous colleges and by the leaders of religious communities anxious to preserve their "purity", attacks on women in Bangalore pubs by Sri Ram Sene fanatics, and "punishments" like public humiliation and stripping of women who wear "inappropriate" attire even in supposedly cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai.

Why, even police chiefs in different cities have warned women against dressing "provocatively". In 2007, the Delhi police issued a booklet entitled Security Tips for Northeast Students/Visitors in Delhi, which advised them: 'Revealing dress should be avoided. Avoid lonely road/bylane when dressed scantily. Dress according to sensitivity of the local populace.'

The NCW chairperson has now joined the chorus advising women 'not to ape Western culture' and to 'dress carefully'. This means blaming the victim for the sexual harassment she faces.
 
In a highly patriarchal society like India's, where discrimination against women is pervasive from cradle to grave, many women internalise male prejudices. For instance, a recent survey by an eye sciences journal found that only eight percent of the children with poor eyesight regularly wear glasses. Forty nine percent of the girls who need glasses say they don't use them for "cosmetic" reasons, and 83 percent refuse because wearing glasses would hamper their "marriage prospects".   

Even worse, a Unicef report this year on adolescents finds that not just 57 per cent of Indian males but also 53 per cent of females in the 15-19 age-group believe that wife beating is justified. (Even in Bangladesh, only 41 percent of females justify wife beating.) Such acceptance and sanctification of domestic violence does not speak of a civilised society.

It won't be easy to fight such entrenched patriarchy and male-chauvinist prejudice without an extensive campaign of social reform. Social reform -- which combats male chauvinism, casteism, communalism and other forms of parochialism and hierarchy, and promotes the values of enlightenment such as reason, freedom and equality -- was (a rather weak) component of the freedom movement in its early period. It lost momentum long ago and has fallen off the agenda altogether.

There is no alternative to reviving the social reform movement. All our progressive intellectuals, teachers, enlightened politicians and concerned citizens must contribute to this revival. There lies the litmus test of their leadership.

Praful Bidwai