Beyond the Delhi protests- the issues at stake
To the relief of many, the protests in Delhi over the maniacal rape of a 23 year woman have fizzled out after some days of massive posturing that ended in violence. True, there were sincere elements among the mass of people at the India Gate whose presence stemmed from a genuine sense of dissent and discontentment. Their single interest was to bring to book the criminals who had raped the 23 year old woman. The women’s movements that joined the protest were there too and one can feel secure in the knowledge that they will maintain a sustained vigil over the deeper malaise of which the rape was a shameless manifestation.
Enter the media and lumpen elements
By the second day, two groups with vested interests entered the protest scene- the media and the lumpun elements. They arrived with different interests.
The media wanted a story that they could sensationalize and that they did. Prime time and nearly every space of television time were hijacked by the reportage of the protests. Talk shows and interviews were glued on little else. It was as if the rest of the country had come to a standstill and the only thing that mattered was what the protesters were asking for. Even the young woman who had been raped and left lying in a serious medical state was reduced to a mere cross reference. Many who appeared to screech into the television microphones talked about their own safety and their right to go out when they wanted and demanded to be protected against potential violators of women’s rights. They were livid. Their freedom was under threat and it was all that seemed to matter.
The lumpen elements arrived to inject pandemonium and violence into an already anarchical situation. The student responses which were spontaneous soon got out of hand when more and more of them spilled into the streets. There was no clear leadership, no agenda, no method, no strategy, and no real end-game. It was easy prey for the nuisance brigade. The lumpen brigade inserted lawlessness into the protest prompting a police response that turned out to be harsh – probably because the police could not simply stand by and watch in indifference. The hoodlums who invaded the space of the protestors whose intentions were genuine had taken things beyond the rubicon roughing up policemen and doing the very things that the rapists would have done to women had they been in the crowd. The police who can generally be bullish, insensitive, and impulsive can hardly be accused of overreaching in this instance. They had quickly found the culprits who had committed the rape. Now they had to contain a protest that was getting out of hand.
The media took sides calling the protestors innocent and lamenting the fact that a handful of rowdy elements and their actions should not have provoked police reactions. The police were in a catch 22 situation! Damned if they do and damned if they don’t. That pressure probably led to some miscalculations and excesses. They won’t come out of this whole escapade with a certificate of good conduct. Nor will the protestors who should have stepped back and organized themselves with a defined and time bound purpose. After all, they had met the Congress leadership and the police were willing to meet and talk through the entire substance of the protest.
Violence against women is rampant countrywide
The protestors in Delhi asked for fast track courts, harsh punishment, and heightened security for themselves. Even the absurdity of ‘death by hanging’! In distant Manipur and Kerala, incidents of rape were reported almost to coincide with the ghastly incident in Delhi. And here lies one of the main problems- Delhi-centrism! Delhi crowds assume they know best for themselves and the rest of India. They do not. The upper classes among them care little or nothing for the rest of India and for those who face the brunt of a social system where women are not only given secondary status but abused day after day in work places, in homes, on streets, in tourism, in villages etc.
The reality of India is that a rape is committed on a woman every half an hour. On that very day when the protests in Delhi began, there could have been women farmers who must have taken their lives. But we don’t know enough about how many of them must be counted in. (we do know that something like a farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes). Women are usually excluded from such statistics because most do not even have title to land. The young women and men in Delhi were visibly oblivious to that fact. Farmer’s debts are inherited by their widows and children, who, because they have no options or access to relief, rehabilitation and development end up as vulnerable farm workers or other forms of subsistence such as begging neither of which covers their daily living costs, or the capacity to repay their debts. They live as bonded labourers left to the whims and fancies of their owners/employers who frequently sexually assault them and get away with impunity. The girl child who comes out of such situations is perhaps worst affected- deprived and marginalized just for being what she is crudely described as – ‘only’ a girl.
Dalit women are ruthlessly targeted
Dalit women are frequently gang-raped and paraded naked with police watching as mute spectators. In fact police have been reported to have egged on mobs to lynch Dalits. On a daily basis three-to-five Dalit women are raped. While all this happens, Delhi stays still and the upper class and upper-caste – many of whom protested on the streets of Delhi last week- chose to be disgracefully silent. Delhi is the rape capital and the Delhi demands protection at all costs- the rest be damned.
The enforcement of laws designed to protect Dalits is lax if not non-existent in many regions of India. In fact, Dalit women are twice victims. They are frequently raped or beaten as a means of reprisal against male relatives who are thought to have committed some act worthy of upper-caste vengeance. They are also subject to arrest if they have male relatives hiding from the authorities. There have been incidents when Dalit women have been gang-raped and then burnt alive because a son has eloped with the daughter of the higher-caste family. Higher-caste local influence weighs more than the facts and the injustice. In almost cases, there is very little or no recourse available to victims.
Thousands of pre-teen Dalit girls are forced into prostitution under cover of a religious practice known as devadasis, which means “female servant of god.” The girls are dedicated or “married” to a deity or a temple. Once committed, they are powerless to marry, forced to have sex with upper-caste community members, and eventually sold to an urban brothel.
Overall violence against women
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 261,000.
Discarding patriarchy- tackling the roots
It is in the broader context of violence against women- especially those from the vulnerable sections- that the incident on Delhi must be debriefed.
India is plagued by the problem of having to cope with ‘patriarchy’- the system of male domination over women in society. Derived from Greek and Roman law, in which the male head of the household had absolute legal and economic power over his dependent female and male family members, patriarchy has resulted in the institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and in society as well. It is the ideology and social structure which has enabled men historically to gain and maintain their dominance and control over women.
Patriarchy and widespread violence against women are correlated because of the very nature and function of patriarchy. Patriarchy offers and advances the view that women are inferior and weak human beings for whom being victim of male violence are natural and acceptable in society of ancient times.
Patriarchy, apart from disadvantaging women, is accompanied by behavioural norms and responsibilities that prohibit men from expressing their uncertainties and vulnerabilities. Their violent attitudes and actions stem from patriarchal forms of socialisation. Being a man is associated with being strong and violent is a manifestation of being strong – absurd as that is in reality.
Empowering men and women – a justice alliance of women and men
The cowardly gang rape in Delhi remains a useful rallying point and alarm for an alliance that men and women must forge to dispel the myth that men have licence to violate women and go unpunished. Within India, grassroots efforts to change the status of women are emerging despite retaliation from conservative and reactionary forces. The movement is still weak and ineffectual. Its base is simply not broad enough. Caste and class dimensions impede a united front.
The Delhi protests and its class character only reinforce these divisions. Having had their rendezvous with the thrill of a protest and found themselves either punished by police brutality, or just about escaping from the line of fire, the young women and men have now returned to the comfort zones of their middle and upper class homes. Its business as usual – with, of course, the fear that a rapist lurks somewhere in the corner! And that is a legitimate demand thy can make.
The judicial enquiry into the Delhi rape may produce a plethora of recommendations and may even influence law making and changes in the way violence against women is tackled. But, it is clear, that additional policing, fast track courts, more judges and other administrative mechanisms will do little to alleviate the problem. The real tasks are two:
- To change men’s patriarchal, chauvinistic and often violent attitudes through mass consciousness in the form a social movement.
- To empower women to assert their rights and claim justice through rigorous campaigns and protests when they are violated.
Programmes totackle gender-based violence against women in India must be based on a paradigm shift. It must move from empowering women to assert themselves and prevent violence to one which sees men as part of the problem and, hence, as part of the solution. If men remain insulated from the process of transformation, the status of women will never alter. Men must liberate themselves from the shackles of patriarchy and the process of empowering women must be a process of accompaniment to male transformation. It is a tough call because men hold power and power does not part with power voluntarily. It needs persuasion and pressure. That is why women’s empowerment is non-negotiable for the emancipation of men from patriarchal attitudes.
Women will also have it hard- too many have grown up believing they are inferior. A study some years ago by the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) highlighted the finding that 55% of women didn’t consider it wrong if the men in their homes resorted to beating them; 51% of men felt that they had a right to beat the women. These findings are symptomatic of the tacit acceptance of violence to resolve conflict, rather than dialogue and peaceful means.
Needed – A Road Map
The incident in Delhi is not even the tip of the iceberg. But it has opened eyes and created a scare.
The government alone cannot resolve the challenges at hand. It can provide the instruments for punitive and swift action. Punitive measures will always be required because laws serve as a deterrent to potential offenders. Governments are the instrument of creating, imposing law and thus preserving justice. But governments are generally disinterested in the welfare of those who are vulnerable.
There is an old saying that goes something like this: ‘Justice without love is law’. The implication is that the principal need is for transformation of individual minds, and social structures first and foremost. A renewed people’s consciousness and a vigilant and agile civil society are the best foundations on which to reduce and eventually eliminate patriarchal attitudes that permit the violence that is perpetrated against women – especially the most vulnerable- incessantly.
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