India is no country for women

Happy Mother’s Day! But even as we wish all our readers, it sounds a bit hollow. Mothers, daughters, sisters -- women in general across India can hardly be “happy” with rapes, molestations and domestic violence cases outnumbering robberies and thefts in our country. Exaggerated? We think not. But that is not the central point of this article.

What perhaps hurts all conscientious Indians (or it should at least) even more is the reaction of the state machinery to these attacks on women. If the attacks left a scar, the reactions of different state governments and the Centre on issues relating to women’s rights, have just added insult to injury.

Case study #1:
The several cases of attacks on women, attempts to molest them and drunken brawls were reported outside a few pubs and lounge bars across Hyderabad and other cities of Andhra Pradesh in recent months. It happens in every city of India, sadly. Nothing new there. In normal, civil societies, one would expect any government to act by increasing security outside such pubs and perhaps issuing some safety guidelines for guests. But we do things differently in India. So the Andhra Pradesh government issued a notification banning women from pubs after 10 pm and barring women under 21 from entering pubs at any hour.

Women's rights lawyer Flavia Agnes
Women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes

Men, however, will be served alcohol till 11 pm as before and boys under 21 (18 and above) still have free access to pubs. So why single out and punish women, when the crimes are being committed against them in the first place?

State police chief Dinesh Reddy told a local newspaper the step was taken to prevent crimes against women such as chain snatchings, molestation and rapes. Justifying the ban he says the move was prompted by several incidents of drunken women quarrelling with auto drivers outside bars and clubs at night. But he fails to explain why the ban targeted only women although men got involved in drunken brawls as well.

Case study # 2:
The Madhya Pradesh government initiated a revolutionary (by Indian standards) bill recently. The Madhya Pradesh Women’s Policy 2013-2017, or the MP Mahila Niti bill, in its draft included the legal rights of live-in partners. In India, presently there is no law defining a live-in relationship. The nation rejoiced. Newspapers spent reams of newsprint to praise the progressive outlook of the government in setting a benchmark for others to follow. The bill would clearly protect the most vulnerable sections of society -- widows, single mothers and others who may not want to marry for some reason, but who, by virtue of living together with another person for a long period of time, would gain rights to property, a roof over her head and financial security.

The Supreme Court in a recent ruling had observed that a woman who has been in a live-in relationship for a long period of time should enjoy the same rights that a married woman is entitled to.

Yet, days before the bill is to be tabled in the state assembly, its future has become uncertain. The saddest, most tragic fact? Many women themselves are opposing it, since they believe it is their dharma to remain a subservient class. The first to vociferously denounce the step on moral grounds was CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s Minister for Women & Child Welfare, Ranjana Baghel. In a public meeting Baghel called the idea, “immoral and one that would promote anarchy in society”. Chairperson, MP Social Welfare Department, Sarita Deshpande, too, was “against the idea as it was reprehensible and against Indian traditions.”

The Sangh Parivar soon joined the chorus, forcing the government to have a re-look at the draft bill and hold it back for the time being.

There are too many other instances to put on paper. A woman is raped in Kolkata. The chief minister calls it a conspiracy against her government and one of her cabinet ministers wonders why a married woman was at a pub instead of tending to her husband and kids. A five-year-old is gang raped in Delhi, a teenager raped in Mumbai and a senior leader of a political party goes on record saying (in Hindi): Men will not harass unless they’re provoked by women’s inviting glances. Another, more rustic leader asks his followers to stop eating ‘Chowmien’, as it leads to rape!

Does this ring tragically true for us? Says well-known theatre personality Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, “First of all, if curtailing people’s freedom was based on the misdeeds of people or the perception of their misdeeds, the Congress Party and our entire government would be liable to have absolutely no freedom whatsoever! What about the mass rapes that go unpunished or the devastation of our country caused by these politicians? Why are they not made accountable to the public?” she asks.

She adds: “You know that we live in a totally misogynistic society, so what better way than to make the behaviour of a few women an excuse for the brutality and debaucherous tendencies of the Indian male!”

Kotwal actually sees these decisions as a distraction technique, “The government wants to divert our attention from the real and more serious issues like fodder scam, 3G scam, CBI reports being manipulated, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.”

The fiery producer-director of Poor-Box Productions asks, “How about we demand that men be kept in their homes, so that women may enjoy total freedom? Was the four-year-old girl who was raped drunk? Was the 10-year-old girl drunk? Was the 80-year-old grandmother drunk? I hope the women of Andhra Pradesh are not going to allow this mass bullying that has been going on for decades in this lie called India Shining.”

When asked about the radical and progressive bill that would give inheritance rights to live-in partners, and which is in now in limbo in Madhya Pradesh, Kotwal says, “India is a country of holy humbugs. What right does the so-called saffron lobby have to influence a state government’s decision? These are the dangers of allowing religious groups of any kind to have power over policy decisions in a so-called secular democracy. We are in a downward spiral and unless the public takes a keen interest in the ruling of our country, I am afraid we are doomed. Forget India as a superpower, her government is diving to a few notches below Banana Republics the world has seen and known.”

Noted women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes is less vitriolic in her comments, but no less clear: “It would have been good if the bill that allowed ‘living-in’ was passed. It would have helped many women. In 1998, a Bill was drafted by Maharashtra Government, which permitted second wives to claim maintenance under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.PC) But a lot of hue and cry was raised, including by women’s groups, who said this will encourage bigamy.

The problem is that there is no one voice among progressive women’s groups either. Many of them too raise objections against such progressive measures. It is okay to have a conservative voice, but the progressive voices should come together and campaign for such milestone bills. The same thing happened when the legal age to have sex was raised to 18. The solution is to campaign as one voice to protect the rights of the vulnerable women. When a progressive measure is introduced, it is often left at the mercy of influential groups with conservative ideology who oppose such a move and due to this it is retracted. The government too has a conservative voice and they are happy to retract. But if the progressive groups work together as one voice, we can achieve a great deal,” she says.

Noted academic Nandini Sardesai is equally disturbed. “What utter rubbish is this? It goes against the constitution as it blatantly promotes discrimination and double standards. I am surprised it has remained a regional issue and women’s organizations and legal cells have not been too proactive in publicising this sort of moral policing. It indicates a failure on part of the local law and order machinery to do its job of protecting women after hours,” she says, when asked about the ban on women from pubs.

For this firebrand sociologist it is all about attitude. “On one hand we say it is traditional to revere women and on the other hand we are admitting that we are not honouring them -- the fact that women after 10 pm become vulnerable means that at that time men will molest them!”

But in most developed nations, it is not just the women, but the men too who have come together to support bills and laws that empower women. Not so in India. But what do India’s most powerful vote bank, namely the youth, have to say? Saurabh Datar, 25, who works for a leading FM channel, says, “To say we’re becoming regressive is harsh.

We recently passed a bill on homosexuality. No more is it a criminal offence. There have been several other landmark changes. So we are doing some things right. But with the kind of parochial mindsets we have in our elected representatives, all these measures are knee jerk solutions that will never address the root of the problem. Today, you ban women from pubs. Tomorrow, will you ban them from leaving the house? It does not make sense. We need to inculcate it in our curriculum and values that dressing in a particular way doesn’t mean you can molest the woman. It’s like teaching a child that stealing is wrong. It needs to start from such a basic level. Respecting women as human beings is something that sadly needs to be taught at schools.”

Hope springs eternal
But as many others point out, there is always hope, as long as there is a right to protest, a right to air your grievances. Says writer and poet Arundhathi Subramaniam, “Yes, it’s true there are authoritarian impulses in our society. These seem to be on the upswing. We are living in times of rapid transition. So insecurity is inevitable, even understandable. Because we are scared of confusion, we turn to voices of certainty. Here’s the danger. I don’t believe we need more certainty in our lives right now; we need more clarity. Clarity can only come through looking confusion, complexity and change in the eye and not by denying it,” she says. 

What’s particularly disturbing about authoritarian impulses, she believes is that they curtail the freedom of those they ostensibly seek to protect. Paternalism is not protection; it infantilises its subjects. We forget that at our own peril.

What does it mean to be an Indian woman today? The answer to that must come from women of this country, across the board. And we need to be willing to listen to these voices -- however confusing, contrary
and unsettling those answers might be.”

She believes words like ‘Western’, ‘Indian’, ‘secular’, ‘pseudo-secular’ are tired catchwords today. “Can we find a less fearful way to respond to uncertainty? Can we live with fewer recipes, formulae, diktats? Can we be secure enough about our Indianness, our masculinity or our femininity, to explore it? To not feel the need to resort to dogmatic definitions of it?

These are vital questions to ask ourselves, I think. These are reactive times, but also times of ferment. And we’re also hearing many voices of sanity and reason today -- many of which happen to be women’s voices. So I think there’s reason to be hopeful too,” she says. On that hopeful note, Happy Mother’s Day once again!  

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