Activists display placards during a protest over the Varnika Kundu stalking case in Chandigarh on Wednesday. The two accused were arrested on Thursday. Pic/PTI
I, like millions of other Indians, don't expect signs of empathy from politicians. This may come as a surprise to foreigners, who are unaware of the fact that our system is so broken that no one with integrity, education, or common sense stands a chance of winning an election unless he or she is backed by a political party with dubious sources of funds at its disposal. That is a topic for another day though. The reason I opened with that reference to a lack of empathy from people in power is what a minister from Haryana said a few days ago in the wake of the attempted kidnapping of a woman in a neighbouring city. 'What was she doing out so late, anyway?' he asked. 'Girls shouldn't be allowed to step out at those hours if they want to stay safe.' And no, he wasn't joking.
Naturally, a whole lot of people were outraged on Facebook and Twitter, forgetting that most ministers don't understand a word of anything said on these platforms. This is a common refrain from men - always men, for reasons known only to sociologists who ought to commission a study - who routinely counter accusations of harassment from women across the country with their own inane questions: Why do they have to go out late? Why do they wear short skirts? Why do they visit pubs? These questions are never directed towards members of their own sex, who should be asked why they can't walk past a woman without treating her like an object, or why their parents didn't teach them to behave like gentlemen instead of animals.
It's easy to attack North India for its sexual repression, regression, and testosterone-fuelled churlishness, but I find it hypocritical when millions of Bombayites display the same attitudes towards women. Check your building society, for a start. How comfortable are you or your neighbours with leasing out space to single women? How often do members of your society raise the issue of single people at your annual meetings? Do they empathise with single women and allow them to rent an apartment with no restrictions on who can visit them? If they don't, they are part of the problem.
Take a look at how women are treated on your street. Look at how the men in your locality react to any woman who isn't covered from head to toe. Do they accord her respect? Do they stare? Do they have anything to say about the woman, within or out of earshot? If they do, they are part of the problem.
Consider the school you send your child to. What messages are disseminated there? Do teachers encourage girls to wear what they like and behave any way they like? Do they have different rules for boys and girls that somehow negate the possibility of an egalitarian approach to education?
If they do, they are part of the problem.
Walk into your nearest police station. Sit around if you can, and watch how many women enter to file a complaint of any kind. If you don't find too many, don't assume it's because women in your city live a happy life far from harassment. Simply browse through your daily newspaper's archives online to find out how women are repeatedly demeaned, thwarted and denied justice, despite the laws on their side, all of which are ignored when confronted with an ugly patriarchal system that refuses to listen to them.
Look at how women are treated online, the minute they raise an issue, complain about neighbours who intrude upon their personal space, or post a picture of someone harassing them on the street. For every voice of support, they are subject to two of anger and denial, blaming them for things they have no control over. For every man who urges a woman to fight on, there are two talking about false complaints and media trials.
The young woman in Haryana was stalked by a bunch of men with political connections. They may or may not get away with it. Let's not brush aside the fact that thousands of women are harassed on our streets daily though, and not by powerful men.
There are daily trials every woman in this city goes through, the minute she steps out of the safety of her home, irrespective of where it is. Ask a female friend of yours about the last time she was harassed in some way on the streets of Bombay. Her answer may surprise you.
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira. Send your feedback to email@example.com
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