The cauldron has been simmering since Susie Shah took over as chairman of the Maharashtra State Commission for Women, early in January 2014. She came in at a time when women’s issues evoked angry, impassioned reactions as media was rife with reports of sexual violence.
A rally at Lokmanya Tilak Terminus to seek justice for the murder of Esther Anuhya, whose body was found in a swamp next to the highway on the city’s outskirts
The Nirbhaya rape case in 2012 acted as catalyst for people’s anger and frustration at increasing violence against women. Then, the Shakti Mills rape case blew away Mumbai’s image as a safe city for women. Writer Suketu Mehta’s ‘Maximum City’ was shaken out of its complacency and forced to hold a mirror to itself.
Susie Shah at her office in Bandra. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Post both those high-profile cases, the violence has continued in sexual as well as in different ways. Shamefully, the consistency of attacks on women has resulted in India taking a battering internationally too. Numerous politicians have put their foot in their mouth when it comes to making statements about women and violence.
A protest rally against molestation of women in Bandra where students were dressed as anti-heroes
Recently, Dr Asha Mirge, associated with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and part of the Commission for Women, created a storm with her remarks at a party meet in Nagpur where she stated that the, 'Delhi student who was fatally gang-raped on a moving bus should not have been out late at night watching a movie.
Protests against the violence have taken various creative forms
The photographer gang-raped while shooting a deserted mill in the heart of Mumbai placed herself in danger.' She later apologised for her comments. Shah clarified that it was Mirge’s personal view, not that of the Commission. Here, in an interview at her office in the MHADA headquarters at Kalanagar in Bandra (E), Shah seemed irked at the media’s constant spotlight on what she claimed are the negatives, instead of highlighting the work that has been done.
Q: You took over at a challenging time...
Shah: I took over on January 2, this year. It was a tough juncture, coming in at a time when the country was and is still debating and simmering over a number of issues. There is a lot of anger even now, but the media needs to focus on the positives too.
Q: What positives are these, could you spell something out?
Shah: In January itself, we got cracking on a number of pending cases which needed to be tackled urgently. We (the Commission or Mahila Ahyog) held a public hearing in the city, where women were told to come in and we tried to solve several pending cases, with reference to domestic violence, property disputes, divorce and other issues. We had lawyers also present at the venue and we disposed of several cases. It was a concerted effort which called for different arms - legal aid, protection officers, counselling... we saw off old cases and had 80 new applications, in two days’ time.
Q: What did you gauge from the pattern of violence, especially domestic violence? Does it affect a particular social strata or class?
Shah: Unfortunately, it is across the board, in slums and in Mumbai’s plushest towers. It is prevalent amongst the upper middle class and the rich class too. In fact, in the lower classes, many times, the woman is the sole bread winner, so she may not put up with the man’s bu..sh.. but in the elite class, it may not be so. In fact, there, women are more constrained to voice the abuse suffered and there is social prestige too. There is no doubt though that rich women too are battered black, blue and purple in certain homes.
Q: The Nirbhaya rape case resulted in demonstrations and protests. What do you think about the 17-year-old boy involved in the rape? There is debate about the Juvenile Act...
Shah: I think punishment should be commensurate with the crime. At 17, it is not that you do not know what you are doing and if we need to re-examine the Juvenile Act, so be it. He should be punished in proportion, for this was a brutal, heinous crime and he is 17, a young adult with a sick mind. Recently I saw a six-month-old baby girl who had been violated by a 17-year-old boy. Again, this was sick. How can they (the 17-year-olds) get away?
Q: The Shakti Mills rape case shattered the image of Mumbai as a relatively safe city for women...
Shah: I would say that women have to be just a little aware and cautious about their surroundings wherever they go. Also, one should not have a false sense of security if accompanied by a male colleague. Once again, punishment has to be in proportion to the absolutely heinous nature of these crimes.
Q: What do you think about Tarun Tejpal and the case which put the spotlight on sexual harassment at the workplace?
Shah: (did not comment directly on Tarun Tejpal). In sexual harassment cases, many times, we see that ‘male bonding’ takes place at a workplace. While this may not always be the case always, one does see it happening. It is important that women speak up; don’t let this shut you up, speak up and tell us (the Commission) if you feel you have nowhere to go.
Q: You have been accused of ‘going slow’ or not doing enough in a case of sexual harassment at the workplace involving a corporate, at a time when you were not the chairman of this Commission...
Shah: (looks irritated at the question). There is no merit to this. At that time, KPMG had set up a committee to look into the matter and I was part of that. I have replied to all charges and there is no inquiry against me. No court has any charge against me and there was no justification, delay, nor was I ever biased. I have also spoken to the Chief Minister (CM) with reference to these allegations.
Q: There is growing belief that the ‘mindset’ of people has to change...
Shah: The mind is moulded at a very young age, and stereotypes too have to be broken. Often, in families we see that the daughter is given a ‘deadline’ by parents, by which time she must return home, while the son is free to be out as long as he pleases. There must be equality. School textbooks for young children have illustrations showing the girl cooking or helping her mother in the kitchen, while the boy is playing cricket. Why can’t it be the other way around? Breaking gender stereotypes should begin very early.
Q: Internationally, India’s image has taken a battering with a spate of attacks on foreign women, especially white tourists...
Shah: Recently, a mentally challenged man attacked a white woman here. But, I think we still suffer from a colonial hangover in a way, all those fairness creams... we (the Mahila Ahyog) is going to become much more visible now. Have our billboards at public places where women know they have recourse to us, if in need. A foreigner may feel more comfortable approaching us, rather than a police station if harassed. We can call the police here (to the Commission’s Bandra office).
Q: You pioneered a private cab facility with women drivers called Priyadarshini. We have heard of women complaining that male passengers force them to ply to lonely spots at night, and there is some harassment...
Shah: These cabs are fitted with GPS and they also have a ‘panic’ button which the driver has access to, in case of trouble. Complaints may have come in but they were very few. Now, I have ‘bid’ for permits for women drivers for public cabs too. I think that the more women there are on the road, the safer the roads are for women.
Q: Some women have been accused of fabricating complaints against men and misusing the law to their advantage. Some politicians have claimed that men are now scared even to talk to women...
Shah: These are very few and far between. One needs to look at the larger picture and there is no doubt that women are being harassed and battered in many instances. The need of the hour is to uphold and maintain the dignity of women. Male politicians are entitled to their views, but, we have to think about the larger good of society.
Cases of crimes against women
>> The 2012 Delhi gang rape case also known as the Nirbhaya case involved the rape and murder of a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern which occurred on December 16, 2012. The intern was beaten and gangraped by six men, in a private bus. The woman died from her injuries in Singapore. All the accused were arrested and charged with sexual assault and murder. One of the accused, Ram Singh, died in police custody, the juvenile was given the maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. The four remaining adult defendants were sentenced to death by hanging.
>> On August 9 2012, a woman lawyer was found murdered at her Himalayan Heights residence in Bhakti Park area of Wadala, in Mumbai. The watchman, Sajjad Ahmed Mughal, entered the lawyer’s home with stolen keys. Once inside, he tried to force himself upon her and when she resisted, the watchman slashed her throat and stabbed her repeatedly. This 25-year-old daughter of an IRS officer died soon after.
>> The body of a 23-year-old software engineer, who had gone missing after returning to the city after her Christmas break, was found in Bhandup on January 16, 2014. The post-mortem revealed that the woman was raped before being murdered though now this seems mired in controversy. She worked with TCS as a software engineer and lived in Andheri.
>> A French woman tourist was attacked by a drug addict in Mumbai at Fort recently. The attacker tried to snatch her purse but when she resisted, he punched her in the face several times. She was rushed to St George Hospital. The attacker was caught by local residents and handed over to the police.