Nothing ‘natural’ about it

Published: September 17, 2010 - 13:36 Updated: September 17, 2010 - 13:38

Violence against women is rooted deep in the way girls are brought up to become 'women' and boys are made into 'men'
Shaweta Anand Delhi 

That women are not treated with dignity unless they shout from rooftops is to say the least. Women often find that they are treated as non-intellectual objects meant to entertain men at workplaces, perhaps so that the latter can perform better in a competitive, aggressive environment. Many office-going, educated women complain about not being treated in their day-to-day dealings with men in public and private spaces as human beings with intellect and their own subjectivity.

Talking about the subtle violence against women in media offices, Smriti Singh (name changed), a media professional who has worked for at least three Indian TV channels in the last ten years, says: "We often find the camera men or their assistants desperate to put the lapel mike (small microphone wired from under the clothes) on women celebrities or news reporters, just for that ever-so-slight touch of pleasure while adjusting the wires. Sometimes other male co-workers in the studio wait through the process to see if the woman's cleavage would get accidentally revealed, even for a fleeting moment. And then this becomes the staple of the men's gossip sessions, which get more graphic and enjoyable, but only for them."   

Even walking the city streets alone can make a woman feel very unsafe. "No matter what I wear, men ogle at me. When I was in school, I stopped walking to tuition classes alone because boys on bikes would ride past making kissing sounds. It became very annoying and a constant source of anxiety for me," shares Vidhi Choudhary, a student from the Centre for Media Studies.

"I HAVE A car now, so I feel much safer when I travel," she adds. But a far greater number of women have to depend on public transport. "Travelling in buses is such a nightmare. During monsoons, even metro travel has become so unpleasant. Someone or the other is always on the lookout for that split second when he can touch a woman's private parts as it is easy to blame the overcrowding when confronted," says Savita Sindhu, a Delhi University student. 

So what do women do when they are harassed? "Some stay silent and ignore troublesome men while others choose to confront them. Either way, we should not let our work get affected," says Choudhary. 

Even the relatively progressive Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) is not free of incidents of harassment of women. "Physical mobility gets restricted for most girls once they are out of the JNU campus. However, even within the campus we keep getting cases of violence ranging from mental to physical torture faced by women despite being in consensual relationships, and even after marriage," says Akanksha Kumar, former student representative of the JNU's Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH), a pioneering institution that acknowledges and punishes harassers on campus, both men or women, after a rigorous formal enquiry and fact-finding process. 

"At least three recent cases of violence faced by girl students from their male teachers have come to light. The power dynamics in such cases come into play much more strongly. If the girls speak up, they might lose out on grades, but if they don't, they will certainly lose their self-esteem. Understandably, speaking up is a difficult choice at this point, but a few women do make that choice," says Kumar. 

With a patriarchal set-up,restrictions on women start from childhood itself and gradually get extended to higher institutes of learning or work spaces as well, as if restricting and silencing women is the most 'natural' thing to do," explains Akhila Singh, a Delhi-based women's activist. From the clothes they wear to how 'gracefully' they should walk and talk, who they can speak with, how many hours they can spend out of home - limitations on women cover almost everything under the sun. Of course, depending on where they are located - for instance, whether in the rural or urban set-up - the restrictions (and the violence or suppression if they resist) can take various forms.

Indeed, killing of couples-in-love reveals an all-time low in levels of misogyny - as if female foeticide, infanticide, high levels of anaemia and malnutrition in women weren't enough of social problems based on deep-seated discrimination against women. Ninety per cent of the times, it is the girl's family that attacks the duo as their 'honour' gets violated when she chooses to fall in love and decides to marry a man outside set social norms. This was one of the findings of a study conducted by National Commission for Women in 2009 with help from Shakti Vahini, an NGO.

Advocate Renu Mishra, who has been relentlessly fighting for women's rights in Lucknow for the past decade, gives an interesting depiction of the subtlety in the working of patriarchal norms. She says, "If a girl straightens her spine and walks briskly with her eyes meeting the eyes of the passers-by, without her shoulders drooping an inch, she is immediately 'corrected' by someone in the family and asked to walk demurely, head bent downwards, to be a 'decent' girl. But  if a man walks hesitantly, with his eyes on his feet, he's instantly reprimanded and asked to 'become a man' by fearlessly looking up into the eyes of people as he walks on the street." 
It is from here that the difference in socialisation begins. 

Being fearful thus becomes a desired feminine trait, but 'boys become men' as they turn aggressive. "But in police stations and courts, women are generally asked why didn't they fight back or resist the perpetrator hard enough. How can anyone sane expect women to fight back or strongly resist a man when all they are taught from childhood is to stay quiet and submit to them?" rues Mishra.
"For thousands of years, women have been trapped inside homes. Today, a large number of them have chosen to move out of the domestic sphere with vigour and determination. This effort to change the status-quo by questioning male domination in every possible way is being met with rising rates of crime against women," says Albeena Shakil, member of All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA).

The Delhi Human Development Report 2006 published by the Delhi government, in a section devoted to crime against women and safety, points to the alarming rise in the rate of crime against women in the capital. Adverse female-to-male ratio, high levels of rapes, sexual harassment, domestic violence etc make Delhi a very hostile and unfriendly city for women. 

According to the 'Safe Cities Baseline Survey', whose findings were released in July 2010 by Kiran Walia, state minister for health and family welfare, violence against women is quite 'normalised' in the city. A large number of women live in a constant state of anxiety when out of home. However, as the National Crime Records Bureau data shows, this heightened state of discomfort is not a Delhi-specific phenomenon.

It is one thing to dig out studies and surveys to say how terrible this male-dominated society is. It is quite another to survive this suffocating system and to involve men as well in the process.

"Often men don't know how to help and have to be told how to do so without confrontation with the perpetrator," remarks Dr Suraiya Baluch, director of Princeton University's Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resource and Education (SHARE) programme. Speaking at an event organised by GSCASH in JNU, Baluch acknowledged high levels of violence against women in the US and discussed community-level solutions that seek to involve everyone, especially bystanders, in stopping acts of harassment of women. 
In a similar vein, Ruchi Sinha, Chairperson, Centre for Criminology and Justice, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, says it is not feasible for women alone to deal with the high rates of crime against them. For instance, all-women police stations were earlier sought as havens of justice for female victims of violence since policemen don't take their complaints seriously. But the actual experience in states like Orissa and Tamil Nadu showed that women police officers end up being heavy-handed or indiscriminate, promoting the very stereotypes they were meant to break. Indeed, violence against women cries out for an all-inclusive approach, which doesn't shrink from looking beyond merely legal solutions.

Violence against women is rooted deep in the way girls are brought up to become ‘women’ and boys are made into ‘men’
Shaweta Anand Delhi

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