The challenge before us is: after all the public transport in our cities is fitted with GPS systems and CCTVs, all the tinted film removed, all drivers, conductors and cleaners screened, and all PCR vans are on 24-hour alert, how do we neutralise the cultures of masculinism that are bred in our families, stalk our streets?
Ritu Menon Delhi
WAKE UP INDIA! SHE’S DEAD
– Hoarding on the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway
Everyone now knows who “she” is. They also know she’s been done to death. Yet, whoever put up the hoarding felt an urgent need to make a public statement, combining a fact with a warning — or, at least, an alert.
An unprecedented — and completely unexpected — outpouring of anger and grief at the brutal rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi did, it seems, force people who had eyes wide shut, to open them. To look around and see what can happen if you avert your face, close your eyes, turn a deaf ear and still your conscience to the escalating, screaming, horrific violence all around us, a violence for which women, in particular, are such easy prey.
It is shocking, but not surprising, that men like RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, Asaram Bapu and Abhijit Mukherjee say and believe what they do, but it is shocking and disgraceful that not one of our political leaders, male or female, reprimanded them publicly and condemned them for their shameful utterances. And it is shocking and inexcusable that the sarvakhap panchayat, representing 67 khaps, can tell the Supreme Court that it is desirable to amend the Hindu Marriage Act and disallow same gotra marriages so as to avoid ‘honour’ killings. It is no surprise, then, that Prakash Dhankar, Haryana’s sarvakhap co-ordinator, claims that female foeticide takes place “because parents do not want their daughters to grow up and get raped”. By that logic, though, might it not make more sense to abort male foetuses and eliminate the possibility of rape at source?
For at least a couple of decades now, the women’s movement in India and a host of other organisations and activists have been warning us about the dramatic increase in the scale and forms of violence against women in the country. There is any amount of statistical corroboration of this trend, not all of it explained by the fact that more women are coming forward to report such violence. For roughly the same length of time, activists, lawyers and academics have organised trainings, held workshops and conducted scores of gender sensitisation sessions with the police, judiciary, bureaucrats, corporates, NGOs — you name it. At the end of which you have justices of high courts saying a little bit of wife-beating is part of marriage, and assorted police officers — why, even our MPs — defending the khaps for not being “directly involved” in ‘honour’ killings. That the khaps, through their diktats, are usurping the justice-dispensing function of the State, often passes without comment.
Women are venturing out too far into the public, say many, including women who are heads of commissions for women; they should be mindful of how far they can go without attracting violence. Women are breaking free of old constraints, say others, displaying their bodies (in public, naturally) and indulging in indecent behaviour. Talking on mobile phones, wearing jeans, holding hands with men.
Implicit in these strictures are the following: that if women wish to enter the public sphere they must behave (in other words, abide by the same codes that are laid down for them in the private domain); and more importantly, that public spaces cannot be secured and made safe for them. Nor should they expect this; rather, if they choose to flout the norms and defy social and familial codes, they should expect to be attacked.
It is extraordinary that no serious suggestion is ever made to restrain many men’s propensity to violate public spaces, or to impose codes of conduct on them, either in private or in public.
The thousands who came out on the streets in protest in response to the gangrape and who have continued to do so for a whole month, were registering not only their outrage and their refusal to be silent, they were reclaiming the street, the chowk, the mall, the community centre, the restaurant, pub and cinema hall, and demanding that it be made safe for each and every one of us.
What to wear, whom to associate with, how to communicate, acceptable and unacceptable behaviour (smoking and drinking in public are considered a slur on a woman’s character), they become the yardstick by which she is judged – or assumed to be fair game
Herein lies the paradox for women. The more they enter the public domain and claim their rightful place in it, the more these spaces begin to shrink as safe spaces. The street. The bus or Metro. The office. The police station. The university. Even the court room, if they are violated in it verbally via innuendo and insinuation. The panchayat ghar, the political arena, the boardroom, the newspaper office.
The Supreme Court of India would not have had to issue a stringent set of guidelines regarding sexual harassment at the workplace were this not a common, everyday experience for many women. In effect, public spaces for women are often simply an extension of the private, the difference being that now instead of being policed only by the men in their families they are policed by a whole community of men, all of them strangers. That, in addition to being dealt with violently by their kinsmen, they are vulnerable to violence by any man because the public space has become, more or less, the private property of the aggressive, violently-inclined male.
The six men who raped and murdered the 23-year-old paramedic in Delhi had both the opportunity to do so, and the confidence of impunity from the law, precisely because of this unwritten, unspoken consensus around the violability of women and, equally, the violability of public spaces, whose protection is observed more in the breach than otherwise. They were quite sure they would get away with it, like hundreds of others who have committed the same crime — and they almost did. (In Delhi itself, over 40 rapes have been reported in the weeks since December 16, 2012; and 2012 registered a 24 per cent increase over 2011 in the number of cases reported: 706.)
Underlying aggressive masculinities that face very little restraint in progressing to violence is a secure structure of patriarchal privilege and control; one might even say that maintaining this control and privilege almost depends on a certain amount of violence in order to ensure submission. Contemporary patriarchies also depend on the consent of women (thus, the female chairpersons of various commissions who subscribe to patriarchal norms), and on ideologies that legitimise such violence (judges of courts who see domestic violence as normal).
An unprecedented outpouring of anger and grief did, it seems, force people who had eyes wide shut, to open them. To look around and see what can happen if you avert your face, close your eyes, turn a deaf ear and still your conscience to the screaming, horrific violence all around us, a violence for which women, in particular, are such easy prey
This legitimacy extends to State institutions, including the police and armed forces, among whom custodial rape and sexual violence against women in situations of armed conflict are fairly common. They too, enjoy impunity, as anyone who has tried to bring them to book knows. The links between masculinism and militarism, masculinism and sport, masculinism and machismo are manifest and pervasive, so much so that they have been internalised by us all.
What we are seeing today is a strongly resurgent patriarchy striving to reinforce a culture of masculinism in the face of women’s nascent independence and mobility, and their presence in public spaces. In the absence of a public culture of civility, sociality and safety, domestic codes of conduct for women begin to operate outside the home as well. What to wear, whom to associate with, how to communicate, acceptable and unacceptable behaviour (smoking and drinking in public are still considered a slur on a woman’s character), not only regulate a woman’s public presence, they also become the yardstick by which she is judged — or assumed to be fair game.
Why else do our judges and courts still take a woman’s “behaviour” into account when hearing evidence in rape trials, when common sense demands that it should be the rapist’s conduct and “character” that are called into question?
Cultures of masculinism find exuberant and applauding support not just from retrograde khaps and clerics but from many in our media who simultaneously commodify women as objects of male fantasy and desire, and encourage a covert conservatism-via-consumerism. Thus, women must certainly be made to participate in the country’s social and economic life, but never in such a way that their participation threatens the status quo. Relations between men and women — what the early feminists called “sexual politics” — must still take patriarchal masculinism as their founding principle; and if safeguarding the status quo and preserving patriarchal privilege require a little violence, so be it, it has tacit social sanction.
Prakash Dhankar, Haryana’s sarvakhap co-ordinator, claims that female foeticide takes place ‘because parents do not want their daughters to grow up and get raped’. By that logic, might it not make more sense to abort male foetuses and eliminate the possibility of rape at source?
The challenge and question before us, then, is: after all the public transport in our cities is fitted with GPS systems and CCTVs, and all the tinted film removed, and all drivers, conductors and cleaners screened, and all PCR vans are on 24-hour alert for women and so on, how do we neutralise the cultures of masculinism that are bred in our families, stalk our streets, and pervade the very institutions that we turn to for redress?
Ritu Menon is a feminist writer and publisher (Women Unlimited), and co-author of Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (with Kamla Bhasin), published by Kali for