“They dragged her to the road by her hair, tried to rip off her clothes and smiled at the cameras that filmed it all.” “He threw acid on her, aiming at her vagina and abdomen.” “Man who put ‘chastity lock on wife gets 10 years in jail.” “A 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern was beaten and gang raped in a moving bus while travelling with her male friend.” The headlines are endless. News covering issues of sexual and physical abuse towards women in India have been highlighted on almost every national and international platform striking compelling debate. The Nirbhaya Rape Case that took place in the country’s capital was one of those many disasters that unleased the storm. The public’s rage towards the whole ordeal was seen in the form of several protests with banners mentioning, ‘don’t tell me how to dress, tell them NOT to rape,’ the law was questioned and law enforcement as well as the Members of Parliament were interrogated with stringent leeway. With its steep rise in crimes against women, India has made it to the top of the charts as the “worst place to be a woman.”
The Indian society is known for its extensive diversity and strong cultural values. However, embedded in these traditions and values are key ideas that explicitly diminish the strength and purpose of a woman – Indian women in particular – thus significantly reshaping the idea of feminism in an Indian society. The ‘Mahabharat,’ a great Sanskrit epic, identifies a female character by the name of Draupadi. Although Draupadi played an integral part in the grand scheme of things, in a nutshell, she was born unasked by her father. As a result, she was stripped off any kind of joy and deprived of honour and respect as a wife and mother. Due to certain circumstances, Draupadi was coerced into marrying five men, all of whom were brothers. One of her five husbands lost her in a bet along with many of his other fortunes. She was also ridiculed in front of a room full of courtiers and almost ruthlessly disrobed. I say ‘almost’ because she was ultimately saved by divine intervention. Much of her misfortunes were blatantly blamed on her own ‘unparalleled’ beauty and intelligence. Within much of the epic, Draupadi was portrayed as a victim of circumstance who had absolutely no control over the situation. In the ‘Ramayan’, another great Sanskrit epic, Sita similar to Draupadi, was objectified and handed over as a prize won in a contest (known as Swayamvar); she was abducted and struggled to maintain her chastity during her detainment. Apart from these instances, Indian Mythology placed women on a pedestal that was deemed much superior to men. (Note the irony) However, interestingly enough mythologies such as the Mahabharat and Ramayan have exhibited that masculine power is derived from that of women. Both epics, eventually, deduced the idea that kings and their provinces were completely wiped out because they wronged a woman.
Furthermore, according to Hindu custom female Goddesses are worshiped with grandiosity yet all the institutions within the society not only fail to protect women, but also blame them for these happenings. The editor of an Assamese Women’s Magazine ‘Nandini’, Maini Mahanta claims that tradition, for the most part, still moulds women into “helpless victims” rather than “free-thinking individuals who are in control of their own destiny,” much like a modern day ‘Draupadi’. She goes on to state that events like Raksha Bandhan – the festival where a girl ties a safety thread around her brother’s wrist – signifies a brother’s duty to protect his sister and ancient scriptures such as the ‘Manu Sanghita’ form boundaries dictated by patriarchs that under no cost are to be surpassed by women. Therefore, from the time of birth women are burdened with the obligation to conform to a traditional way of behaving and a conservative way of donning themselves. Kavita Krishnan, a prominent women’s activist and Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), affirms, “there is clearly some anxiety all over the world among policy makers about how to re-persuade women to be “real” women – to go back to their traditional docile roles even as they become more empowered.”
Women here have found themselves in the midst of a hostile divide between traditional and modern ways of thinking. Mamta Sharma, chairwomen of the National Commission of Women (NCW) a statutory body formed by the provisions of the Indian Constitution that works towards promoting and protecting the interests of women within the Indian society, aroused a great deal of controversy when she released a statement to The Indian Express mentioning, “After 64 years of freedom, it is not right to give blanket directions… and say don’t wear this or don’t wear that. Be comfortable, but at the same time, be careful about how you dress… aping the west blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen.” Sharma’s flagrant remark instigated a response from Sagarika Ghose, an Indian journalist and News Anchor, “It is not about blindly aping the west, Ms Sharma. It’s also about the vacuum in the law, lack of security at leisure spots, lack of gender justice, lack of fear of law, police and judicial apathy and the complete lack of awareness that men and women have the right to enjoy exactly the same kind of leisure activities.” There is no doubt that the nature of the crimes that occur within a public arena are in fact utterly horrendous, however, the most pervasive forms of sexual assault are often done by close kin in private spaces. Sanjay Srivastava, a professor in Sociology, claims, “our public places are unsafe, but they are not really as unsafe as our private ones. The latter are unsafe because of an almost watertight contract written in the language of trust, honour and tradition. It is a contract between different members of the family the powerful and the powerless to maintain the sanctity of the ‘Indian family’ and traditions at all costs.” He goes on to mention, “Historians and sociologists describe it as the most unique aspect of Indian life, politicians sing its praises, movies and TV soaps extol its virtues, and Indians reprimand westerners with figures about the low divorce rate and the rock solid nature of the Indian family as compared to the western one.” So why is it that a society that prides itself on strong values and family ties continue to tolerate and at times even actively participate in crimes against women at home and in the wider society?
The horrific and outright shocking event of 16th December became a catalyst for legal change. The public alongside the media pressured the Indian government into making certain amendments within the law that would enforce the security of women in society. Under the refined version of the law tougher penalties were set for non-sexual, but gender-related acid attacks on women. New offences such as stalking and voyeurism were also incorporated. Convicted rapists were said to face a minimum sentence of 20 years to life and would only be sentenced with the death penalty if the victim were to die from the injuries caused or left in a vegetative state. However, this law too is not free from its setbacks. Although it reduces the age of consent from 18 to 16, it denoted that the rape of a “married” child between 15 and 18, similar to a married adult, would still be considered legal. Nilanjana Roy, a leading commentator and novelist, believes this is because many people within the Indian society do not regard marital rape as a crime. Karuna Nundy, member of the New York Bar and practitioner at Supreme Court of India, suggests that one of the reasons crimes towards women has catapulted is because the country has one of the lowest number of judges and police in proportion to its population. She also states, “Failures to convict rapists are due to institutionalized misogyny to some degree, but they’re also due to insufficient competence of police and prosecutors.”
Not too long ago, chief of Samajwadi Party, Mulayum Singh Yadav allegedly stated at an election rally in Moradabad district of northern Uttar Pradesh, “handing death sentence for rape is not fair… boys make mistakes… there will be changes in the law if we come to power.” Although, Mr. Yadav’s comment reeked of male chauvinism, the reality is that his thoughts are represented by a particular sector of society. Nevertheless, Mr. Yadav does not have the authority to make any assurances on changing the law. One of India’s leading newspapers, The Times of India wrote, “Even by his misogynistic standards, he seems to have sunk to a new low… The change in the laws was brought on after months of selfless demonstration by citizens striving to bring about a change in India’s social outlook by terming rape as ‘just another mistake boys make’, Mulayam has just rendered a slap in the face of their efforts.”
A vast majority of crimes on women have gone unreported, primarily because the attackers do not see their actions as a crime. The perpetrators operate on the hunch that the victim won’t report the abuse to the authorities because they would undergo an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt. The violence and sexual assault that occurs within the family is less reported, as members within the family believe that the victim’s pain should be sacrificed in the name of “collective honour.” Neeraj Kumar, a former commissioner of Delhi Police, revealed, “if you look at the data, in 97% of rape cases in India, the perpetrator is known to the victim. These are opportunistic crimes. The question of the police preventing these rapes does not arise. You cannot go into people’s bedrooms and houses.” Contrary to Karuna Nundy’s statement he adds, “Just putting more policemen on the roads will not help matters. Delhi has over 80,000 policemen but simply expanding the force will not necessarily help curb rape.”
The major expansion in India’s service sector paved a new era for women in the workforce. The economic overhauls of the early 1990s leveraged a 60 percent expansion in India’s gross domestic product causing millions of Indian women to be recruited. Girls were beginning to outshine boy in all fields. This breakthrough for women not only raised anxiety for most men, but also drastically increased levels of vulnerability for women. All throughout India, women began to feel susceptible to attack from a growing number of unattached and unemployed men who viewed women’s success as a reason for their failure. Philip Zimbardo, a well-known psychologist and writer of the novel “The Demise of Guys,” claims the reason boys are being outperformed by girls is because boys prefer the ‘asynchronistic internet world’ as opposed to the spontaneous interactions in social relationships. Zimbardo claims that excessive Internet use enticed with easy access to pornography are “arousal addictions” that enable boys brains to be digitally rewired for novelty and excitement causing them to be ‘totally out of sync in traditional classes and romantic relationship that build gradually and subtly.’ Surprisingly, the industry even supplies it. The demand for “item songs” and roles were women play the damsel in distress are significantly high in the Indian Cinema as that is what receives the most commercial gain. The Bollywood industry has just started breaking through the mould by experimenting with stronger female characters.
The increase in rapes is not a condition produced by economic circumstances nor is it the poor that are more likely to commit such crimes; it is a mixture of factors. Even though India has been listed as the “worst country to be a woman,” lets face it, crimes against women are happening all over the globe. The incident in Steubenville, Ohio where high school football players were accused of repeatedly raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl after she was lugged from one party to another, prompted a comment in New York Times titled “Is Delhi So Different From Steubenville?” In the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than 400,000 women are raped each year while in Somalia female genital mutilation is relatively more widespread. Therefore, crimes towards women are not a country specific issue, rather it is a global issue that should be taken a lot more seriously by all institutions within the society. Stereotyping women, blaming the victim and trying to figure out if she was the one who invited the rape is not a solution. Calling gender violence a women’s issue gives men an excuse not to pay attention. Martin Luther King famously said, “In the end what will hurt the most is not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” The Bystander Approach, devised by Jackson Katz, deals with exactly that – our relentless silence and the role of our peers. In this approach, staying silent is seen as a form of consent and complicity. This concept revolutionizes the purpose of a society by empowering members within it to create a peer culture where abusive behaviour is seen as not just illegal, but also unacceptable. Men and boys who act out in strident and sexist ways lose status amongst their peers and other members of society. This approach is supposed to be put in play at all times and not just when crimes against women reach its pinnacle.
Welcome to the age of ‘The Rise’
The horrific crime that took place on 16th December sparked a firestorm of protests. The incident not only touched the lives of many, but also encouraged India’s restless and increasingly assertive youth to rise against the abuse occurring towards women within the country. School and college students have been organising and actively participating in educating their local communities on issues around discrimination and abuse towards women. Rise Mumbai was one such event that helped educate and awaken other members within society to the harsh realities of physical and sexual abuse that Indian women encounter. Led by a team of diligent students from Podar College of Commerce and Economics, the event took three and half months to execute. Their relentless effort and dedication towards organising an event fully dedicated to the security of women in India is what got me hell bent on writing this article. When asked what inspired them to rise against such issues they responded, “Like every other ordinary Mumbaikar we never gave too much thought to doing anything for society. But this changed one day when a female friend of ours felt insecure at night at a railway station even when she had two guys with her to drop her off. This incident made us think and UNLIKE any other ordinary Mumbaikar instead of waiting for something terrible to happen, we decided to be proactive and work for women’s safety in Mumbai.” Managing an event such as Rise brought its own set of challenges. The students’ drive to create a positive change in society was constantly tested; unfortunately not everyone could set himself or herself to the task. However, the group of students that did managed to successfully juggle all their responsibilities to make Rise a dream come true. The kind of educational tools and skills shared by team Rise was an effective way to provoke thought and strike a gripping discussion. With hosting a one-day event like Rise, the drawback is that most people tend to gradually forget about it all. Nonetheless, team Rise say they have it all planned out. They aspire to hold monthly workshops in schools as well as organize a city-wide campaign to educate individuals about physical and sexual abuse towards women, the downsides of corruption and so on. They say, “We realise change is not something that comes in a day or two. It may take a year or a thousand years. All we aimed to do is give a start, make people think. To show the world that the youth can be responsible and to tell the youth that it is ‘cool’ to be good.” But like with any event, financial backing is mandatory. All assistance/volunteers and sponsorship would be greatly appreciated.
RISE is a campaign initiated to make Mumbai a better place for women. It aims at eliminating any gender-based violence against women, especially rape.
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