-- By Kuldip Nayar
Murder against women is now committed with impunity - for protest against
forced marriage, merely being alone with a man, a glance which may be
misconstrued to indicate anything other than an innocent relationship.
Then there is "bride-burning". Human Rights organisations and
women's bodies are more or less helpless. This sounds like a report from
some part of India. But this is a dispatch from Pakistan, "where
crimes against women are rising alarmingly".
The reason given is that "the prosecution rate is negligible and
the men know they can get away with it". How similar is the scenario
in our country! Once in a while there is a serious discussion as happened
recently when a medical student was raped a few yards from her college
in New Delhi police headquarters. Parliament was also worked up. The Union
Home Minister, L.K. Advani, lent his voice to the demand for death penalty
to rapists. Newspapers wrote editorials on the helplessness of women.
But as the noise died down, the issue of crimes against women receded
into the background.
The government has made amendments to the decades-old law to see that
the victims of rape are not humiliated in court by the arguments that
the defence offers. Indeed, it is a rape committed all over again in the
open court. But what the bill offers is too little too late. The entire
exercise lacks the response the situation demands. NGOs in India have
continued to focus attention no rape or bride-burning. But why have they
failed to arouse society? Is it because it has been brutalised for such
a long period that it has lost the feeling of hurt? After seeing rapists
and murderers go scot-free, people have, indeed, become cynical. Nothing
shocks them anymore. Society has become insensitive. How to stir its conscience
again is the problem facing us.
Women in the countryside are not even aware of their legal rights. But
even those who know the law find that even the most horrifying cases take
a strange twist by the time they come up for trial. There is some loophole
somewhere that helps the culprits. Society does not get us angry as it
does on the matter of religion or castes. Wrongs against women fail to
evoke indignation even among women. They are too tied to wrong traditions
and too used to suffering.
They show all the traits of a patriarchal society where women are often
little more than slaves.
One does not have to go back very far. A year ago we faced a crisis over
the filming of the plight of widows in Varanasi. Society was not worried
that their lives were worse than death but got angry when their plight
was sought to be narrated through a film. People who at that time said
they would force the Government to improve the lot of the widows are nowhere
to be seen now. The matter was forgotten as soon as the producer abandoned
the project. Why women have to pay the price for male chauvinism or prejudice
is apparent - because it is a male-dominated society in India.
The evil of Sati is still eulogized. In one recent incident in Rajasthan
many men, some from even the victim's family, were party to the ritual
of a widow made to sit on her husband's funeral pyre. The police as usual
reached late. The law fails to stop such practices because it is not deterrent
enough. But the worst part is that society does not show anger or horror
over such incidents. Somehow the belief persists that tradition sanctifies
the practice. Why stick one's neck out? The supporters of Hindutva should
try and eliminate such evils instead of planning another Gujarat elsewhere
in the country. Any reform has to come from within. But most men are not
Muslim women also suffer the same way. Pakistan has a law under which
a man cannot marry when his wife is alive. In India there is no such bar.
He can have four wives if he is brazen enough. The Government probably
fearing the noise the fundamentalists might make hesitates to have a legislation
similar to the one in Pakistan and in nearly all Islamic countries. But
Muslim leaders should themselves take the initiative and rectify the wrong
which is against the spirit of Islam.
During riots women are the worst suffers. Several inquiry committees have
pointed out that they are easy victims because they are unable to escape
quickly. Rioters do make them their target. The recent example is that
of Gujarat. In its inquiry report, the Concerned Citizens Tribunal which
has done yeoman's service in presenting the ugly and inhuman side of riots
has said, "women were unblushingly molested", and Muslim men,
women and children, in a travesty of Justice, were burnt alive.
Kalpana Kannabiran, a leading social worker, brings to light how the issue
of sexual harassment and violence has entered the mainstream discourse
in different ways. Masculinity and feminism continue to be constructed
in strictly regimented ways with very little space for women students
particularly to raise questions of discrimination, harassment or derogatory
or obscene representation. In fact, the violence has become increasingly
strident, an instance being cited of a campus on the subcontinent where
the hundredth rape on the campus were celebrated! The positive side of
this is that there is protest and resistance and persistent campaigning
by women's groups and small groups of men and women - teachers and students
- on campuses, in Delhi and Rajasthan, for example.
The discussion among male students, whether about women or about the right
of senior students to services and obeisance from juniors, or about a
general policing is by definition violent and involves extreme physical
abuse. And masculinity is constructed around the ability to bear pain,
the ability to be an active spectator, the capacity for silence and a
firm belief in the patriarchies of age and gender and an utter contempt
for any recourse to legitimate redress. The heroes are those that bear
all these characteristics. In other words, violence has been institutionalised
in the field or education.
Violence is both the subject of law and its context. And violence is always
embedded in a social context ridden with unequal power and privilege.
While men speak publicly in extremely derogatory sexual terms about women,
the patriarchy of gender takes precedence over that of age. Silence is
often the only recourse. Even this will pass. What happens in the courtroom
is mirrored in the classroom, the campus, public spaces and the family,
clearly the law cannot teach us why. Sociology cannot either, on its own.
Only feminist sociology can help make sense of this.
Being at the lowest rung of the leader in society, women suffer the most
in all sorts of tragedies, earthquakes, riots, and floods. A report by
the concerned Citizens on the Orissa super-cyclone says more women died
in the cyclone than men. Men survived the tidal wave in some areas by
climbing to high places. In the aftermath of the disaster men migrated
to towns in search of work, leaving women in charge of the surviving children
and to fend for themselves. The destruction of houses exposed women to
The worst was that there were hardly any programmes of rehabilitation
specially geared towards the needs of women. The women's movement in Orissa
is very weak. So there was no voice strong enough to plead their case.
There was no definite proposal aimed at assisting the cyclone-affected
women. There were many possibilities for designing horticulture and other
plantation programmes, rural craft training, animal husbandry and programmes
in education, health and sanitation. The poverty eradication programmes
could have been reoriented in the context of the cyclone - taking women
as the key players. But nothing like that happened. In fact, nothing like
that happens anywhere in India.