PUCL Bulletin, March 2003

Crimes against women

-- 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 interested.

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 severe difficulties.

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.


Home | Index