Life for the Indian woman is difficult; as far as adjectives go, it’s challenging, an uphill task, a never-ending test of physical and mental strength. This is not to say that women elsewhere have it easy or that they live a life devoid of adversities; but Google searches for ‘women in India’ and ‘women in the world’ yield completely different results.
Going by the news cycle, stories about molestation, rape and sexual assault are plenty. We’ve apparently not left the Middle Ages behind, because women who don’t subscribe to the norm are still being burnt at the proverbial stake. Then, there is also the case where women are banned from entering places of worship.
These frayed ends are tied together by one knot — patriarchy. Like the lotus that sprouted upon the navel of Lord Vishnu, from whom emerged Lord Brahma, and thus the origin of creation, the oppression of women has sprung from rigid, wholly ridiculous beliefs that women should firmly toe the line (sometimes clearly visible as in the case of Sita in Ramayana) drawn by a few men. Socialisation informs women that norms are the truth.
On 23 April, a Manipuri woman, who was standing outside her PG residence, was abducted by an unidentified person, who allegedly tried to molest her. Even as no passerbys came to her rescue, this shocking incident was caught on CCTV. Naturally, the owners of the PG advised the girl against filing a complaint, fearing her safety. “I think they did that fearing bad name for their PG,” she said instead.
Does this mean that public spaces are harmful to women? We constantly talk about how these spaces are inaccessible: how alleys in the night are seldom lit, how parks, playgrounds, bus stands and railway stations after 10 pm are cesspools of crime. Therefore, we’re given unfair curfews, we’re asked to constantly keep our loved ones informed on our whereabouts, we’re asked to not step out of the house after 8 pm. We still have blatantly sexist rules when it comes to women in hostels: boys are not allowed, the curfew sometimes is as early as 5 pm and we’re allowed out perhaps once a month. Our Ministers make it mandatory for all phones to come equipped with a ‘panic button’ to ‘improve’ our safety. As a result, reported the NDTV, we’re thankful to the Prime Minister for letting the police trail us, even as it may violate our privacy. Because as a woman in India, we all know, there is no such thing as privacy. Or private space.
On 28 April, a 29-year-old Dalit student, Jisha, from Ernakulam in Kerala — a state known for its favourable sex ratio towards women — was brutally raped, stabbed and kicked in the stomach and murdered. Her mutilated body was found inside her home. The nature of horrific crime is unsettlingly similar to the one that happened in Delhi in 2012, where a woman was raped inside a moving bus. The News Minute reports that the mother of the woman cannot recall a day sans harassment by the neighbours: She says that they destroyed the water pipes in their home, forcing them to draw water from a canal next to the house.
Artists in Kannur paint posters at a protest demanding justice for Jisha. PTI.
This happened in the confines of Jisha’s home, the private space that she shared with her mother.
Further north, in Handwara, in Kashmir, it has been alleged that a minor was molested by an Indian army jawan near a bunker. The army has denied the charge. This brings to mind the alleged rape-death of 32-year-old Thangjam Manorama by some members Assam Rifles personnel. Frontline, in January 2015, reported that Manipur was ‘up in arms’ supporting Irom Sharmila’s demand for the removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, from Manipur and rudely woken by a nude protest by dozen women asking the Indian Army to rape them.
Walls and pillars do not make for safety; they make for limitations, they make for prisons, outposts and hostility. Contrary to popular belief, staying at home does not empower us, or our safety. It’s 2016, and marital rape — that often occurs in the four walls of home — in India isn’t criminalised, because marriage is sacrosanct? We still have to fight for our right to sexual autonomy, which is and (has been) being controlled by men.
On 5 May, there was perhaps a glimmer of hope for the Indian woman: Four-and-a-half years after the murder of Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes, a Mumbai court held all four accused in the case guilty, and sentenced them to life imprisonment until death. What had happened was this — Keenan and Reuben, in October 2011, had visited a restaurant in Amboli with their friends. Outside, a group of drunk men started harassing the girls with the duo. Keenan and Reuben jumped to their defence, to which they were stabbed repeatedly. Keenan died on the same day, while Reuben succumbed to his injuries 10 days later.
These four incidents are not stray ones. In fact, the rate of rape in India accounts for 6.1 percent (2014) and the total crimes against women stands at a startling 91 percent (2014), according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). Globally, in terms of gender equality, India stands below Chad and Yemen, with states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh having the worst records on female empowerment, ranging from 0.42 to 0.46
Four years ago, on a bright summer evening in seemingly safe Chennai, a friend and I were driving from Anna Salai to Nungambakkam. Next to us, on a bike came two burly men making smutty comments. We ignored and rode ahead. Only to see the driver make a sharp U-turn and literally come for us with his arms stretched out. My friend — to borrow lyrics from a Christopher Cross song — rode like the wind and stopped next to the Egmore police station where we informed some cops about what happened to us. They agreed to be on the lookout for the men and the two of us had a ‘safe’ ride home afterwards. This shook us, because we believed we were fearless, come what may. But it only reminded us that the right to public space was a little less for us and a little more for men.
Public spaces need to be made accessible for women. Getty Images
Where does patriarchy fit in the scheme of things? I suppose, to be a man in India is to be an expert on all things women. It’s to tell us to dress appropriately, to walk with our heads bowed down or to close our legs firmly, to speak up when asked to speak up and to shut up when asked to. It’s to catcall us when you feel like it, grope us when you’re bored and torture us to assert your fleeting masculinity. It’s to tell us to marry at the right time and to the right boy (read caste, religion, status), to have children, to not have abortions and to remain in the kitchen.
How does this change? By respecting us, giving us equal access to spaces — public and private, not victim shaming and blaming, reminding men and women that a woman’s worth isn’t tied to her virginity, hemlines or necklines; making sure roads, railway stations and bus stops are brightly lit and by replicating effective policies that are in place around the world. This is where we could start.