No Country For Women
The recent horrific rape of a 23 year-old in a moving bus in Delhi has outraged, angered and saddened many of us. Yet, I am sure that there are huge chunks of our population who think this is much ado about nothing, that the girl may have ‘asked for it’, why was she out so late, for rape is now a sport in India.
Why and when did we become like this barbarian? There is a historical-cultural-religious angle. There is the angle of law and order failure, and a sloth-like judicial system. There is the angle of things changing fast in India, but mindsets still remaining in the dark ages. There is the angle, the most crucial one perhaps, of attitudes towards women, by men and even by women. This rape is not sudden or out of the blue. There has been a steady increase in rapes and violence against women for years now. This most recent rape is just the pinnacle, or rather, one of the lowest points of depravity. Because for centuries, men in India have been taking liberties. They consider it their birthright to stare at women, to sing while passing them, to make passes and comments on them, to brush past them, touch them, to hit them, to rape them.
In many Indian homes both parents and grandparents, even mothers, will openly favour the son. He grows up treated as a demi-god, and probably sees his father beating his mother. This attitude sticks on forever. This man will feel outrage when he sees any woman who is not a demure slave. This man cannot cope with what he sees, and he wants to re-assert his power, and does so by violent sexual abuse. In his weak and probably sick mind, that’s the ultimate and only weapon he has left. His manhood and his brute physical strength.
These attitudes are only reinforced by ancient ways of thinking, religious beliefs and cultural practices. Take Raksha Bandhan, a seemingly harmless festival. It just reinforces that women need the ‘protection’ of men. Dowry favours the male. It puts the female’s family into debt and struggle. Some friends who have had or are attempting to have arranged marriages (even without dowry) describe it as 'the man’s market’. Across class and caste, the male has the upper hand.
In my own alma mater, the country’s premier design school, there are a few faculty/staff who take terrible liberties with female students, especially young under-graduate students. What they do is well known in the campus, and most of these men have notorious reputations that precede them. And if we questioned this behavior, we were told, by female faculty to “let it go, these things happen, you can’t do anything about it.” And this is another strong root of this disease in society. We keep quiet. Women tell other women to shut up about it, and move on with their lives. As a woman, how can you tell another woman ‘it happens’? Does that justify it? That just hands over all power to the perpetrators. And this is how society starts spiraling out of control. Today, it may be extra-friendly physical proximity or a personal remark. Tomorrow, it becomes rape. If we don’t start talking about and discussing these things, they are never going to start being resolved.
And let's not forget that ours is still a repressed society. Driving Audis, drinking Starbucks, wearing Levis and visiting malls does not make us progressive. Most Indians cannot even think of talking about things like sex, gender equality, or even periods. Just go and buy sanitary pads at any shop in India. Even in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai people may look at you strangely. The shopkeeper will wrap the packet in newspaper and put it in a black plastic bag, for what shame it is to be seen walking around with Whisper or Stayfree! We are ashamed of carrying sanitary pads. We are not ashamed of raping five year olds. That is the kind of culture we are. And our film industry persists in showing women as objects without minds of their own, to be ogled, and to be harassed.
The Mayans believed end of 2012 was the end of the world. It definitely seems as if human beings have stopped being human. Perhaps it is truly Kalyug, the age of downfall. We have all felt extreme emotions over this rape. Rage, outrage, sadness, hopelessness. We have to translate these emotions into positive action.
There is not a woman alive in this country who hasn’t been (at the very least), stared at from tip to toe. Most women have gone through much more. It could be groping by a stranger, it could be being flashed at, and it could be being raped by her father and/or uncle. Somewhere in India men don’t want women to use mobile phones. Somewhere else a man locks up his wife’s genitals. These are desperate and heinous attempts by men to stay in ‘power’, what they consider their birthright. There is a Talibanisation of India going on even as we speak. We cannot keep looking the other way. Rape and sexual harassment as sport has arrived on our doorstep. And it’s going to bang the door down unless we do something now.
Satyamev Jayate ki jai
The idiot box is not so idiotic anymore.
Yesterday we watched Amir Khan's Satyamev Jayate first telecast on TV. Hopefully, many more Indians were watching too. Finally, someone woke up and made a meaningful TV series. The weaker-minded folks say they don't' want to spend their day off watching an hour and a half of the real issues of India. Such people are very reason India has so many issues to begin with. If apathy is our worse trait, Satyamev Jayate is a good poke in the right direction. It is hard to imagine someone who is not moved while watching it.
I was expecting a documentary-ish programme, but was pleasantly surprised to see it was actually a talk show hosted by Amir Khan. The last few weeks, when Satyamev was being advertised, I was wondering which issue he will cover in the first episode. After all, there is no shortage of issues in India. And they didn't let me down either. Episode 1 is Daughters are Precious, and it is the issue in India that is crying out for most attention, because it points to a seriously ill social structure. Any society that allows for lakhs of girl children to be aborted, or killed at birth, is a dangerous society. This is a symptom of a larger problem, that essentially, women are still not respected or valued in India. Although people say it is better than it used to be, it is still not what it should be. Ask any woman today, how she feels when stared at on the street, even when 'decently' dressed, or when she is groped in a crowded bus or train, or when she is paid less than a man for the same work. The increasing gang rapes, especially in Gurgaon are testimony to this wretched attitude of India towards its women.
Coming back to the show, Amir Khan shows some alarming facts. Female foeticide has risen significantly from 1981 to 2011. It occurs more in urban areas, even among the so-called educated and well-to-do families. Amir interviews some women who have been through hell, been beaten and abused for bearing a female child, have been forced through multiple abortions, but were brave enough to live through it, fight it, and come and talk about it on the show. You need to see the show to hear their stories.
The show also focuses on the positive. It tells us of change happening for the better, of journalists and activists fighting this issue daily, and of how citizens can hopefully put pressure on courts to dispense justice a little faster. Most importantly, Amir Khan tells us that it is you and me who can be the change, in our own small way. At the very least, knowledge is power, and the more people are made aware through this series, the better it is.
For the first time (I think) someone has used Indian television for a meaningful and powerful message. This medium of the idiot box, as I like to call it, is incredibly powerful, watched by millions, in rural and urban areas, and does not require one to be literate. It can affect positive change if used well, and who better to do that than Amir Khan, one of the very few in Bollywood who actually does sensible things. Instead of the ridiculous maa-bahu-saas serials, the mindless reality shows, and the demeaning and outright racist fairness creams crap, there is actually something sensible, intelligent and enlightening on Indian television. Hats off to Amir Khan. I just wish the ads of the saas-bahu serials would not air in the breaks of Satyamev Jayate. It is a cruel irony, that the source of the very issue being discussed, is being advertised. Also, hopefully, the issue of the music copyright will be sorted out soon.
Satyamev Jayate is a mantra from the ancient Mundaka Upanishad. When India gained Independence in 1947, it was established as the national motto. It means 'truth alone triumphs'. Somewhere, especially in the last ten years, it seems as if India lost all faith in her own motto. While many things have been getting better, many things have been getting worse. We have more malls, digital devices, and foreign cars, our homegrown companies are going global. But our cities are more unsafe, our rivers are horribly polluted, there is a loss of green cover, there is growing disparity between the rich and the poor, increasing rape, and unimaginable scams. Maybe Satyamev Jayate will hold a mirror to us all, and enable us to see the not-so-pretty truths there.
Where are the women?
The census is a chance once a decade, for a country to reflect on itself. The recent census of India show us facts and figures about ourselves, that give some indications of our culture and mindset. The gender ratio, is still pretty skewed, especially in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan where the odds are really stacked against women. For some strange reason, large parts of India are obsessed with the male child. Mothers and fathers do not consider their families complete or 'blessed' till the arrival of a male heir. Occassionaly this male heir will grow up to be an unemployed, wife-abusing drunk. And the abused wife is once again craving for a son, ignoring her daughters, recreating the whole cycle.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. One can somewhat understand the centuries-old desire for a male child in rural areas, or amongst the uneducated. But what is more (and seriously) alarming is this desire for a son even amongst educated, wealthy citizens, living in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Female foeticide is still prevalent, among all sections of society. A brilliant paper by Amartya Sen titled More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing, (title self-explanatory) sheds light on some some alarming realities.
Moving closer home, where are all the women in design? I studied Applied Art, where there were mostly women. Then I came to study at NID, where there were still more women! Some disciplines such as graphic design and textile design, have women in greater numbers than their male counterparts. But one sees very few women at top level positions in design, or running design firms. Off-hand I can only think of Sujata Keshavan (Brand Union) and Divya Thakur (Design Temple) in India. There are some women running businesses, media houses, ad agencies, publishing etc., but not much is known about them. On the other hand, one can immediately think of several foreign female designers: Jessica Helfand, Paula Scher, Zaha Hadid, Leila Vignelli, Debbie Millman, Marian Bantjes, Ellen Lupton, and more. There is a dearth of female role models in design in India. Type 'famous female designer India' and Google throws up a list of interior and fashion designers, with Tarun Tahiliani as the seventh link. (guess Google still can't tell gender apart ;-)
What happens to the thousands of female students at these design schools? Where do they all go afterwards? Is it so hard for women to climb the success ladder? Probably yes, with long work hours, family pressure, and the occasional man who resents a women's success. India may be a rising nation, the next economic superpower, and we may even be able to finally do something about our corruption, but the basic attitude towards women is still stuck in the Dark Ages. Why else do men on the street behave the way they do? Why do foreign visitors get harassed even when decently dressed? Make no mistake, even at the best of places, anywhere, there is always a creep hanging around the corner.
Maybe it all stems from the fact that a girl has to be married fast and young. Before she grows a mind of her own. Career is acceptable, but upto a point. Independence is not preferable. Read the ads in the Matrimonial section of any paper and you will know what I mean. There are fixed words used in almost every matrimonial ad
1) Everyone wants 'fair' in a country of wheatish complexion.
2) 'Domesticated', because women are wild animals that need to be lassoed and tied up. No 'junglees' wanted.
3) 'Homely', as opposed to what? Shop-ly? Collegely? Stupidly?
In the matrimonial zone, its a man's market at the moment. Personal friends, perfectly decent, intelligent, wonderful women, can't find prospective grooms because they aren't fair enough, homely enough, or (the worst) earn too much!
I would like to place a new matrimonial ad.
Wanted: Dark, wild and undomesticated woman. Must not give a dam about her face, hair, skin, the beauty parlour or men. Must possess independent, fully functioning brain. Preferably has a career. Cooking, cleaning and housekeeping skills non-essential. Must look like a healthy Indian girl and not a plastic doll.
If you say you are 29, and unmarried, you get a pitying look (even though its your choice). If you say you have only one sister, you get another pitying look along with, "What! No brother! How sad for you and your parents." I tell them, show me a dutiful son, and I can show you ten dutiful daughters.
Gandhi was right when he said, "Unfair treatment of women is a disease as bad as untouchability." It's the worst form of racism. Yet, things are much better for women now than they ever were in the past. Meanwhile, I'm still hunting for that top-shot female design person in India.
The New Yorker