Sunday, 20 January 2013

The various faces of crime

'Society' wrote Henry Thomas Buckle 'prepares the crime, the criminal merely commits it'. This underlying philosophy, namely the social determination of crime, may have its weaknesses but it seems to be especially relevant to the present debate regarding sexual crimes in India. In some ways these are 'the best and worst of times' in our country. In every corner of the nation a 'tale of two cities' unfolds like clockwork everyday. Palatial homes like the Antilla in Mumbai, the largest in the world, rise in close proximity to hovels and slums full of despair and gloom. The privations of poverty coexist cheek by jowl with the extraordinary pelf of privatization. Ours is a society in rapid flux, old values hold no longer, new values are slowly creeping in to make a precarious new place in our collective mindscape. But neither is the new foundation strong enough to support a social reorganization nor have the old debris of centuries of patriarchy, privilege and prejudice been entirely cleared. The old abuts the new and the new rests on the old with neither forming a sound and secure stepping stone on which to reach for the future. In such rapid flux, Sexual crimes have increased manifold in the last few years, rising by an astounding 25% since 2006. If society as a whole is  at some level and to some extent responsible for this, it is worth inquiring into how and why this sinister social influence exists and how it might be addressed.

We all know why these questions concern us now above all others, for these are moments of deep mourning and shock. The brutal killing and violation of a 23 yr old Student in the national capital has shaken us all to the core and stirred us from our stupor. For once, crimes against women- tangible, real incidents-and not some multi-starrer political drama dominates airtime and flows in the airwaves. The essential question here is, will post-crime brutalization of the criminal deter the brutalization of potential future victim's? Will superficial reforms in the legal sphere be as useless as ointments on a cancerous tumor? What are the indicators and correlates of this high prevalence? It is in the hope of answering these last few questions that I shall continue.

Social construct of Sexual crimes -What does it say about us?

Every crime including sexual crime, is as old as the hills. But even as crimes have existed since the rise of history the narratives surrounding different crimes change with social circumstances. As societies evolve certain types of narratives attach themselves to certain crimes. These narratives through repeated usage of similar words and notions  in reference to those specific crimes tend to impart not only a bare narrative about the crime but also a value system based on which those crimes can be judged. How then ,does this 'narrative' of Sexual crimes in contemporary India shape up? 

Any recent survey of Indian news media will make it clear that the words used most often in reference to the rapists are 'beasts', 'animals', 'predators', 'perverts', 'barbarians'. While such a narrative may seem natural fuelled as it is by an immediate emotional response manifesting as rage, it underscores a deeper question. Does such labelling implicitly suggest a value system that seeks to cut-off  the rapists from society of which they are as integral a part as anybody? Indeed it seems that we construct and our media reinforce our view of sex offenders as people so far out of the 'ordinary' that we may safely assume that society as a whole has little if anything to do with their heinous crimes. Statistics do not bear these notions out, in fact they belie them and show them up to be exactly what they are paltry defense mechanisms set up by a society plagued by a crime epidemic. The statistics are so grim and have been so often repeated in the media as to make iteration here superfluous. Sexual assault has been called 'the most common crime on women in India' and the reported cases appear to be merely the tip of the iceberg whose roots plunge deep into dark recesses of Indian society. Some states like Haryana have virtually institutionalized practices of sexual assault and Khap panchayats often intercede with the police, not in support of the victims but bizarrely in support of the alleged rapists, often getting them acquitted. All this show sexual crimes to be as deep a social problem as any,  and yet the 'narrative' ascribing 'extraordinary evil'  to sex offenders persists. Such 'singularization' of crime(in this case sexual crime) as being separate and uniquely evil is not peculiar to India. In the US with gun crime exploding onto the national stage over and over again, explanation of the criminals motives often revolve around focusing on the 'insanity' of the criminal. Phrases like 'Gun-nut' with the emphasis on 'nut' seem to suggest a singularization of crime in the form of 'medicalization'. 'It is the man that kills not the Gun!', 'They are crazy' such medical rationalizations are often heard in the U.S. public discourse. Similarly, while dealing with our 'Rape Culture' (as the Social scientists aptly call it) we tend to explain away crimes on the basis of egregious bestiality, pure evil, animal barbarism without seeking to address deeper social issues that may be conditioning such crimes and nurturing such criminality. As Noopur Tiwari writes  'we are constantly trying to classify the perpetrator an outsider, someone on the fringes, a monster. Even the Prime Minister in his address spoke of “monstrous crimes”. But rather than say “they are beasts” we should really be saying “they are men”.

The first problematic 'narrative' surrounding sexual crimes in India then is this 'singularization' of sex criminals as unique instances of otherworldly bestiality.

Secondly, we the people of India seem to adopt a completely different standard while forming narratives of sexual crimes alleged to have been committed by 'our' armed forces or police force. As case after case of women being assaulted in Police stations emerge little discussion if any has taken place on the role of 'authority' in sexual crimes. Self proclaimed 'nationalists' often work themselves into a lather in the face of evidence presented by international agencies like Amnesty International on the alarmingly high incidence of sexual crimes in Manipur, Kashmir and Maoist Insurgency affected areas. This social construct based on a self righteous 'patriotic' narrative absolves sexual crimes beforehand by dubbing all locals 'terrorist sympathizers, Naxal sympathizers' and so on. 'Authority' seems to have an inbuilt absolution mechanism. This self censorship of the crimes committed in our names, under our flag (for the Indian flag is a symbol of its people not its Government) enables us to protect ourselves from the qualms of having to deal with them. The notorious AFSPA has been implicated by experts as being instrumental to the perpetuation of sexual crimes against women in these areas. As Duncan McDuie-Ra notes in a scholarly article 'The AFSPA provides de jure impunity in that members of the armed forces are not prosecuted in civilian courts, and under the provisions of the act VAW (Violence Against Women)  is not deemed criminal…..the AFSPA also provides a form of de facto impunity as military courts responsible for prosecuting soldiers have often failed to investigate violations or been “simply unwilling” to bring charges against military personnel. In certain cases, the armed forces have lodged counterclaims against women accusing them of trying to defame the army …Despite a 1997 amendment to the AFSPA that any person arrested under the act must be handed over to civilian authorities within twenty- four hours, this is frequently ignored …Persons arrested have been detained for periods ranging from 1 week to several months. These periods of detention have facilitated torture, rape, and murder by the armed forces, including rape and torture of children….The persistence of the AFSPA epitomizes the tacit acceptance of systematic violence as a necessary by-product of securing an unruly border region and policing a suspect population The region is constructed externally and internally as an exception to norms and laws upheld in other parts of India.' Thus if 'Singularized evil' is the first deceptive social construct, a faux 'nationalism' that protects sex offenders is the second.

Thirdly, Identity Violence  and crimes committed in its course are often swept under a blanket term 'riot' wherein they lie hidden from public view in a tangled mess of violent statistics as if they had no special or unique significance in a general orgy of violence. This carpet term 'riot' often subsumes specific cases in which victims have been differently targeted based on their gender. Sexual crimes form a unique and disparate group within this mass violence and yet because a 'riot' involving mass slaughter took place, these sexual crimes are often lost in context, with the media deemphasizing its unique nature and placing it in the general scheme of so called 'communal violence'. It is worth noting how little outrage from Media, women's rights groups and the general populace accompanies mass-rapes against women in Manipur, Dalits, Tribals and communal riots as opposed to specific cases of horrible and brutal rape such as the recent horror in Delhi. This summary inclusion of mass sexual crimes under the notions of 'communal violence' is far more insidious & has more vicious consequences than appears at first sight. It leads de facto and de jure to a virtual Rape culture in Indian political life. The renowned jurist Upendra Baxi while brilliantly de-constructing this 'rape culture' in the context of the most recent 'Communal riot' in Indian history ,the Gujarat carnage of 2002 observes that 'women's bodies continue to provide necessary sites for the production of competitive party politics' and grimly concludes that 'the final message for the past, present, and future politically violated Indian women is that there is not much that constitutional governance can achieve except to normalize violence, almost as a social cost of doing democratic politics. This logic articulates what must be named as rape culture, 'which 'signifies ways of doing party politics and managing governance in which brutal collective sexual assaults on women remain enclosed in contrived orders of impunity,' so that 'women's right to be and remain human depends not on the normative necessity of law or constitution but on the sheer contingency of politics, law, and administration as well as of the ways of social protest and action.'(Perusing the full article entitled 'The second Gujarat catastrophe' rewards the reader on many levels. It's a fearless & remarkably lucid analysis of the political, judicial and social determinants of this political rape culture).This 'contrived order of impunity' is so pervasive that the then Defense Minister in what must be one of the most disgraceful remarks ever made in the Indian Parliament, on being questioned about reports of the mass-sex-crimes during the Gujarat violence bluntly blurted- 'This is not the first time this has happened in India'.

It is also interesting to note that crowds of young people do not come out to the streets when reports of mass-rapes in 'communal riots' emerge. The construct surrounding sexual crimes in this context is that they are part of 'identity violence' and not sexual violence per se and therefore deserve different narratives. This social narrative not only places such victims at a disadvantage as compared with other rape-survivors but also doesn't address the problem of why mass-sex-crimes seem to accompany mass-violence almost every time in India. Also the bizarre cognitive dissonance (and not mere hypocrisy) that exists in society when dealing with individual cases of rape and mass-rapes in 'riots' deserves special attention. The very same people who lament that upwards of 300 MP's and MLA's in our parliaments have cases of sexual assault against them happily vote to power enablers of mass-rapes and even laud them as models of 'development' politics. This cognitive dissonance is made possible by the social construct and narrative of 'riot' which is seen as a 'action-reaction' of violence and not a series of horrible crimes including 'mass-sexual crimes'. In fact the almost invariable accompaniment of sex-crimes in riots seem to indicate that women are perceived, not simply as people who like 'men' must be promptly killed, but also as 'sex objects' to be dominated sexually before being murdered. It is incumbent upon all right-thinking Indians to see through the semantic callisthenics of our politicians and call out the term 'riots' for exactly what they are  'instances of iterative sponsored political violence that  routinely  involve brutalization of women' and not spontaneous, uncontrollable 'natural disasters of human origin' subject to Newtonian laws of physics ,which heartless politicians make them out to be.

'The limits of my language means the limits of my world' said Wittgenstein. We must clear our language first, and hence un-clutter these devious social narratives surrounding sexual crimes if we are to get rid of them in our world .

But these 'social narratives' beg the deeper question-What is the basis of the cultural norms that make such social constructs possible in the first place. What lies at the crux of our epidemic of sexual crimes ,is it just sexual repression or something far more complex?

Not only sex but power-

Stanton Samenow  author of 'Inside the Criminal Mind' expresses a near consensus among psychologists when he writes that sex-offenders tend only rarely to be hypersexual seekers of sex per se but more commonly just as driven conquest or acquisition as other criminals such as robbers, murder's etc. In fact chemically castrated sex-offenders who, having lost the ability to commit sexual crimes with their bodies have been known to use objects to commit sexual crimes. It is a myth that chemical castration alone will serve either as deterrent or entirely curative for  sex offenders. In the popular pressure surrounding the Delhi Gang rape the Government has mooted 'chemical castration' as a possible punitive measure. It isn't too difficult to judge whether this measure will work or not since chemical castration has been used for sexual crimes in several states in the U.S. even if only (sic) as a precondition for parole and not punishment. California first adopted it in 1996, followed by Florida in 1997. Several states have taken up similar legislation since, even Russia and South Korea, Poland and the Check Republic have adopted Chemical castration recently, but has it reduced sex crime or prevented recidivism? While data suggests that it helps sex offenders overcome sexual fantasies and urges and indeed reduces recidivism to less than 5-15% in some studies, several cases of sex-offenders perpetrating sexual crimes by other means have surfaced. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposed the 1997 adoption of Chemical Castration in Florida, not only on legal or ethical grounds but also because "Sexual assault is not about sex-that is a myth. This law reinforces the stereotype that men are sex-crazed individuals and that child molesters and sexual predators need to be drugged to control sexual impulses. In reality, sexual assaults are about violence, power and the humiliation of a survivor or victim." Like every criminal the sex offender seeks to possess some 'thing' and revels in the perverse pleasure and thrill of acquisition and conquest. It is the laxity of law enforcement, corruption in policing and above all social sanction and approbation that makes such random 'conquest' acceptable. But what is the source of this apparent social sanction of the 'conquest' of women. What  are the ideas, notions, norms, traditions, beliefs that reduce the feminine to a 'thing' and 'woman' to an 'object'. Two culprits come foremost to mind ,one modern and new another age-old and time worn.

The Modern 'Item' and the ancient 'Chattel'-

When Marilynn Monroe complained that in 1950's America 'a Sex Symbol becomes a thing and I just hate to be a thing' she had put her finger intuitively and perhaps, given her own life experiences on an insidious aspect of sexuality in any capitalistic society. In an environment in which private ownership forms the basic engine of growth and possessions signify and imply power the sexual revolution was inevitably going to lead to the rise of the 'sex symbol'. This sex symbol, like a modern totem ,would be the focus of collective fantasies and feelings, dreams and drives. But as soon as a symbol emerges that gets the attention of the market and brings 'consumers' forward it becomes ,what in modern parlance is called, a 'brand'. A brand is an object, a symbol, a color, a song, any 'thing' that identifies a product and successfully tags it for consumption in the viewers' minds. It is any 'thing' but still only a 'thing', a mere object, a means to an end, a bridge not a bastion, it can be burned ,it may collapse ,but so long as it serves its purpose i.e. bringing people in, it will be kept in good shape. It is precisely such a 'thing', a brand that Marilyn Monroe dreaded becoming and ultimately became, more successfully than any lady in history. But as we all know, her branding did not end well, at least not for her- her 'brand' ended up taking her life. Today as in the U.S of the 1950's India faces a similar barrage of sexualized branding. With a prosperous sliver of society ready to spend money for brands' sake, we are at a cross roads as far as 'sexuality' is concerned. Has 'sexuality' effectively become a brand in India? If so what are the popular agents and manifestations of this branding? 

In a much quoted recent article on the depiction of sex relations in popular cinema, Swaminathan Aiyer notes that-'item numbers' and 'rape scenes' apart- 'What’s truly terrible is the manner in which film heroes have for decades pestered, stalked and forced their unwanted attentions on heroines in a thousand films, yet ended up getting the girl. That sends the most outrageous of all messages to the public: pestering girls is what heroes do, and a girl’s “no” actually means “yes.”'He then proceeds to cite examples from scenes and songs that seem to legitimize sexual harassment as an acceptable mode of courtship.

It is also worth noting that in the 1970's and 80's a rape scene was as integral a part of every movie as an item number is today, as this facetious article brings out. In recent times the 'item' number has raised the bar for crassness and blatant objectification to dizzily nauseating heights especially in the recent hit 'Fevicol se'. Moreover it is mouthed in the movie by a female star.

To this ignominious list of 'item numbers' and 'rape scenes' and 'harassment courtship' must be added the recent spate of so-called 'new age' movies by 'young' directors ostensibly reflecting the liberated mores of a 'younger' audience. But apparently even this 'new age' cinema seems only to be catering to our age-old prejudices if only in newer guise. 

If Movies perpetuate stereotypes even the advertising industry seems to be contributing in no small part to modern 'itemization'. Virtually every product  from cell phones, soft drinks, chocolates, biscuits to cars, bikes even gadgets are sold on the promise that its possession will serve to boost the possessors appeal to the 'fairer sex'  (for whom of course 'fairness creams' are prescribed as imperative to success).  Some examples recalled offhand include a cricketer who uses his Cell-Phone to capture an unknown girl's (in this case a starlet's) photo against her wishes only to ultimately 'get the girl', another actress smeared in chocolate in an ad for 'Lux chocolate soap', a third lasciviously gulping down Mango juice and the infamous 'axe effect' Ad's. Several Ads for cars and bikes  follow the common pattern of depicting the rider or driver of the car attracting a lady or several ladies, some of whom are even bewitched into hitching a ride with them, apparently because of the extraordinary sex-appeal with which these vehicle endow otherwise ordinary men!('The men are back!' goes the slogan of one such car-Ad, the 'muscular car' says another).In almost every advertisement the suggestion is made that the possession of such and such a product is sure to help you acquire such and such a lady. In fact in some cases it seems not to be clear if it is the product that is being advertised or the ladies, with the product touted as an easy conduit to the real 'thing' every man is shown as wanting to (and therefore suggestively encouraged to ) 'posses'-women! The manipulative advertising mantra 'sex sells' seems to have devolved into the crass and shameless dictum 'sell sex'. The immense popularity (especially, as it happens, in Delhi itself) of the so called 'rapist ' lyrics of the now infamous rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh seem to embody this terrible degenerate 'itemization' of women that has swept across various mass media.

As debasing as the portrayal of women in the Media may be it would be unwise to blame these media as such for sexual crimes in society since films, Ad's and songs reflect society as much as society reacts to them. To censure these trends is the need of the hour, but to censor these media may lead onto the slippery slope of garroting free speech (the position of which is already precarious in India) in the name of propriety .What would be far more productive would be to help civil society to engage and debate with influential voices in these media to evolve methods of self regulation that will buck this trend of crassness while guaranteeing protection of free speech and expression. As we have seen 'modernity' has led to its own challenges to women's rights by its brand of 'itemization' but a far more sinister influence extending back millennia has fostered misogyny and aided sex crime for much much longer.

Ours is a fundamentally a 'metacultural patriarchy'. For thousands of years in almost every part of the subcontinent women have been subjected to an essentially second class status. Often this subjection of women is fostered and nurtured by religious norms and social customs. The enforcers of these norms and their self anointed custodians are predominantly male and embody a deep misogyny. The infamous Khap Panchayats and village councils, Ulema and the priesthood, Sadhu's and Sant's are the many modern faces of such attitudes. The slew of disgracefully sexist remarks made by well known politicians like Minister Jaiswal(Old victories ,like old wives, don't satisfy),CM Modi(50 crore girlfriend!),recently Abhijit Mukherjee ('painted and dented women'),RSS chief Bhagwat('raising cows instills morality & prevents rape', 'women aren't raped in Bharat') and many many others and the sad fact that none of them lose elections because of  these remarks are a sad indicator of how acceptable such rhetoric is in India.(Contrast this to the USA where Todd Akin who made the infamous 'legitimate rape' remark and many of his ilk lost their Senate races.).The most brutal and public manifestation of this patriarchy in recent times has been the phenomenon described by the culturally loaded term, 'honour killing'. At the root of this phenomenon is the fact that women as still perceived in many parts are fundamentally the family 'chattel' or 'movable property'. The ensuing blood curdling crimes (fathers and brothers proudly beheading daughters, sisters or burning them) are a direct result of this dehumanizing idea of women being 'property'. Sometimes distorted further by the parochial claims of  caste, community or region, a venomously misogynistic rage  erupts to the surface in ghastly crimes. It is illuminating to note that its s almost invariably the family of the female in such cases who feel dishonoured by their daughters elopement and not the family of the man involved, for the onerous burden of 'honour' is placed entirely on women and not the men who may be equal actors in any elopement.

Thus  'modernity' on the one hand and 'patriarchy' on the other have unhappily converged to reduce the personal and public space in which women can function in Indian Society. Both have the common denominator of 'objectification', one in the form of an eye-candy 'item' and the other in the form of 'chattel' or 'property' of the men of the family. This underlying objectification is further bolstered by accepted social constructs and narratives ,prominently the rubrics of  the 'evil criminal', 'Anti-Nationalism' and 'Communal violence'. These attitudes and narratives have insidiously combined to produce the three cornerstones of a virulent and widespread 'rape culture' - sexual objectification, victimization of the victim,  and normalizing rape as an extension of normal behavior. The plain and plaintive truth seems to be that as long as these social conditions exist, our society will continue 'preparing' criminals who will then commit these crimes.

Castration, public hanging, execution: Are these Solutions?

In the wake of the wider knowledge of the full horror that the 23 yr old victim of the Delhi gang rape had to endure rage has stomped out into the streets and  outraged thousands indignantly display placards that are violently inventive in suggesting punishments for the rapists. Castration, public hanging, stoning, sodomy (Yes even sodomy!),vivisection has been suggested and many have bizarrely lauded repressive Islamic states as exemplars of  punitive justice. But as Rupa Subramanyam notes in a recent article, an exhaustive review of the evidence for and against the efficacy of the death penalty as deterrent is inconclusive and  suggests 'not just reasonable doubt about whether there is any deterrent effect of the death penalty, but profound uncertainty - even about its sign. 'Anyhow, given the abysmally low conviction rates in rape cases in India arguing for tougher punishments is placing the proverbial cart before the horse. In a society as deeply misogynistic as ours all efforts to root out sexual crimes must begin where all criminals begin, at home. Empowering wives, mothers and daughter and protecting them from crimes committed (as most sexual crimes are) within the four walls of their home may go a long way in stemming and countering harmful cultural norms and practices. Female  foeticide ,a terrible crime in itself ,may be increasing sexual crimes by irrevocably  and unnaturally skewing the sex-ratio. Once the child leaves home ensuring basic education may go a long way in empowering and educating women about their rights and boys about their responsibilities. Sex education and ending sexual segregation in schools and colleges is the need of the hour. Police reform leading to better pay and work conditions for the constabulary, better forensic facilities, performance based promotions and preventing political interference must be instituted, only then can Judicial and legal reform be effectual. Ending the political patronage of Khap Panchayats and other self anointed guardians of culture is also imperative. Politicians who protect and promote mass-rapists by abjuring  responsibility and legitimizing  targeted political violence  should be prosecuted, this will dissuade any future 'foot soldiers' who may be willing to offer their services for mass slaughter and mass-sexual crimes in the next 'communal riot'. 

In the wake of the recent tragedy many Indians on Social Media and elsewhere have declared that they are ashamed to be Indian'. While understanding such shame and anger, which is in its own way salubrious, I for one have found, even in the midst of this tragedy that we still have something's to be proud of. I am proud at least, to belong to a society that faced by wanton cruelty has at long last woken up to its own failings. For once we are introspecting, for once we are not dismissive of stories of sexual crimes from the Northeast and Kashmir as Anti-national propaganda, for once we are prepared to shed our blinkers and look at the mangled mess that our politics, Judiciary and police have become, at last this all too human tragedy has made us see through the shallowness of our differences.

While we certainly have a great deal to be ashamed of let us also call to mind the tremendous Social change that even our 50% democracy (as Ramachandra Guha puts it) ,with its barely functioning legal & police system has wrought over the last few decades. Let us remember that India granted voting rights to women at independence- before Belgium, Switzerland, Monaco, the entire Middle East and many African countries, India has seen female premiers even when the U.S hasn't, a lady who had to burden the double disadvantages of being Dalit and female has made it to the Chief Ministership of our largest state, we have more women CEO's than the U.S.A girls consistently outperform boys in all our National examinations, and a woman from a minuscule tribal community in a far flung state has made us proud not only in Six boxing championships but also the Olympics. Most of these instances would be unthinkable in our neighbouring countries even today but also unimaginable in the India of the 1940's or 50's. Social change is possible, slowly and over generations, but possible nevertheless. At long last a semblance of a 'sisterhood' across states, castes and creeds has made a slight appearance, let us hope that this 'womanhood' will evolve in the future into an issue based  voting-block as indispensable and critical to electoral success in India. 

Syed Faizan,
@syedfaizan87 on Twitter

The Writer is a medical graduate and hopes to specialize in Psychiatry. He is deeply interested in politics, creative writing and history. He has written two books of poetry 'Indian Sonnets' and a 'Diwan of  English Ghazals' .

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Eve- Teasing : Fight back!

It has happened to each one of us.

I have been reading a lot of blog entries by women who have faced some form of eve-teasing in Delhi so I decided to document the three incidents out of many that won’t get out of my mind. But the point here is not that I was hurt but the fact that I hit back. 

Location - A waterpark around Delhi

My parents decided to stay out of the wave pool and rest on the pool chairs while my sister (then 12 yrs old) and I decided to venture into the wave pool by ourselves. I am a good swimmer and wanted to go closer to the waves because for me that is where the actual fun is. Unfortunately that area was also dog marked by a group of guys, hooting and having their 'type of fun.' I presumed none of them knew how to swim given that they weren’t really moving from the place. All women stuck to the fringes, where the wave basically dies. Without stopping to think I jumped right in totally unaware on what lay ahead.

I told my sister to stay where she was. After 2 odd minutes, I found myself surrounded by the gang, all pretending to learn how to swim while grabbing at me. One of them actually pretended that he was drowning and held on to me to support him. I felt really weird for once, but still gave him the benefit of doubt. (This also happened to be my first mistake!) 

I relocated and went to the other side. Moments later, the same guy who was initially 'drowning' now swam across to my new location and tried to grab me. The only thing he didn't really expect was that I would be warned by my sister (as she was a spectator all this while) and I would turn right in time (this time it was definitely my turn to give back) to lift my knee and hit him where it hurt, YES I did that and enjoyed the 'Ouch' look on his face. His friends laughed from the other end while I gave him a mouthful.

The life guard heard me and asked them to vacate the pool. Victory.  Women now started to come to the wave pool deep end. I told my sister to hit right back. Our parents reached the spot and soon enough heard the entire story from my sister.

The next day we were both enrolled into Karate classes. 

Location : Sarojini Nagar, a day out shopping.

We all love Sarojini Nagar, (for the non- Delhiites it’s the perfect place for college shopping.) As I walked towards the main market with a few friends a lecherous group of guys scream –The spoke lewd filth that my older friend understood. I was still wondering what the dialogues meant nonetheless we started to walk briskly. We dismissed the incident (something I now strongly recommend you shouldn’t) and continued our shopping.  On the way back the same bunch of guys were waiting at the exact same spot where we left them. 'Aaja na, jannat dikha ja' - he said again. My friend retorted - 'Kaat dungi toh jahannum pahunchega' and we left the spot with just those words that I’m sure neither of us can forget. To give you a perspective, this was easily 6 years back and the words and the face still embedded in my mind as if it was yesterday.
I reached home safe and sound but none of what happened got discussed.

Location: In the train en route to New Delhi, India

Stuffed on two tier berths in the Rajdhani Express my sister and I wanted the seats above, while our parents occupied the seats below. We had just finished with dinner so my sister and I stayed up. We decided not to sleep but instead indulge in some play and talk, we felt safe considering our parents were just below.

Later as we all got ready for bed, I was stepping up to get on to my berth when a man from the next berth walked past, intentionally banging into me. I shot him an annoyed look him and he returned a helpless look. Considering the corridors were narrow I chose to overlook the incident. As I  set the bedding I saw him return to his place Again instead of sleeping I decided to go get the uno from the side pocket of the bag below, since I didn’t want to wake my parents up so went down and got it. No points for guessing what happened next - took one step on those rails up and this man got up again, this time he was physical. I was so humiliated and angry that I jumped off the second 'step' hurt my foot and held his hand and started to scream at him. The chaos woke my parents and the other passengers. At first my father was amazed that his daughter had abused but on knowing the whole story being an army-man himself he didn’t say another word. My dad all of 6 feet 2 inches held the the guy who was barely reaching his shoulders. We called the TT and got him relocated and slept peacefully. 

So why I am I sharing all this with you. Simple. In India, the problem with most women is the inability to share their problem in the open. This is not something you can afford to shy away from. Once you get into the habit of ignoring these filthy abusers you will be paying a heavy price. It is your integrity at stake. Fight back, don't cower down.

Eve- teasing is not a new phenomenon. We now need to ensure that this practice is put to an end.  Let us not depend on anyone to take care of us. Speak up and fight for yourself and I am sure there will always be someone good out there who will support you. Lets pledge not act like 'ablaa nari's' anymore, let's make ourselves heard. Have faith in humanity and fight for your rights! Join a self defence class, eat chowmein and don't be afraid or ashamed of being a woman. I still say only one thing lets not lose faith, there are still good people out there who do care and respect women, lets try to increase the number of those people by spreading more awareness.

Niharika Midha

@niharikamidha on Twitter

The author is a Medical Devices analyst addicted to reading the news. She has completed her Master's degree in Biomedical Engineering from Imperial College London. She aspires to be the President of India someday and believes in A.P.J abdul Kalam's words: Small aim is a crime!

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Lamentations of the weaker sex

In the past two weeks since the rape and death of a 23 year old medical student Jyoti Pandey in the capital, New Delhi has seen Indians display their anger, intolerance towards injustice and the inefficient role of the Government, Law enforcement agencies and the Judiciary. Young protesters voiced their distaste and spoke in solidarity against this shameful act. The Government is now slated to introduce a new amended law against the heinous crime.

A lot been said and done on Rape, it is now time to shift focus to the larger picture. The young girl’s death may have stirred the feelings of the masses but it is now time to highlight the daily victimisation of women at home, work and public places.

Call it hypocrisy or over simplification of the situation, the country has begun to believe that the introduction of the legislation will protect women better than before. Have 'We the People' forgotten that we have a long standing history of crimes against women. To begin with the women are not afflicted only by rape. The sin of being a woman in many parts of both rural and urban India begins from her conception. Female foeticide is at the top of these vicious crimes against women.  To curb prenatal sex discernment the Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994 was passed in India. The act aims to prevent sex-selective abortion. The fear of the law however has ceased to exist. As per Merco Press, a South Atlantic Asian News Agency, female foeticide in India still remained at a high in 2012. According to the 2011 census there are still 914 girls for every 1000 of their male counterpart which has fallen from 2001 where the statistics stayed at 927 girls per 1000 men. The dismal statistics are a result of the unlawful killing of the young girl child. Those determined to get rid of the girl child have adopted a new mode of disposing off the baby, an act that is today termed as Neonaticide, the killing of the infant within 24 hours of her birth. In some cases the infants are not immunized, failure of which leads to poor health and sickness. There is suggestion that this can be a deliberate attempt to limit their life.

According to Neil Samson Katz and Maria Sherry, in India: The Missing girls, a society out of balance,

“In some ways this is a very old tale. Long before medical abortion became available, unwanted girls were killed after birth or not given enough food and medicine to survive.”

But this is only the beginning. What happens if this “unwanted” female child lives to see another day? If they are unable to kill the child at birth she is dumped at garbage bins, disposed off at hospitals and then begins a torturous life that includes forcible begging and later on attaining adolescence a life that could range from being sold in brothels to human trafficking. The country has been a silent spectator to all these acts of shame for the past six decades and more.

A new phrase that is doing the round these days is the “commodification of women.”  A simplistic explanation of commodification would be “to make commercial.”  News channels ensured that the limelight stayed on only one source of this commodification: Bollywood. Prominent Bollywood celebrities stated that ‘item numbers’ were a part of ensuring the movies were a hit. Some like Shabana Azmi quite vociferously stated that the lyrics of songs needed to be toned down. The question is why did everyone wait for the Delhi incident to wake up to this reality?

The commodification of women unfortunately is not to be attributed to Bollywood. What about Dowry? The dowry system has commodified women since time immemorial. Dowry is believed to be an ancient custom, and its existence may well predate records of it. Again a bill was passed entitled, The Dowry prohibition Act, 1961 whose sole idea was to stop this commodification. Sections 304b and 498 A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 were included to penalise those who indulged in the practice of “giving and taking dowry” IPC 304B assumes that if the wife dies within seven years of marriage, it is to be assumed to be murder unless the husband can prove his innocence. Though this section has been welcomed by certain parts of society, the ambit of this section is questionable. In the year 2010, the Supreme Court Justices Dalveer Bhandari and K S Radhakrishnan expressed concern at the rise in number of complaints under Section 498A. The Bench said, "We come across a large number of such complaints which are not even bona fide and are filed with oblique motives." The amended law was to be exercised with care and caution. Even law enforcement agencies were cautioned. According to the data collected in May 2012, the Indian  Express brought to light the fact that 18% dowry death cases end in conviction in Delhi, a matter of serious concern.

Marriage brought in the issue of IPV or intimate partner violence, commonly consisting of marital rape and domestic violence. Inter Partner violence is defined as,

“Intimate partner violence includes acts of physical aggression, psychological abuse, forced intercourse and other forms of sexual coercion, and various controlling behaviours such as isolating a person from family and friends or restricting access to information and assistance.”

The reasons for IPV are said to include: young age, low income, low academic achievement , involvement in aggressive or delinquent behaviour as an adolescent.

Marital rape is not yet recognised under the Indian law as a crime.

The Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, 2005 was passed to protect the married women from being victims of physical and mental torture at the hands of their husbands and family members. “Bell bajao” an international campaign that was initiated by 2008 by Breakthrough which aimed at creating a vigilant society that stood up for the women especially in their neighbourhood and raised a voice against injustice being meted out to them. According to Smita Joshi, a family counsellor about 55% cases of domestic violence cases are settled by counselling. Are there any follow ups done? Are these only temporary quick – fixes? We may never know. The stifling of women in a claustrophobic patriarchal society is not something you and I can shut our eyes to.

What about unmarried women who are working at offices for various reasons from financial insufficiency to ambition. The Vishaka judgment ( )  gave in certain guidelines for the protection of women at workplaces.
All employers or persons in charge of work place whether in public or private sector should take appropriate steps to prevent sexual harassment. Without prejudice to the generality of this obligation they should take the following steps:

A. Express prohibition of sexual harassment as defined above at the work place should be notified, published and circulated in appropriate ways.
B. The Rules/Regulations of Government and Public Sector bodies relating to conduct and discipline should include rules/regulations prohibiting sexual harassment and provide for appropriate penalties in such rules against the offender.
C. As regards private employers, steps should be taken to include the aforesaid prohibitions in the standing orders under the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946.
D. Appropriate work conditions should be provided in respect of work, leisure, health and hygiene to further ensure that there is no hostile environment towards women at work places and no employee woman should have reasonable grounds to believe that she is disadvantaged in connection with her employment.

The Times of India, in November, 2012 stated 17% of women are still sexually harassed at workplaces. It quoted Oxfam India report on the same "While 87% of the general population and 93% of working women respondents reported awareness of sexual harassment of women at workplace, a majority of the victims didn't resort to any formal action against the perpetrators. The top three industries unsafe for women are labourers (29%), domestic help (23%) and small-scale manufacturing (16%)."

Aren’t these victims of injustice living in a potentially vulnerable society? Isn’t this a contributing factor to the societal imbalance?

Honour killings are the most violent and extreme of the crimes against women. However, the only difference here is that even spouses and fiancées of these young women are sacrificed at the altar of family honour. Khap Panchayats have been slaughtering young men and women in the name of caste. Aren't these victims also 'Victims'?

Most women refrain from reporting any crime for fear of social stigma. Families refrain from registering cases against eve- teasers and there are many women out there in the open who ignore the daily whistling and hooting and verbal abuses. Film- makers may show a few women slipper young men but this is not reality, it is glorified fiction for India.

Another serious issue that we face is the fact that we are yet to figure out how society begins to perceive victims of rape and molestation with a jaundice eye.The main reason women refrain from registering a case against the perpetrators of crime is because they are branded as women of low character. A de- flowered woman in society gets the distinction of one ineligible to marry, lead a normal life or start anew. This perception must change.

The Government of India may come up with the best of Legislations on paper but once the bill is passed Parliament become functus officio as far as that statute is concerned so that it cannot itself interpret it. In Girdharilal and sons v. Balbir Nath mathur AIR (1986) SC 1099, it was clearly stated: A legislature cannot be asked to sit to resolve difficulties. Watching the media's focus on a single crime and then discuss and vent out our anger in drawing rooms without understanding the depth and intensity of the situation describes the ineffectualness of the masses.

On the part of the Legislature in future it must be mandatory that MP’s and MLA’s standing for elections with impending criminal cases must come clean before they can stand for elections.
A major reason for these crimes is attributed to a gender inequality.

Gender Mainstreaming is a workable way out. The Economic and Social Council defines Gender mainstreaming as:

Gender mainstreaming is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies and programmes, in all areas and at all levels, and as a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and social spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality.” (ECOSOC 1997/2)

It is time for women to stop buckling under the pressure of a male – dominant society. If the tenacity with which men and women protested on streets in various parts of India can be translated into an action for empowering women to stand up for themselves, India does have hope for equality in the social order.  The crimes against women must be stopped in totality.

Let's stop waiting for male - help to assert our individuality and independence.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
 As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Here's hoping maximum women welcome tomorrow with a new hope and a renewed vigour to meet the challenges that lay ahead.

Katherine. Abraham