By Vishu Mahajan
“You can’t clap with one hand, it takes two hands. A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. A boy and a girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20 per cent of girls are good.”
So says a man convicted and sentenced to death for a brutal gang rape and murder of a 23 year old student in an interview for a documentary. The statement is devoid of remorse and guilt and this sends chills down your spine. Perhaps the misogyny is not surprising in a country where elected representatives have often made similar remarks. And what is the government’s response? The union home minister condemns the documentary and the filmmaker for a conspiracy to defame the country, an FIR is registered against the documentary maker and a court bans the airing of the documentary. The only sensible response I can muster to this misplaced sense of priorities is “LOL”.
When it comes to gender inequality and violence, there can hardly be any more defaming and shaming. We rank 132 on UNDP’s Gender-related development index, sexual harassment has even permeated our judiciary and media – the two institutions that we depend on for upholding or democratic freedoms and rights – as indicated by cases involving judges and editors in the past two years, misogynist and illegal Khap Panchayats order honour killings with impunity, the child sex ratio is at an all-time low of 918 girls per 1000 boy, we parade the women in our armed forces at Republic Day and hail it as a huge achievement in gender equality while most of the lady officers suffer blatant discrimination in the forces and are constantly denied equal treatment and a permanent commission.
I could go on but I think the message is clear. Most of the policy response to this depressing state of affairs has revolved around safety and policing. Tougher legislation against rape has been brought in, separate laws for sexual harassment at workplace and sexual offences against children have been enacted, there are proposals for large scale surveillance, safety apps, SOS buttons in public transport vehicles to ensure safety of women. All these are top down measures and can merely address the symptoms of the larger socio-cultural disease – a problem of attitudes and the prevalence of patriarchy as a central pillar of our society. We as a society are afraid of strong assertive women reclaiming their place in society and demanding equal treatment. This is clear from the statements of the interviewed convict in the film who says they committed the crime to teach the couple a lesson and also from various surveys on gender attitudes. As one example, in the International Men and Gender Equality Survey on Gender Attitudes, 2011, most men believed women need to be beaten at times and a large proportion had physically assaulted/committed sexual violence against the partner despite knowing the laws related to violence against women. Similarly, 40% of married women respondents in NFHS-3 were subjected to spousal violence and surprisingly most thought it was acceptable if their behaviour violated perceived acceptable norms e.g. arguing with husband, refusing sex, not cooking, etc.
What emerges from this discussion is that merely enacting new laws is not sufficient. The law is only an instrumentality of justice. Justice is delivered only when associated institutions also function efficiently including a sensitive police force, quick and efficient judiciary and committed lawyers. Also, these steps have to be complemented with a large scale social transformation beginning right from the very early years of children – gender sensitization and respect for women must be inculcated through different socialization mechanisms including the schools, families, widespread debates and discussion in the media, Parliament and State Legislatures. These social institutions must act as agents of social change and reform. It is this social reform that the film “India’s Daughter” tries to be a part of. The first step to reform is to accept the existence of the problem instead of censoring and silencing it. The film brings out the topic in the open and helps us confront it. It provides a mirror before our society and forces us to look at our rotten selves. It is an essential element of the widespread and open debate that needs to be undertaken to change patriarchal attitudes and mindsets. The practice of democracy depends on the issues that are brought into the public domain and sustained through passionate debate. Only then does necessary political will emerge to change things. In fact we must reflect on why we always need a foreign pair of eyes to tell us our own shortcomings. Why did none of us take the initiative to tell the story of Nirbhaya and her killers? The story needs to told in all it brutality and horror in order to shake us from our lethargic comfort zones.
Further, the film provides important insight into the mind of the convicted person and can help us understand the social and psychological factors that play a role in crimes against women. These then can be targeted through detailed programmes for social change and lead to transition towards more tolerance and respect towards women. It will ensure that we do not misdiagnose the problem and focus on the wrong things thus helping us recalibrate our institutional responses.
Our anger is not at the documentary but at ourselves for having let down every woman in the nation by failing to give them basic human rights and freedom over their own lives. Our anger is at the fact that the convict who has made the deeply shocking statements is a product of our society.
So on the occasion of International Women’s Day, let us pledge to challenge the status quo, to not accept any form of injustice towards women and demand accountability from those responsible for ensuring gender equality.
About the Author: Vishu Mahajan is a graduate from IIT Bombay and want to make a career in Civil Services. He is a guest writer for Know India and has been writing for us for 2 months now. You can reach him through our official email address firstname.lastname@example.org