Several weeks ago, like many others around the world, I too read RoseChasm’s account of her experience in India. I felt a range of emotions as I read what she had to say. Anger, shame, frustration, familiarity, disgust. It was saddening, but not shocking. I knew it would take the internet by storm (at least for a few weeks), but for me, it was one more sour story in an ever-growing pile. A poignant echo, reminiscent of too many others.
When I discussed it with a friend that evening, my mind immediately went to my past eight months in the US. I’ve had my share of concerns here but none of them have revolved around whether or not my outfit is appropriate for a walk to the grocery store, or a ride on the local bus. It is a relief to not have men look at your bare legs like something to devour, or in a way that would leave you feeling dirty, disgusted, and disturbed. I have to admit, it is strangely liberating to not have to worry about those things, and even as I type this, I realize that it’s a feeling that too many women in India (and around the world for that matter) will spend their lives not knowing.
As my friend, who is an American, listened to my animated rant about the status quo, he asked me simply, “What is the reason for this? Why does it happen?” I began to tell him, but I grew more and more frustrated as I struggled to piece it all together. His question stayed with me for a long time.
Why are Indian men ogling, molesting, eve-teasing, and raping women? Why is something that is so obviously abhorrent to everyone else, second nature to the shameless and arrogant Indian man?
We know the reasons. We’ve hashed them out over the years, through innumerable blogs and articles, and we’ve talked about them at protests and round table discussions. We know that, very broadly, patriarchy, illiteracy, poor parenting and upbringing, an absence of good role models, an untrustworthy police force, judicial loopholes, bad governance, lack of accountability, and several other such factors have contributed to the state of affairs. These aren’t ‘current’ state of affairs – they’ve existed for decades, but they’re finally being laid out bare. Now there’s a desire for change and a clearer understanding of root causes by a larger portion of the population than ever before. This group can come together to transform a society that mutely accepts and reproduces miscreants to one that is able to stand up and defend the dignity of its people. All of its people.
So how do we go about solving something so massive, interconnected, and deep-rooted, that it often seems hard to fathom and impossible to navigate? Before I share my thoughts, I want to highlight a few of the responses that followed RoseChasm’s account. There have been a spate of “pro-India” articles advising against stereotyping and generalizing, as well as many comments from Indians apologizing, sympathizing, and sharing their own personal stories. I respect and agree with a lot that has been written and so, as an Indian who is both proud and patriotic, as well as fed up and angry, I feel the need to state my position.
While I agree that painting all of India with one broad ‘anti-women’ stroke is unfair and incorrect, I choose to generalize ‘Indian men’ in this piece for the sake of making connections between behavior, culture, and socialization. I was groped by a stranger inside a subway in New York a few months ago, for the first and only time in my life, and I understand that sexual harassment is (unfortunately) a global phenomenon. Despite that, for the sake of highlighting the sheer volume and range of attacks in India and the various manifestations of gender inequality, as well as finding solutions that are India-specific, I am approaching this as an ‘India problem’. I have met hundreds of wonderful, honorable, “non-stereotypical” Indian men who condemn misogyny and patriarchy. I know they exist, but my focus is on the millions who need to join the movement to shame deviants and oppose uncivilized behavior – those who are still silent.
India is diverse, conservative, extreme, stubborn, and skeptical. It is also young, energized, hopeful, ambitious, modern, and passionate. It’s tricky to find a balance between these two Indias, but that is where the solution lies. India’s rich culture and heritage should be celebrated and respected, but no longer in its entirety. There are aspects of our culture that need to be weeded and replaced, and this can only be done by a younger India that can see beyond hierarchies of caste, class, and gender.
The following list is in no way exhaustive, but it is a start. These aren’t even solutions necessarily, but topics that I believe can spark conversations that result in solutions for a new India.
- You’re never too young to start learning respect – Unhealthy relationships between a boy and girl, and corresponding superior/inferior attitudes begin at a very young age. This is one of the most fundamental reasons for sexual violence. For generations, children have been conditioned to discriminate. Boys and girls emulate conventional gender roles that they see in their own households, and this behavior is prompted and reinforced by constant verbal cues. It is magnified when a boy’s violent or condescending behavior toward a girl is ignored at his school or dismissed as playful banter. If he’s growing up thinking it’s okay to treat girls disrespectfully, then it’s a failure of the entire system. We all know parents, and we all know teachers. We could start there. One person at a time.
- Replace sexual entitlement with sexual autonomy – In a recent survey conducted by the UN, 70-80% of the rapists interviewed cited sexual entitlement as their reason for doing it. These respondents were not from India but it is no secret that universally, rape is usually an act of exerting power and dominance. In an earlier blog post, I mentioned how archaic traditions and beliefs have led to sexual autonomy for women (and as a result the right to say no) becoming an alien concept for most Indian men. This too needs to be addressed during the formative years. The entire socialization process needs to be transformed so that parents are not only good role models for children by dispelling gender stereotypes, but are also actively talking to their children (especially boys) about healthy sexual behavior that does not include objectification of women. Finn Wightman excellently articulates what every boy needs to hear growing up. Indian parents would not be comfortable having this exact conversation with their children, but there are several other ways to go about it while still getting the same message across.
- Our understanding of violence and protection – I overheard two things at the protests in December last year that need to be pointed out. The first was someone saying “Rape hua, haan, par jis bhayanak tarah hua, woh bohot dukh ki baat hai” (The rape happened, yes, but the brutal manner in which it happened is very upsetting). We have to stop being a society whose degree of tolerance is proportionate to its perceived degree of severity/brutality of the crime. Rape is rape. It is as much a violation of human dignity in a closed room as it is on a moving train. There are several forms of violence, and there is nothing innocent about ‘eve-teasing’ even if it doesn’t result in rape. It is important to speak up against even the so-called “harmless” forms of harassment like ogling and “accidental groping”. It is not okay for half the population to live in constant fear in the presence of the opposite sex. The second thing I heard was a group of men saying the slogan “Save our daughters, save our sisters!” While it was well-intended, the approach is completely wrong since viewing a woman only in relation to her father, brother, or son only propagates patriarchy. We’ve failed to look at a woman as an individual in this country, detached from traditional roles, for centuries. That’s fundamental to respect. Recently, India criminalized voyeurism, stalking, and acid attacks. While it is a significant step forward, there is still a lot to be done. Marital rape is still not a crime, and security forces have legal immunity for sexual assault. Both are grossly under reported.
- The other half – Notice how the focus of most discussions related to sexual violence, including patronizing or outright condescending remarks, has always been women? It is possibly the only crime in which we spend more time talking about the survivor than the culprit. Why? Because of the lack of gender ambiguity. Since most rape cases are committed by men, the upholders of our flawed patriarchal social fabric take it upon themselves to string together as many illogical reasons as they can to defend them, almost as if its a personal attack. When Eve Ensler was in Delhi last year, a man on the panel with her said something that was simultaneously simple and profound. He said “for every woman that has been raped, there is a man (or men) who is a rapist. Let’s focus on him.” If we just turn the whole thing around, if we talk to all the men we know, who talk to all the men that they know, who talk to all the men they know, eventually you’re reaching those who are likely to act violently. You’re separated from them by fewer degrees than you think. It is SO important to involve men in this fight. Even those that would never commit the crime themselves. So instead of saying that “25,000 cases of rape were reported in India in 2012”, let’s say it the way it really is – At least 25,000 men in India used violence to force a woman to have sex with them without her consent.
- Reclaim public spaces – In an interview, Flavia Agnes said “The answer is not to keep women inside, but to have more women on the streets and to have a more open environment.” And of course, she’s right. A recent report “Invisible Women” by Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan argues that women will not be safe until we have infrastructural changes in everything from public transport to public toilets. Countries like Vienna have successfully incorporated gender mainstreaming into city planning and India has a lot to learn and do in this regard. Things as simple as well-lit roads go a long way in making a city safer for women (as one of, and not the only initiative, of course). Gender mainstreaming in social policy or urban planning is still a distant reality for us but we can start small. It’s easier for some of us to reclaim public spaces than for others. Let’s think about ways in which we can do this while empowering other women to do the same.
- Openly condemn the hypocrisy – Be aware of it, expose it, and lead by example. Whether it’s the hypocrisy of citizens who identify themselves as middle and upper class/caste and dismiss sexual violence as a lower class/caste problem, or the exasperating hypocrisy (and irrationality) of moral policing and honor killings. I wrote about it in a previous blog post. It’s mindless, it’s ingrained, and it’s conveniently tweaked and used by perpetrators who are experts in misinterpretation (read: politicians, police officers, panchayat heads, etc). It stares us in the face everyday and it won’t go away overnight but we have to point it out and be very very careful that we aren’t perpetuating it in any way.
- We are the system – We demand systemic change all the time without realizing that we are what makes the system. One of the biggest tragedies in India is that the current political and judicial system do far more to repulse young Indians than to attract them. If these systems worked ethically, it would change the face of the country. It is up to us to persevere, to dissect, and overturn every single thing we see going wrong in this bureaucratic mess, from bribery to sexism. It’s far from easy but it needs to be done because while attitudes and kyriarchy form one half of this puzzle, law and order, and governance form the other.
- Everyone can be a part of the solution – With more and more people from all works of life realizing that creating a new and equal India is their responsibility too, the movement is growing every day. Some incredible projects have caught my attention over the past few months that serve as an inspiration to all those who want to get involved or start their own initiative. The Red Brigade and Jagaran India are two such initiatives.
- Persevere – Let’s face it. It’ll be a long time till there’s substantial change in attitudes but there’s no denying that it will happen. It has to. And when it does, we won’t be telling our daughters that they can’t walk/drive alone after 8 p.m. or that they need an escort to help them do their job.