This blog is written by a journalist based in Mumbai who writes about cities, the environment, developmental issues, the media, women and many other subjects.The title 'ulti khopdi' is a Hindi phrase referring to someone who likes to look at things from the other side.
According to reports prepared by the United Nations and Iraqi refugee
support groups, there are 1.6 million widows in Iraq today as a direct
consequence of what is termed a “low-level war”.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, in a country not far from India,
women had rights and some freedom. They drove cars, even taxis. They
went out to restaurants and cafes. They worked as doctors, teachers,
lawyers, and in other professions.
Today, they dare not step out of their homes after dark. It is a rare
sight to see a woman behind the driving wheel. In a little over 12
years, this country has changed so drastically as to be virtually
The country I am referring to is Iraq. Even as our newspapers and
television news show images of wars across that region, and we are
informed of the war in Yemen as scores of Indians are evacuated, we
forget that there was once a country called Iraq where women had freedom
It is good to remember this because it reminds us, yet again, about the
price that war extracts from ordinary people but especially from women.
I was reminded of Iraq when I read a recent article about the situation
of women in Iraq. According to reports prepared by the United Nations
and Iraqi refugee support groups, there are 1.6 million widows in Iraq
today as a direct consequence of what is termed a “low-level war”. In
fact, one in every 10 families in Iraq is headed by a woman. There are
also over five million orphans.
How do these women support their families? In a country where women were
free to engage in all manner of jobs, since 2003, when the United
States and its allies decided that Iraqis needed a regime change, and
proceeded to destroy a functioning economy, women have been the hardest
hit. For many, the only option is low-paid jobs like housekeeping or
cleaning, and only if there is someone to care for their children. Many
others have resorted to begging. Even this is risky as the police round
up such women and throw them in jail.
The luckier ones are those who can still live in their own towns or
villages, even if some of these were reduced to rubble during the war
and thereafter. The fate of the internally displaced is many times
worse. In a population of a little over 36 million, 1.13 million people
are internally displaced because of the conflict. Some of them have been
uprooted several times in the course of the last decade.
During the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraqi women had access to education.
They played sport. “We were like normal people. We would go to
restaurants and cafes with our children but now all the women and
children rush to their home before the sun sets because they are
afraid”, stated Hana Ibrahim, director of the Women’s Cultural Center,
in Baghdad when she testified before the World Tribunal on Iraq. Not
only are women constrained from going out now, even those with
qualifications are not finding work. An estimated 68 per cent of Iraqi
women graduates can find no work.
Iraq: the women’s story is a film made three years after the U.S.
invasion of Iraq. Two Iraqi women travelled across the country for
three months. It was risky, as the war had not ended. They spoke to many
women not just in Baghdad but also in places like Basra in the south
and in a small town near the Syria border that had been flattened by
American bombs. The stories they recorded were heart-breaking. A
grieving widow left with six children when her husband, an ambulance
driver, is killed during the bombing of their town. An eight-year-old
girl recounts her experience of surviving when the car in which she was
travelling with her father and some others was shot down by the U.S.
military. Everyone died except her father and herself. Her father was
imprisoned on suspicion of being a terrorist. The little girl was
treated in a hospital by the Americans and finally allowed to return to
her family. She was shown the bloodied photographs of the dead men in
the car and asked if she recognised any of them. In the film, her
grandfather recounts how shattered she is by that experience even if her
physical wounds have healed.
These stories of war are familiar. They sound the same everywhere. Only
the locations differ, as do the identities of the victims and the
aggressors. What is a constant is the fact that at the very bottom of
the heap are often the women.
In Iraq, as elsewhere, the war has meant not just the physical
destruction of a country, but the specific attack on women, something
that continues till today. For the last 12 years, Iraqi women have had
to contend with abductions, death, torture, forced marriages and sexual
violence. Many are the stories that are never told. How many times can
you repeat the same story? Even the media loses interest after a while
as it moves to other killing fields, to war zones where the action is
more horrific. The situation of women in Iraq reminds us that if women
repeatedly speak up for peace, it is because they know the real cost of
Should we be worried or is this just paranoia? The recent uproar caused
by Union Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani spotting
a closed circuit television (CCTV) camera allegedly pointing toward the
women’s changing room in a store in Goa raises many questions. While
the police will hopefully figure out how a camera placed for store
surveillance recorded women trying out clothes as has been alleged, the
incident draws attention to larger questions about surveillance and
So even as CCTV cameras proliferate in our cities, we have to ask how
what they record is being used. To catch shoplifters, all big stores
justify having surveillance cameras. To catch criminals and
law-breakers, and to provide “security” to law-abiding citizens, we have
cameras on the street, in offices, in buildings, in elevators, in
public places, at traffic signals, at toll booths, in railway stations,
at airports, in trains and in buses — virtually everywhere. People even
have them in their homes. But none of us care to ask what happens to the
footage recorded by these cameras, who views it and whether that
footage is secure. In other words, is the technology designed to enhance
security really secure or is it open to misuse.
We know now that there are an increasing number of reported instances
where footage from CCTV cameras placed in public places, such as the
Delhi Metro for instance, has been uploaded on the Internet without the
knowledge or the permission of the people depicted in it. The
Information Technology (IT) Act has provisions to deal with such misuse
but it has failed to act as a deterrent. The watchful eye behind the
camera can also be a voyeur and women, who are most often the subject of
such misuse, really have no way to protect themselves.
While CCTV cameras are worrisome, there is another kind of surveillance
that is, perhaps, even more menacing for women. Today millions of people
have cameras and recording devices on their phones. This has been a
positive development but it also has serious negative fallouts.
In terms of empowering women, there are dozens of examples from across
India where something as simple as a mobile phone has changed women’s
lives. In Dharavi, the enormous urban poor settlement in the heart of
Mumbai, women have been trained by a local non-governmental organisation
to record and report instances of violence against women by using their
cell phones. In Bundelkhand, U.P., rural women journalists are using
phones to record and report from areas that the mainstream would never
bother to cover, to tell stories that would otherwise remain untold.
These reports are printed in the different editions of their newspaper Khabar Lahariya
and distributed throughout the region. Young women in our cities use
the phone literally as a safety device. They speak on it to show they
are connected to a person when alone in a taxi or a train. They take
pictures of taxi drivers or potential harassers. So a simple technology
like the mobile phone has made a difference to the lives of many women.
But there is also the downside. This very phone in the hands of a man
can become the instrument of harassment. Women are targeted with
unsolicited and sexist text messages. Men are known to photograph and
film unsuspecting women and use that footage as “revenge porn” to
blackmail them. Not long ago, on a flight from Delhi to Guwahati, two
men were caught filming a woman passenger and an airhostess. The woman
noticed what they were doing, used her phone to photograph them and
uploaded the pictures on social media to name and shame them. But not
every woman has the courage or presence of mind to respond like this.
The majority get scared, intimidated and depressed if they are subjected
to such voyeurism.
A report by the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) titled
“How technology impacts women’s rights” (March 2015) discusses the
gender perspective on technology. It points out, “People share images of
women without their consent because they think women’s bodies and
sexuality are shameful but also public property…The message is clear:
privacy rights do not extend to women.”
Of course, in India the concept of “privacy” is not just gendered but
also has a class angle. Only the privileged have access to a private
space; for the majority all space is public. The only space that is
private is what is in their heads. The majority of women and men living
in our crowded cities, and even in the villages, are compelled to create
the illusion of privacy in the absence of any physical private space.
Despite this, the recent incident in Goa ought to spark a serious debate
on issues of privacy, on excessive surveillance, on laws that we need
to protect the right of individuals to privacy and above all to
understand that technology is not always gender neutral.
Many women in India are really mad and irritated with
Sharad Yadav. The Rajya Sabha MP, who belongs to the Janata Dal
(United), thinks nothing of drawing comparisons between Indian women,
their skin colour and shape and provisions of the Insurance Bill. Others
might find it difficult to make the connect. But not Yadav. Nor some of
his fellow male compatriots who were caught on camera laughing at his
Yet those of us who ‘know’ Sharad Yadav
should not really be surprised at what he said. How can we forget his
performance as a member of the ‘Yadav Troika’, that band of brothers who
have fought determinedly and spiritedly against increasing the
representation of women in Parliament? This is the same Sharad Yadav
who, in the debate on the Women’s Reservation Bill, attacked Indian
women with short hair, charging them with conspiring to increase women’s
representation in Parliament.
Since then, there are
probably more women in India who have short hair although this has not
been the chief reason that the law that Sharad Yadav detests, also known
as the 108 Constitutional Amendment Bill 2008, did pass in the Rajya
Sabha. Again, we were not surprised to learn that certain members who
objected to the Bill had to be physically evicted from the House.
his recent verbal history, we should not be alarmed at Yadav’s comments
about women’s skin colour. He is being entirely consistent at a time
when consistency is not a quality found in many Indian politicians. In
fact, perhaps we should thank him. For without meaning to, Yadav has
reminded us of something we forget: the fair-skin obsession among
Indians. He has also nudged us to remember that the Women’s Reservation
Bill still awaits a vote in the Lok Sabha.
up the latter first. Much has been debated about the pluses and minuses
of this Bill. Without going into that, we should remember that the
party now in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supported the Bill.
There are memorable photographs of women Members of Parliament
including Sushma Swaraj of the BJP in the company of Sonia Gandhi of the
Congress Party and Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India
(Marxist) celebrating the passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha.
Cutting across party lines, women politicians came together in support
of the Bill.
Unfortunately, we do not see such
solidarity among the women on other issues. Brinda Karat, in a recent
comment on Sharad Yadav’s behaviour in the Rajya Sabha, lamented the
absence of solidarity among the few women who were in the House the day
Yadav held forth. She recounted how difficult it had been in the past,
when such anti-women remarks were made, to get the attention of the
chair. Surely, if one third of the House consisted of women, men like
Yadav would not escape unscathed. That’s another reason to have more
In any case, the BJP government seems
to have forgotten about this particular Bill. In its hurry to push
through seven Bills, it has been afflicted by amnesia as far as the
Women’s Reservation Bill is concerned. So perhaps Sharad Yadav’s
soliloquy in the House will stir the memory of the party honchos that
here is one more law that needs to be passed quite urgently.
the other aspect of skin colour? We need not be reminded of that. Just
turn on the television. There are plenty of reminders in the
advertisements you see. If you want success, as a woman or a man, you
must be fair and good-looking. No less than Shah Rukh Khan tells you
this. Or read the matrimonial columns of newspapers. ‘Beautiful, fair,
slim’, three words that are repeated. Or go to dating and marriage
websites. The story never changes. The shape of the woman and the colour
of her skin are essential qualities for ‘a suitable match’. Unfair,
many women would say, but Indian society continues to plum for ‘fair’
over all else.
As a result, since they were first
introduced in 1975, ‘fairness’ creams and skin-lightening agents have
grown into an incredible Rs.3,000 crore business in India, expanding at
the rate of 18 per cent a year. Their appeal has caught the interest of
men since the introduction in 2005 of special men’s fairness creams.
studies that reveal the harm these creams can do, their sales continue
to climb. A 2014 study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)
revealed that skin-lightening lotions contained harmful chemicals such
as mercury. Far from lightening the colour of your skin, they can harm
it and also cause other adverse reactions. The CSE tested 32
skin-lightening creams and found that 44 per cent had mercury content
despite mercury being banned for use in cosmetics under the Drugs and
Cosmetics Acts and Rules.
So thank you, Sharad Yadav for reminding us of a forgotten bill and a cosmetic that we ought to forget.
40-year-old woman died of meningo-encephalitis in a Kolkata hospital on
March 13. We need never have known her name. Yet Suzette Jordan is a
name we do know. She is also “India’s daughter” and her story is
A little over three years ago, on February 5, 2012,
Jordan went to a nightclub with friends on Kolkata’s famous Park
Street. A man she met there offered her a lift home. Instead of
dropping her to her destination, Jordan was gang-raped and then flung
out of the car.
She picked herself up and reported the rape.
Because it happened in the heart of Kolkata, the crime attracted
enormous media attention. Jordan became known as the “Park Street rape
victim”. But few applauded her courage at complaining to the
authorities about the crime. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said Jordan
had fabricated the case. Others suggested that she was a prostitute.
What was she doing out at a nightclub when she was the mother of two
girls, people asked. For months, Jordan suffered in silence, fought her
case through a hostile court, with little sympathy from even the judge.
year later, Jordan decided to come out in the open. “Why should I hide
my identity when it was not even my fault?” she told NDTV. “Why should
I be ashamed of something I did not give rise to? I was subjected to
torture, and I was subjected to rape, and I am fighting and I will
She fought. But there was little sympathy from society.
Her daughters, who she brought up as a single mother, were mocked at
school. No one would give her a job, despite interventions from the few
who were sympathetic. She finally got one with an NGO on a helpline
for women in distress.
Jordan was not an exception in that she
was raped. In the last two weeks, the brutal rape and subsequent death
of a young woman in Delhi has foregrounded the intense discussion about
whether the telecast of Leslee Udwin’s film on that rape, India’s Daughter, should be allowed in this country.
Jordan stood out because she decided to reveal her identity. By openly
declaring that she was the “Park Street rape victim”, Jordan exposed
the hypocrisy of Indian society, its fake sympathies for women victims
of sexual assault that disappear if the woman stands up and flings off
the shroud of shame society expects her to wear for the rest of her
Jordan’s experience illustrates how the blame for rape
continues to cling to the survivor if she chooses to deny victimhood.
Who knows what the December 16 victim, whose name we still do not take,
would have suffered had she lived. Because we now celebrate her life,
have given her a fictitious name, we can fool ourselves into believing
that we respect and honour women like her. But do we?
While India’s Daughter
brought home the unrepentant attitude of the convict, Mukesh Singh, and
the crass and misogynistic views of the defence lawyers, it did not
reveal what survivors of rape face if they dare to fight their cases.
Humiliating court procedures
of her experience in court to a friend, Jordan mentioned how she was
humiliated, made to repeat what she suffered and felt as if she had been
gang-raped repeatedly in court. Lawyer Flavia Agnes has written about
how a Mumbai journalist who was gang-raped in August 2013 had to walk up
and tap the accused on the shoulder in the police line-up and state
loudly what he did to her. The woman raped in December by a taxi driver
in Delhi, what is known as the Uber rape case, has had to turn to the
Supreme Court to appeal against repeated questioning by the defence.
the law has changed, but not the conduct of the police, lawyers, or the
atmosphere in our courts where rape cases are heard. This is what
Jordan’s story tells us.
In her death perhaps she will get the
respect that was denied to her when she was alive. Respect for shedding
anonymity, respect for refusing to be pitied, respect for insisting
that the shame was with the rapists and not with the woman assaulted.
given what Jordan went through in the two years since she came out in
public, her story is unlikely to encourage others to follow her
example. We were not ready for Suzette Jordan; we still aren’t.
This March 8 was not a very happy occasion. Despite the
celebrations, lurking at the back was not just the unseemly controversy
over the banning of the film India’s Daughter about the December
2012 Delhi gang rape and murder but also the public lynching of a man
accused of rape in Dimapur, Nagaland. There is no connection between the
two. Yet, the operative word was ‘rape’. It hung in the air even as we
told ourselves that the day was all about women’s empowerment.
the film, watched extensively on the Internet despite the ban, produced
mixed responses, the chilling image that lingered was that of the
convict Mukesh Singh’s cold and unrepentant words as he spoke explicitly
of what happened on the bus that dreadful night of December 16. It
produced in all of us a mixture of revulsion and helplessness, the
former to hear a man responsible for the death of an innocent speak so
clinically and casually about it, and the latter because you knew that
this was not an aberrant, a monster, speaking but that he could be Mr.
Everyman or as someone pointed out, he was another of ‘India’s sons’.
while we discussed and debated, and for a brief while turned our
attention to that much neglected part of India, the Northeast, because
of the ghastly lynching of Syed Sarif Uddin Khan in Dimapur, more young
girls and women were molested, assaulted, raped. These statistics don't
take a break for any special day for women.
Dimapur killing was a reflection of the growing clamour for instant
justice echoed by people elected to uphold the law. On March 8,
Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Madhya Pradesh, Usha Thakur said in
response to the Dimapur lynching, “There is a need to make a stern law
against men who rape minor girls. Such criminals should be hanged in
full public view and their last rites should not be performed.” A recipe
to make India safer for women? Surely not.
At a time
when what happens today dominates and yesterday’s news is forgotten and
buried, we also forgot that thousands of women had occupied the streets
of Delhi just days before March 8. The march by farmers from 16 states
to Delhi on February 23, to register their protest against amendments to
the Land Acquisition Act, included hundreds of women. You can see them
in the photographs, women of all ages, wearing colourful saris,
determination writ clearly on their faces. They sat with the men and
made the same demands. They were there as farmers, and as women.
were these women? Why had they travelled this long distance to Delhi?
Why was land so important to them? Did any of us speak to them and ask?
Apart from one TV channel that had two women farmers give their views on
the budget — a blink and miss intervention — the voices of such women
were never heard. And before we could find out what they were thinking,
they had packed up and gone back. We had missed the crucial reality that
farmers are not just men but also women, that agricultural losses and
the takeover of farming lands hits women as much as men and that this
gender dimension of the law needs to be heeded.
needs to be heard not just because women constitute 48.5 per cent of the
Indian population and therefore cannot be treated as invisible. But
also because recent studies suggest that there is a link between women’s
economic rights, their right to own land and business, and their
ability to face physical and other forms of violence.
Kelkar, Shantanu Gaikwad and Somdatta Mandal have recently published
one such study titled ‘Women’s Asset Ownership and Reduction in
Gender-based Violence’. The study is based on data from Karnataka and
Telangana, both states with patriarchal structures in land ownership and
Meghalaya, which has a matrilineal system.
does not permit a detailed analysis of the facts in this study. It makes
the basic and important point that when women have control over land
and income, they have greater control of their lives. Ownership of
assets does not automatically add up to a reduction in violence as there
are many other factors making women vulnerable, particularly in the
home. Yet, this study and the women interviewed in the three states
suggest that ownership of land gives women greater self-respect in the
family and the courage to speak up.
Such studies are
important. We talk about violence against women (and not just rape).
There are no instant or easy solutions. Summary justice of the kind
being demanded will make no difference. We emphasise that male mindsets
must change if we want real and lasting change. Yet even as that
happens, we can take several specific and concrete steps to strengthen
women and equip them with the tools to counter violence. One of these
steps is making women owners of economic assets like land.
Film-maker Leslee Udwin, Director of the documentary 'India's Daughter'.
We are so easily outraged. We get angry if someone from
another country critically views what we know to be our terrible
reality. We know women in India are not safe. We know there are rapes of
women every day — young, old, Dalit, tribal, in cities and in villages.
Yet, if a ‘foreigner’ deigns to point this out, we get upset; we are
‘hurt’, says the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh; we are outraged; we
think it is a ‘conspiracy to defame India’.
So the controversy surrounding Leslee Udwin’s documentary film India’s Daughter
— about the December 16, 2012 gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old
woman in Delhi — goes round and round in circles. It generates heat and
sound but little sense and certainly no hope.
not seen the film and so will not comment on its contents. The
controversy surrounding it has once again brought into focus the grim
reality of rape as well as how many Indian men view women. Personally, I
don’t think any film, made by an Indian or a foreigner can make things
look worse than they already are. Nor should there be a question of
banning such films. What are we afraid of? What we can question is the
perspective in such films. For instance, the decision of the filmmaker
to interview one of the convicts and the lawyers, knowing what they
would say, can be questioned.
These questions can be
asked once you see the film. Now that the government has successfully
got a restraint order from the court, this is not a possibility
(although the Internet defies all restraint orders, as we all know). In
fact, by releasing the content of her interviews with Mukesh Singh and
the lawyers, the filmmaker has ensured that her film will be sought
after, despite the restraining order. Perhaps that is what she wanted in
the first place, to stir a controversy to promote her film. Or, to give
her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she did not anticipate the
government’s response. If not, then she was incredibly naïve.
the separate — and perhaps more pertinent — issue is whether we can go
on talking about December 16, as if time has stood still and nothing has
changed. The Delhi gang rape galvanised women and men in a way that has
not been seen in India for several decades. It might have seemed
momentary. The demonstrations and candlelight vigils did end eventually.
But the protests set in motion several important initiatives including
the Justice J.S. Verma Committee report, the changes in the law and the
growing consciousness and conversation about crimes against women.
see this in the increase in the reporting on the incidence of rape. We
notice this in the way some women are now fighting back. We acknowledge
this in the fact that no political party can now ignore addressing the
question of women’s safety (whether they mean what they say is another
issue). This is the legacy left behind after those weeks when women and
men came out on the streets and expressed their anguish. The clock on
such consciousness cannot be turned back easily.
also know that, as articulated beautifully by the activist Kavita
Krishnan, Indian women do not want to be seen as India’s daughters — or,
for that matter, as mothers, wives, aunts, nieces or grandmothers.
Women want equality as citizens. They do not need the legitimacy of a
link to a male, a family or ‘the nation’. They demand respect as human
beings. It is so easy to bracket women within this cosy frame of ‘the
family’ while leaving ‘the nation’ to be managed by men. Objecting to
the title of the film is not just a question of semantics; it is
objecting to the attitude that the phrase represents; something that is
ultimately at the root of the violence that women face.
a film, good or bad, should not bring us back to the subject of rape,
of sexual assault, of everyday violence that millions of Indian women
suffer every single day. Our concern should not be reduced to one
incident, however horrific it was, one set of parents, or even one city.
There are women in Manipur, in Kashmir, in Chhattisgarh who face the
violence of the state. There are Dalit women across India who face the
violence of the upper castes. There are women born into poverty who face
the violence of a heartless economy that excludes them.
must also recognise that there is a struggle to see an end to this
violence. Women and men are needed for it. All Indian men are not
rapists or criminals. Women know that. So even as women sometimes
despair at the dominant attitudes that prevail, we must not fall into
the trap of reducing our problems to these simplistic binaries — of
helpless women and villainous men, of daughters that should be protected
and of rapists who should be hanged. And the ‘hurt’ that the Home
Minister should feel is not over the contents of a film, but the daily
reality of violence that women in India continue to face.
Why do women continue to be absent in AAP? Photo: R.V. Moorthy
If AAP really wants to pioneer an ‘alternative politics’ it cannot overlook the importance of gender.
On February 11, a day after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)
thundered into power in Delhi, early morning walkers noted something
interesting. An elderly man, dressed in kurta pajama, a garland of
marigolds around his neck, a Gandhi topi and muffler and holding a jhadoo was
walking in the park. He was beaming. Most who saw him smiled, laughed,
shook his hand. This was in Mumbai, many miles from Delhi.
Delhi victory sent out waves of optimism around the country even if
this scenario will not be replicated elsewhere, at least not in the
immediate future. Most people accept that AAP should be given a fair
chance this time to demonstrate how different it is from other parties.
even as I grant that, I still have a grouse. Thirteen months ago, when
AAP came to power for a brief period, I had asked why it did not
consider calling itself the Aam Aurat Party, or even the Aam Insaan
Party. The point I was trying to make then was that aadmi might
mean every person but its use is also a reflection of the automatic
assumption that terms like ‘man’ or ‘aadmi’ automatically include women.
this question is now redundant. Yet, we must still ask why women
continue to be absent in AAP. Where are the women, Arvind Kejriwal? How
is it that in your cabinet, even if it is small, you could not find
place for even one woman? Is making a woman the deputy speaker an
adequate token towards gender balance? I think not.
need to strive for gender balance — still a very long way off in most
institutions — is because it reminds us that one half of humanity
deserves representation. AAP could argue that it was so focused on
winning as many seats as it could that it gave tickets to people who
would win rather than ensuring that enough women got tickets. If that is
the argument, then how can we assume that AAP represents ‘alternative
politics’ as the wise men of the party continue to proclaim? Is this not
the excuse used by most mainstream political parties to deny tickets to
In this respect, AAP unfortunately does not
represent any kind of alternative as this is virtually the norm. Apart
from Delhi, seven other states have no women in their cabinets —
Telangana, Puducherry, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and
Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland, Puducherry and Mizoram further distinguish
themselves by not having a single woman member of the legislative
Not surprisingly, the three states with
women chief ministers — Rajasthan, West Bengal and Gujarat — have a
higher percentage of women in the cabinet. The excuse that there are not
enough women to choose from for the cabinet is also not sustainable
because even states with a higher percentage of women MLAs do not
necessarily have more women in the cabinet.
final analysis, does any of this really matter? Is it not more important
to ensure that the people we elect — men or women — are not corrupt and
are sincere in their commitment to ‘serve the people’, a promise that
so ready rolls off their tongues during election campaigns? Yes, and No.
Yes, because that is stating the obvious. But No because if we are a
representative democracy, then all sections, including women, should
play a part in governance. If first time male MLAs, or even MPs, can
become cabinet ministers, what stops women from being appointed to such
positions? If the attempt to have a caste balance, for instance, ensures
that some men get cabinet posts, why not women?
there are no excuses. The exclusion of women is not always deliberate;
it is unthinking. It happens because those who decide, usually men, fail
to accept that the inherent disadvantage that the majority of women
face in entering politics needs to be compensated by some amount of
In time, perhaps this kind of
preference will not be needed. In many countries around the world,
women are now making their way as equal partners and do not need a
leg-up. But in many instances, the initial space created did help.
to come back to Arvind Kejriwal and AAP in Delhi, I accept that the
huge mandate they got is a sign of people wanting change, and perhaps
even a different type of politics.
Having said that, I
still think if AAP really wants to pioneer an ‘alternative politics’ it
cannot overlook the importance of gender. Making promises to deal with
women’s safety, something that all parties do, does not address the
issue. The party needs to acknowledge that a gender perspective is
needed in all aspects of governance, that inclusive politics means
making an effort to include women in decision-making, and that the
perspective such an inclusion facilitates is good in the long run for
everybody, women and men.
Fewer than a dozen hands went up when I asked a room of
over 500 Mumbai college girls how many did not have a mobile phone.
Given the growing belief that technology, as represented by the many
functions of a mobile phone, whether it would
aid the cause of women’s
For instance, within a month of the Delhi
gang rape in December 2012, a “women’s safety” app named “Nirbhaya” was
launched. Since then dozens of such apps have been launched around the
country. The latest is “Himmat” by the Delhi police, billed as the first
integrated women’s safety app in India.
increasing rate of rape and sexual assault on women, including minors,
will these technological interventions make any difference to women’s
lives? Delhi and Mumbai have also been promised thousands of
closed-circuit cameras in public places to enhance women’s safety.
Indian women be safer with the government watching over them through
closed-circuit cameras and through safety apps on mobile phones? I think
not. For no app, no matter how smart or effective, can substitute for
the many steps that need to be taken to make women feel secure.
Principally, this involves changing a culture where attacking and
sexually abusing women is acceptable.
range of apps now available — with names like SmartShehar, VithU, BSafe,
Raksha — the majority merely facilitate a quick call for help to the
police and/or to relatives/friends in the event of an attack. A woman
fearing an attack or when actually attacked (although how a woman
surrounded by several men can grab her phone and use the app is anyone’s
guess) is expected to be saved by the app. Designers of these apps are
selling the belief that these apps will enhance women’s safety.
in fact, is the problem with the apps. For they create the illusion of
safety and security without an understanding of the wider context of the
persisting lack of safety for women. The conversation around them also
fails to accept the reality of class. Apps are available to women with
smartphones; these are owned only by 13 per cent of our total population
(although there are an estimated 900 million mobile phone connections).
And they exclude women without phones or with ordinary phones.
these apps can work only if the official state machinery is responsive.
Even the single numbers (103, 100) for distress calls do not produce a
quick response, or indeed any response. Police apathy, whether you
approach a police station or call a number, is virtually a given. Until
this changes, the efficacy of any app is greatly limited.
more effective is to use technology not just to “protect” women, or
give them an easy way to seek help, but to involve them in the process
of understanding the issues of safety and danger, and become active
participants. An app called SafetiPin, for instance, attempts to do that
through its mapping tool. Women can pinpoint areas that they consider
unsafe, put down reasons (for instance, dark corners or poor lighting)
as well as seek help. An interactive app of this kind allows women to
check their surroundings and also encourages them to add to the database
so that others are helped. But, ultimately, even this information can
make a difference only if the law enforcing machinery and city
authorities act on it.
The good news is that women
are using mobile technology to help themselves. There are several recent
examples. The woman raped in an Uber cab in Delhi photographed the
license plate of the cab on her phone, thereby assisting the police to
track down the rapist. A young woman on a flight to Bhubaneswar shamed
the middle-aged businessman in the seat behind her who tried to grope
her by filming him, putting the clips out on YouTube and filing a
complaint with the police. Well-known anti-trafficking activist Sunitha
Krishnan has circulated an edited version of a shocking video of a gang
rape by five men that has been on Whatsapp for some time. She has
launched a Twitter campaign #ShameTheRapistCampaign urging people to
find and identify the five men seen laughing away as they torture and
rape a woman.
New technologies, like smartphones, are
empowering and give women considerable autonomy. But in themselves,
even if they are loaded with the most efficient apps, they cannot alter
the reality of the dangers that women face in the public and private
space. The onus should not be put on women to use such technology to
keep themselves safe. Technology helps if the state does its job of
dealing with crime, and society refuses to be complacent and accept
sexual assault as just another crime.