Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mainland apathy

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 24, 2015

Manipur...centre of unrest.
Manipur...centre of unrest.

There are some stories that are never told. Inundated as our media is with the foreign travels of our Prime Minister, statements and actions of other politicians, Bollywood and cricket, murders and crime, large parts of this country are rendered virtually invisible. Newsworthiness is determined by proximity. So if something happens in our big cities, there will be pages devoted to the incident. In Mumbai, where I live, one newspaper devoted as many as six pages to the Salman Khan case. Excessive? Yes, but also all too predictable.

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to two women journalist friends of mine in Manipur, a northeastern state that I have not visited for over five years. During my last visit, many aspects of life there caught my attention. For instance, journalists had to carry two or three mobile phones, as they did not know when there would be electricity to charge them. Internet connections were patchy.

Apart from their professional lives, these women also had to contend with the daily challenges of living in a place where there is no reliable source of electricity, and water shortages are frequent. In a state where dozens of militant groups operate, curfew could be imposed on any day, making movement after 5 pm risky. Public transport was virtually non-existent even in the capital of the state. The transport that you did notice in abundance was that of Indian army jeeps and trucks, some with soldiers standing ready with guns cocked. Not a happy state of affairs by any stretch of the imagination.

We know that Manipuri women are incredibly strong. Irom Sharmila, still on an indefinite fast demanding the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), has more than proved that. This resilience is also evident in the faces of the women who run the main marketplace in Imphal, the Ima market, and in the demeanour of those doughty older women, the Meira Paibi, who have been at the forefront of the fight to highlight human rights offences by the security forces. Yet their courage and strength is severely challenged by these vicissitudes of daily life.

So I asked my friends if anything had changed since my last visit, if daily existence had become a little better and also whether the mainstream media had tapped them for reports about their region that went beyond militancy and politics.  Here is what one of them wrote:

“My answer to that would be that most often there is NO work for folks like us. How many times do we see stories about the people, their issues, lifestyle, politics etc?” She pointed out that only when “the body count goes up in some deadly bomb blast or an economic blockade on the highway that goes into a record breaking three months” is when the Indian media takes note. “They send parachute journalists who even get their vehicle drivers to give them bytes as ‘locals’,” she complains. “National media outlets (whose idea of the Indian nation stops at West Bengal!) prefer to pay for a flight, hotel and vehicle charges for their journalists who get in and get out before they can even spell MANIPUR! Many prefer to buy video clips from local video journalists (cable folks etc.) and use them sitting in Delhi or Guwahati.”

And what about the power situation: “It is like five steps forward and three back.  We have now got a pre-paid facility in most parts of Imphal but despite that, we do not get a 24-hour facility. Since pre-paid installation is going on, we have long spells of darkness. No one can say when the lights will be off or on. Suffice to say that it’s somewhat better but definitely not reliable. We had a 36-hour blackout just the other day, no explanations given!”

You will not know this from following the mainstream Indian media. We are informed that Manipur now has a new governor, Dr.Syed Ahmed. But, days before he was sworn in, the main link of Manipur to the rest of the country, NH 37, was blocked following protests against the killing of two labourers by the Kuki Revolutionary Front (KRF), one of dozens of militant groups operating in the state. That was followed by a 24-hour general strike. The blocked highway meant that fuel prices shot through the roof; a litre of petrol was Rs.120, an LPG cylinder sold for Rs.1,600 in the black. For people in Manipur, such blockades are now a fact of life but for the media in the rest of India, this was not a story worth reporting in any detail.

Is it not ironic that “mainland India”, the term used in many northeastern states, continues to emphasise how even the distant reaches of this country like Kashmir and Manipur are an ‘integral’ part of the country? And yet we, who inhabit this mainland, care little about the daily lives of those who live in these regions.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

How not to help Nepal

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 10, 2015

Those giving aid need to take the viewpoint of the affected communities seriously.
Those giving aid need to take the viewpoint of the affected communities seriously.

The devastation that Nature has wrought on Nepal, that beautiful but poor nation, makes you weep. Pictures of the ravaged land bring back memories of other times when the earth was still, when people smiled, when temple bells echoed through the narrow and crowded streets of Kathmandu.
Nature does not care to discriminate when it strikes. Yet, once the dust settles — and it has still to settle in Nepal — questions will be asked for which there are no easy answers. Already people are asking them. For instance, why does it take so long for help to reach them? And when it does, why is it inappropriate and uneven?

Such questions were asked so long ago closer home. On January 26, 2001, an earthquake of similar intensity hit Kutch and parts of Gujarat. Entire villages were flattened. In towns, buildings collapsed, roads were split open. Almost 20,000 died; 1,66,000 were injured and 4,00,000 houses were destroyed.

While Nepal is in the Himalayas, Kutch is a desert, flat and barren. Even the worst affected places could be accessed by road and air. Bhuj, the principal city, was also badly affected but enough of it remained intact for some kind of relief effort to be coordinated within a few days.
Yet, what was striking at first, as in Nepal, was the absence of the State. In the first few days, people helped each other and community and non-governmental groups working in the region sprung into action. When aid did come, from all over the world, it was often inappropriate. It came from people who meant well, who were moved by the plight of those affected. But with no one to guide them, they ended up sending things that could not be used.

I was reminded of this when I heard of a group of well-intentioned women in Mumbai deciding to make hundreds of theplas (a Gujarati roti that can last for several days) to send to Nepal. No one told them that cooked food was a waste when the basic infrastructure for distributing aid had still not been established.

I saw something similar in Kutch. Tons of used clothing was sent there by truck. Bundles of used clothes, some torn and damaged, were flung out of trucks as they passed by the devastated villages. No one bothered to pick them up. No one had checked the kind of clothing Kutchi women would find useful. So the clothes lay on the road and in time were dispersed by strong winds. Eventually, they found a perch on the dry branches of the few trees that spotted the barren landscape. It was a bizarre sight that illustrated the pointlessness of this kind of goodwill gesture.

The biggest challenge in the aftermath of natural disasters is when it recedes from our consciousness. That is precisely when disaster-hit areas require the most attention. The slow and tedious task of rebuilding and rehabilitation can take many years. The process exposes the divisions that exist in many societies and sometimes even exacerbates them. Inevitably, the better- off, the better-connected manage while the struggle for those at the margins is prolonged.

Disasters also present an opportunity to think afresh about the kind of development that is needed. In Kutch, as in Nepal, many of the villages badly affected also suffered from lack of water and sanitation. Post-disaster, the emphasis is on rebuilding structures with earthquake-resistant features. But the permanent, and sometimes intractable, problems such as providing basic services are overlooked.

This is where affected communities need to be seen as participants and not as recipients of aid. The latter expects them to be passive, to gratefully accept whatever comes their way. The former demands active participation. Those giving aid need to take the viewpoint of these communities seriously and recognise that people who live in such precarious environments also have a deep understanding of survival strategies.

However, such sagacity is not always present in donors. In Kutch, for instance, many business houses came forward and offered to reconstruct entire villages. What emerged were strong, earthquake-resistant concrete structures. They were uniform. They were laid out in a grid with straight lines. And they looked indistinguishable from other new townships in any other part of India. The distinctiveness of traditional Kutch architecture, which incorporates features to deal with the harsh climate, was missing. Worse still was the almost complete absence of consultation with the affected communities.

In one such township, the women setup temporary kitchens outside their concrete houses. Why, I asked. Because the design of the kitchen, they said, was unsuitable for their style of cooking with wood or coal. So they were left with no option but to cook out in the open.

In any case, in the first year after the new structures were built, people continued to sleep outside because they had no faith that these buildings would survive another earthquake. No one had bothered to explain how earthquake-resistant features work. If the benefactors had taken the time to educate people, particularly the women, and also to consult them about the design of the houses, there would have been greater acceptance.

Everyone wants to help victims of natural calamities. But the best help for those who survive is respect. And a listening ear. It is not too much to ask.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Price of war

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 26, 2015

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”.
 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 unrecognisable.

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 of movement.
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 war.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Someone is watching you

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, April 12, 2015

Big Brother is watching you. Photo: V. Ganesan

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 privacy.

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.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 29, 2015

Thank you, Sharad Yadav…

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 remarks.

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.

Given 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.

Let’s take 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 women elected.

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.

And 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.

Despite 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.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Suzette Jordan showed that India isn't ready for rape survivors who deny their victimhood

Published in on March 14, 2015

A 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 exceptional.

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.

Going public

A 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 fight.”

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.

Exposing hypocrisy

But 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 life.

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

Speaking 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.

Yes, 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

Crucial realities

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 15, 2015

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.

Although 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’.

And 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.

The 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.

Who 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.

It 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.

Govind 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.

Space 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.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Talking about rape

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 8, 2015

  • Protests against the December 2012 gang rape.
    Protests against the December 2012 gang rape.
  • Film-maker Leslee Udwin, Director of the documentary 'India's Daughter'.
    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.

I have 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 na├»ve.

But 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.

We 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.

We 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.

So 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.

We 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.