Sunday, July 22, 2012

Calling a crime by its name

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 22, 2012

How safe are our public spaces for women? Photo: Arunangsu Roy
How safe are our public spaces for women? Photo: Arunangsu Roy 
Can we stop talking about the horrific incident in Guwahati on the night of July 9 as the “Guwahati molestation”? To molest, according to the dictionary, means “to pester or harass, typically in an aggressive or persistent manner.” What happened that night on Guwahati’s busy G.S. Road was a “sexual assault” on a young girl. So before we even begin talking about it, let us call a crime by its real name.

The full story of what happened that night is still unspooling. But enough is known to raise several crucial questions; ones that relate to women, to our society, to the media and to the law enforcing agencies. The incident might have occurred in what is usually considered a remote part of India. But its fallout affects all of us, including those who live in what people in the Northeast call the “mainland”.
Displays of insensitivity

Much has already been written about the July 9 sexual assault. Not without reason has the representative of the National Commission for Women, Alka Lamba, been asked to step down. In an astounding display of insensitivity, she revealed the identity of the young woman to the media. The Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, outdid her by getting his office to send photographs of himself with the girl to the entire media, and retracting after the pictures had already been circulated. So much for protecting the survivor’s identity.

The question of the media’s role is the subject of much debate. The Assam government has conveniently blamed the journalist who claimed credit for making the story public. It is possible that this journalist is culpable. Or he might have followed the example of many others, journalists who stood by and recorded horrific events without making any effort to intervene.

But journalists are also citizens. Even if there were only two of them against a mob, they had no business to go on filming for a full half hour without doing anything to stop the participants. In fact, when you watch the video, you realise that the attackers are enjoying being filmed. At the same time, the Assam government cannot absolve itself of all responsibility by blaming the journalist.

No one is surprised at the actions, or rather lack of them, of the Guwahati police. Why did they take so long to respond? Why did they not arrest many more on the spot? Did they have to wait to see the footage to identify the attackers? If they had acted with alacrity, would the main assaulter, seen grinning at the camera, have escaped? We end up asking these same questions repeatedly. When poor people demonstrate for their rights, hundreds of them are rounded up and taken to the lock-up. But if members of a political party go around vandalising and beating up helpless people — as they do with regularity in Mumbai, for instance — or when such incidents of sexual assault occur in a public place, the police sit on their hands and wait. Not just women but everyone has to be worried at this mockery of what is called “the law and order machinery”.
Chilling indifference

And what can we say about the “aam janata”? Anyone who has been to Guwahati will tell you that G.S. Road, or Guwahati Shillong Road, is a main arterial road. The pub where the girl was attacked is not in some isolated part of the city. Hundreds of vehicles ply on that road, as they did that night. Hence her ability to find an autorickshaw which she was about to take to go home. One of the most chilling sequences in the video is watching the girl running on the road, begging people to stop and help her. No one did until one man, another journalist, came to her rescue and stayed with her until she was handed over to the police. Why did no one help? Why do people not care, not want to be involved, to extend themselves for another person? This is one more example of the callous indifference that has infected urban life in India.

As for what this means for women, not just in Guwahati but all over India, particularly urban India, the message is clear. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Women might believe that they now have more rights, that they have access to public space, that they can make choices. The reality is that a patriarchal society will not accept that women should have these rights, that it will try and teach those who make choices “a lesson” and that violence is the currency that will be used to teach these lessons.

Depressing, I know, but sadly true. As a young reader from Guwahati wrote to me after this incident: “Some of us have the tendency to break things or bash up some objects when we were furious or angry. But nowadays we find that women have become potential objects capable of replacing inanimate objects to suit the whims and fancies of the diehard chauvinists of the country.” 

(To read the original, click here.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A case of not knowing enough

Posted on The Hoot
The media are guilty of blindly reporting the motivated leaks by the police about Pinki Pramanik’s sex. Reporters and editors failed to acquaint themselves with the law, says 
Posted/Updated Wednesday, Jul 11 19:56:52, 2012
Kalpana Sharma
The medal-winning track athlete Pinki Pramanik was granted bail on July 10 after 25 tortuous days in police custody. The charge for which Pramanik was held was rape – bizarre in itself as it consisted of her live-in partner, another woman, accusing her of being a man. Yet Pramanik has been tried over this month by the media and the police for a crime she did not commit – her supposed androgyny.
Since June 14, when the athlete was arrested, until her release on bail, one saw a range of reports and editorials. Given the general lack of sensitivity in the media on many issues, much of the reporting, and the editorials in particular, were surprisingly sensitive and mature. For instance, despite the Kolkata police treating Pinki as if she were a man just because she had been accused of being one, the majority of reports continued to refer to the athlete as “her” and not the ambivalent “he/she” which would mean they accepted the questions raised about her gender.
The editorials raised questions about the absence of understanding and compassion in Indian society that fails to accommodate people who are different, who do not fit into dominant norms, as well as the gross violation of Pinki’s human rights.
Television, which usually reduces such issues to a generalised discussion that yields no information, also did surprisingly well. On Face the Nation (CNN/IBN), Sagarika Ghose raised relevant questions, such as why Pinki was arrested – and molested – by male policemen, why she was detained in the male lockup, why she was denied bail and why was she sent for gender verification tests. 
Yet, every now and then the absence of knowledge on the issue – that people are often not clearly male or female – came through in the kind of headlines and copy of news stories. For instance, on July 10, the day Pinki was granted bail, the India Today website had this headline: “Pinki Pramanik’s gender test report to be submitted to Barasat Court today: athlete has male chromosomes, say sources.” The story goes on to say: “Sources indicated that the report shows Pramanik having X-Y chromosomes, which pertain to her male status”. 
There are two obvious problems with this story. First, given the on-going confusion about the gender verification tests, what is the point in quoting “sources” about Pinki having “male chromosomes”. 
Secondly, it is evident that neither the reporter, nor the editor that dealt with this copy, is aware that many individuals have XY chromosomes but are not necessarily male. They could have a condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) where despite the chromosomal composition, their bodies do not clearly exhibit physical attributes of a male and they grow up as females. In other instances, despite XX chromosomes that would identify them as females, they appear masculine and could grow up as males. This is an inter-sex condition. Such people should not be penalised for the physiological confusion in their bodies. So, if journalists are fed information emanating from a so-called “gender verification test”, they should know that this in itself does not settle the issue.
In fact, women athletes who do exceptionally well in track events, or in events like weight lifting for instance, where their levels of endurance are considered “unnatural” for women, are often suspected either of taking performance-enhancing drugs or being “male”. There is a long history of the battles fought by women athletes, including India. In Pinki’s case, no one raised these questions during her medal-winning period. She has been in virtual retirement for the last five years. And suddenly, her sex has come into question and is being “discovered” in full view of the media by an insensitive police force.
The Pramanik issue will not disappear just yet. But there are several important lessons that the media can draw from it.
Reporters keen to get a story, especially one as sensational as this, did not bother to acquaint themselves with the law. Until proven otherwise, Pinki is a woman. Hence male police cannot arrest her. Nor should she have been kept in a male lockup. And she certainly cannot be groped in the manner Pinki was in full view of cameras and the press. Those covering this story could have questioned the police about this right at the outset. Even if one argues that it is not a reporter's job to raise these questions, surely they should have occurred to the seniors at the news desk and a follow-up story could have been done. 
The media woke up to these aspects only after human rights and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) groups as well as some senior women athletes began to ask questions. In fact, even the discussion on the way the police treated Pinki only came up on television channels once these groups had drawn attention to it. Otherwise, the footage showing a policeman groping her might have gone unnoticed.
Where the media went wrong is in reporting the motivated leaks by the police about Pinki’s sex. The first so-called gender test, taken without her permission, was clearly the work of an unqualified practitioner. If reporters had been aware of the difficulties or the unreliability of such tests, it is possible they would have questioned the policemen who leaked the information, or not treated it as credible information. In any case, the media should have been wary of such a police leak and questioned why the police was doing this. Instead, as it happens with so much of such inaccurate information that emerges from the police room, the information is reported as “fact” without any qualifier. By the time it is contradicted, the damage has already been done.
Finally, I think this case provides media seniors opportunity to consider training reporters in what Laxmi Murthy terms the “emerging other” in her excellent chapter on this subject in the book “Missing: Half the Story, Journalism as if Gender Matters” (Zubaan, 2010) which I edited. The chapter provides an essential working knowledge for journalists on issues related to sex and gender, something that all journalists need to know. After all, the reporters assigned the Pinki case were your run-of-the-mill crime reporters. They would probably assume that they need not know about AIS, or inter-sex, or the difference between transgender and transsexual. But it is this kind of basic information that has now become essential for all journalists. This is the single-most important lesson to take away from the Pinki Pramanik issue for the media.
I give below some useful articles and links that have emerged in the last month:
No way to treat a human, Economic and Political Weekly, July 14, 2012,
Restore Pinki’s dignity, The Hindu, July 5, 2012,

(To read the original, click here)

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Thank you, Sania

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, July 8, 2012

Sania Mirza. Photo: PTI
The Hindu Sania Mirza. Photo: PTI

When Sania spoke up, everyone reacted. Sania Mirza did not mince words. She was polite. But she told the All India Tennis Association (AITA) that this was no way to treat “an Indian woman belonging to the 21st century”. She said she found it “disillusioning” and “humiliating” that she was “put up as a bait to try and pacify one of the disgruntled stalwarts of Indian tennis”. She ended by stating, “This kind of blatant humiliation of Indian womanhood needs to be condemned even if it comes from the highest controlling body of tennis in our country.”

Many applauded Sania for speaking out. Others insisted she had gone overboard by invoking “Indian womanhood” in a battle that was essentially of egos and the system that governs a national sport. But whether one likes Sania Mirza as an individual, or a player, or one agrees or disagrees with her statement, there is no doubt that she has forced open a subject that must be discussed — sexism and gender discrimination in sport.

Of course, it is easier for someone like Sania Mirza, who plays an individual sport like tennis, to speak out than many other women in sports. She does not depend on state patronage. She has now played enough grand slams and won to be able to hold her own.

In contrast, a woman hockey player, for instance, would find it impossible to go public with a grievance. Hockey is almost totally dependent on state patronage and the girls who play hockey for India are hardly ever in the limelight except fleetingly, when they do well in an international tournament. The rest of the time we have no idea about their training facilities, how much they are paid and whether they experience discrimination at various levels through the year. We will never know because they would be afraid to speak out and the media is mostly indifferent.

With Olympics on the horizon, we do know now that at least some of our medal hopes for India are women — the redoubtable boxer Mary Kom, or the world’s number one woman archer, 18-year-old Deepika Kumari, or even the low-key badminton champion Saina Nehwal. But the path of women to the Olympics worldwide has not been an easy one.

Astonishing progress

According to a United Nations report on women and sports (Women, Gender Equality and Sport, December 2007), in the first modern Olympics held in Paris in 1900, only 19 women competed in just three events — tennis, golf and croquet. By 2004, during the Athens Olympics, women participated in 26 out of 28 sports and comprised 40.7 per cent of the total athletes.

This progress in numbers and the variety of sports is not accidental. It is the result of a concerted effort to break stereotypes about the sports that women can and cannot play, about ensuring that facilities and opportunities are available for women to progress in these sports and to expose and fight against discrimination and sexual harassment that restricts women’s chances of succeeding in sports.
In fact, the current Olympic charter, adopted in 2004, includes this significant statement: “encourage and support promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women”.

Yet, despite this, women face very real hurdles to get ahead. Some of them are physical. In many countries, the facilities that will allow women to train in a sport simply do not exist. If they do, they are restricted and often out of reach for those without money or backing.

There are social constraints. Many societies continue to regard most games and sports as “unfeminine” or not suitable for girls and women. As a result, it is virtually impossible for a young girl growing up under such constraints to attempt to succeed in a sport. Until quite recently, women were considered too weak for endurance sports such as the marathon, or weight lifting or cycling. Such sports were actually deemed harmful to them. Yet, women have successfully broken through this stereotype. In India, it has been fascinating to watch women who are excelling in precisely some of these sports — boxing, wrestling and weight-lifting.

There are economic constraints. Poverty automatically excludes a large section of the population. Only the lucky few, who perhaps manage to go to a school that encourages sport, or are backed by a patron or a non-governmental organisation, can come through. We simply have no idea how many potential sportswomen, or sportsmen, there are in a country like ours where poor children are denied basic education leave alone physical education.

And after all this, even if some women come through, they have to fight against gender discrimination — with the sport in which they participate being given secondary status — as also sexual harassment. A research study conducted for the Norwegian Olympic Committee between 1995-2000 found that 28 per cent of women athletes reported sexual harassment “in the sporting context”, which means from other athletes, coaches, managers or spectators. The percentages were much higher in other countries.

Women playing sports like tennis have had to fight for equal prize money and have finally got it for the major fixtures in tennis. But in many other sports, they continue to argue for parity.

No one can now dispute the benefits of sports and outdoor activities on health — for men and women. But for women and girls, participating in individual or team sports has another dimension — it increases their self-confidence. This is particularly true in societies where girls are forced into accepting that they are weaker and inferior to men.

So thank you Sania, for speaking up. In your own way you have given a leg up to many other women who feel like you, who suffer worse forms of discrimination, but whose stories are never told or heard.

(To read the original, click here)