Friday, December 28, 2012

Adding to the victim's trauma

The Hoot, December 28, 2012

We have to question the media’s thirst for every detail about this woman’s condition, their invasion of privacy. Was it really necessary for the doctors to give out a daily health bulletin on live television, asks KALPANA SHARMA.
Posted/Updated Friday, Dec 28 11:05:21, 2012
Kalpana Sharma

“It’s like the life we have never existed … every day now passes in a flash”.  This was the headline in the Indian Express on December 25, 2012.  And it is a quote from the younger brother of the 23-year-old survivor of the heinous gang rape that took place on a Delhi whiteline bus on December 16, 2012. 
Since then there have been thousands of words spoken on television and written in the print media, scores of slogans shouted on the streets, especially in Delhi, by women and men, many of them young.  There is justifiable anger and anguish over what this one rape, among the daily occurrence of sexual assaults all over India, represents for the future of Indian women, not just their safety but also their lives as free individuals in a free country.

Yet in the middle of all the noise and slogans many people, including the media, appear to have forgotten that the story is also about an individual and her family, and their right to have some privacy.  The Indian Express story was an essential reality check, a reminder of how things could be, or should be, when such terrible things happen.

Put yourself in the shoes of the 19-year-old brother of this woman.  She is constantly described as a “victim”.  While she certainly was the victim of a horrendous crime, surely the more accurate description is to call her a “survivor”.  This might be just another term, but it places everything in a different perspective.

Amongst the many articles that have been written and circulated in the last 10 days, one that raised a pertinent point appeared in the American feminist journal “Off our backs”.  In the article “Male-pattern violence”, the author, Jennie Ruby asks why the media always reports that a woman has been raped but not that a man has raped a woman.  Terming it “gender dyslexia”, she writes:

“This reluctance to talk about men’s violence is widespread and seems to amount almost to a taboo. The news media report that “a woman was raped,” but never say “a man raped a woman.” Analyses of school violence talk about “kids killing kids,” ignoring the fact that it is almost exclusively boys committing the violence. Terms like “domestic violence” mask the fact that most of this violence is committed by men. Feminists and feminist organizations also fall into this pattern by using the term “violence against women.” This wording puts the focus on women as victims and hides who is perpetrating the violence. If we can’t even say who is doing most of the violence in the world, how can we hope to stop it?”
So even if nothing else changes, the media should at least have another look at the terminology it uses when reporting on such cases.

Secondly, we have to question the media’s thirst for every detail about this woman’s condition.  Was it really necessary for the panel of doctors to give out a daily health bulletin on live television?  How does this help?  Is this not feeding into voyeurism?  When a person is so critical, they waver between life and death.  There are days when there is an improvement; at other times it seems hopeless. Anyone who has had to care for a person in this condition knows how your emotions swing from hope to despair almost by the hour.  In such a situation, you do not need people constantly asking you “how is she/he?” or “what is her/his BP, pulse rate, red blood count etc etc”.  Why should anyone but the family be told all this?  Is this not a gross invasion of privacy?  What were the doctors at Safdarjung Hospital thinking when they agreed to the demand for a daily news bulletin? Surely the doctors could have told the media firmly that the girl’s privacy had to respected and that they would give information as and when the family agreed to this being made public.  Was the family even consulted before all this was done?

And fourth, let us look at why some newspapers and TV channels felt they had to give the woman a fictitious name, as if respecting her anonymity was too daunting a challenge for journalists to respect.  Hence, while Times of India has decided to call her Nirbhaya, and patted itself on the back for having picked what it deems is an appropriate name given her courage, other are variously calling her Damini, Amanat etc.  But her brother, who has to hear these names, told the Indian Express,  “It’s hard to digest that this is my sister they are talking about.”  He says the first time he saw one of these names flashing on TV, he thought the channel had got his sister’s name wrong.  He says he was furious but then someone explained to him that “it is a phenomenon known as personification.  I don’t like it, but they say she is the face of a movement.”  

Unfortunately, the young man was misinformed about the meaning of “personification” and how it is commonly used.  Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

Anthropomorphism or personification is any attribution of human characteristics (or characteristics assumed to belong only to humans) to other animals, non-living things, phenomena, material states, objects or abstract concepts, such as organizations, governments, spirits or deities.”

Is it really that difficult to follow this story without dramatizing it further, giving the survivor a fictitious name – as if by doing that the horrific aspects of this story will become more believable.  It is astounding that responsible media persons can endorse such a decision from within these media organisations.

The survivor’s brother also told the Indian Express about the pressure put on his father to issue an appeal once violence broke out during the demonstrations at India Gate.  After this experience, his father does not want to speak to anyone in the media. “My father is scared that a wrong message has gone out.  It seems like we don’t want the protests. We are suffering so much, why should we be against the movement?  Now he has decided against speaking to the media.  There were more requests from the police, but we told them we don’t want to risk it again”, he told IE.

As I write this, the woman has been taken to Singapore for treatment and her life still hangs by a thread.  One hopes the daily health bulletins will stop and the family is allowed its right to choose what it wants to convey to the world outside.  She is their daughter/sister.  Her story might have galvanized people to come out on the street and demand changes in the law.  But that is a decision that people made; she did not and neither did her family.  The media must respect that even as the wider debate on rape, on women’s safety, on the criminal justice system and the law, and on the misogyny in Indian society continues. 

(To read the original on The Hoot's website, click here.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

What’s wrong with Indian men?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Dec 23, 2012

No easy answers. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
No easy answers. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
This is a question more people need to talk about and not be satisfied with clichés or the usual solutions.
Another horror; another rape. This time in a moving bus; at a time of the night when people are still on the roads in Delhi; in a populated area and not some remote jungle. Each time you read news like that of the bestial gang rape of a 23-year-old para-medical student in Delhi earlier this week, your senses are numbed. What is happening to us? What is this brutality we witness all so frequently now? Can it ever stop?
I doubt if we will find a satisfactory answer in the short run. But it is a question that more people need to talk about and debate and not be satisfied with the clichés, the usual solutions or even some unusual ones.
I spent last weekend in my old school, a place where I had five happy years before completing my schooling. It is an all-girls residential school with a substantial proportion of day students. Our memories of our school days, when some of us met again after many decades, were those of the fun times, the carefree years, of a place where we felt safe and were not inhibited from expressing our views. Of course, the very fact of a compulsory school uniform imposed a level of conformism but even within that girls found ways to assert individual personalities — a tuck here, a stitch there. And hair always remained the ultimate expression of rebelliousness — refusing to be neat was the preferred statement of individualism.
All these years later, the girls in that school still wear the same school uniform but they have changed, as has the world around them. They exude the same confidence some of us did. I want to be a Cordon Bleu chef, one girl told me. Another said she wants to be a lawyer — but with the army. Another became really excited when I mentioned I was a journalist. Clearly, for these girls no career is out of reach.
Yet, reading about the Delhi incident, I thought about these young women who are on the verge of stepping out into another world, away from the relatively safe environment of an all-girls school. With modern communication and social networking, they are not as secluded as perhaps we were in our days when even contact with the boys in the school across the boundary wall was frowned upon. Today, girls have Facebook friends and are daring enough to meet them even if all they know about them is what these young men choose to put on their “profile”. I am told that often it is girls from the most conservative homes who take such bold chances and end up in all kinds of trouble.
Yet, whether it was our generation jumping the boundary wall to meet boys or this lot setting up meetings through social networking sites, the compulsions are the same. But is the world a more dangerous place today for young women than it was in our days? If so, how does one prepare them for it?
The predictable formula is to urge them always to be vigilant, to be careful, not to take unnecessary chances. Against the background of the recent spate of sexual crimes against women in Mumbai, the Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) in Mumbai, Himanshu Roy, had this to say: “The most obvious method of preventing such crimes is that women should be aware of their environment. This does not mean that they should be suspicious of all their male relatives, friends or colleagues, but it would be wrong to assume that none of these will ever harm them.” In effect, he was suggesting that the onus of preventing the crimes is really on women. Roy needs to be reminded that the job of the police and law enforcement is not to tell women what they should do, but to do their own job more effectively.
At the same time, many believe the problem will be tackled if the government, law enforcement and society at large figure out how to “protect” these girls from violence. The courts have suggested more policing, asking for plainclothes women police in malls, cinema halls and public places, with closed circuit cameras. But are women safer in a police state? Can we really “protect” women in a society where they can experience the worst forms of sexual violence inside their homes?
Furthermore, even if there are men who genuinely try and “protect” women and intervene, they do not succeed. In the Delhi incident, the girl’s male companion was mercilessly beaten and thrown out of the bus. In Mumbai, men who tried to intervene were murdered. So who will “protect” the protectors?
A male reader of these columns suggested that we should not focus exclusively on women and instead we needed to make more of an effort to understand men and what drives them to such violence. Without justifying the violence, he felt it was a combination of repression and suppression that drove Indian men to such levels of violence. He might have a point. We have not looked at Indian men, at what is happening to them, what is turning some of them into people who would be better off caged.
These are troubling questions. There are no easy answers. We can begin by debating and discussing this issue much more than we do, in our schools and colleges, in the columns of our newspapers, and in our families.
(To read the original, click here)

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Think pink

Power through the stick
Power through the stick
Arming women with sticks may not be enough to guard the Gulabi Gang from violence, but it certainly makes an impact.
She is not an easy subject to film or write about. Sampat Pal Devi, the 54-year-old self-proclaimed ‘commander-in-chief’ of the Gulabi Gang, a group of vigilante women that operate out of Uttar Pradesh’s notorious badlands of Bundelkhand, has been variously lauded as an activist, a feminist, and a pioneer of sorts. Yet, during this fortnight, when violence against women is in focus across the world, it is useful to ask whether the kind of strategies followed by Sampat Pal and her ‘gang’ can actually be sustained in a world where women experience violence on so many fronts.
A new documentary “Gulabi Gang” directed by Nishtha Jain, whose earlier film “Laxmi and me” on domestic work was outstanding, tackles this difficult subject. Sampat Pal remains the name and face of this unusual group. According to her website, the group was formed spontaneously when she witnessed a farmer in her village mercilessly beat up his wife. When she tried to intervene, the man turned around and abused her. Sampat Pal rallied a few women, went back to the man’s house, and thrashed him until he begged for mercy.
From that incident in 2006 was born the Gulabi Gang which now has a membership of 2,00,000, claims Sampat Pal. The women pay a membership fee, and are given a pink sari and a stick as a uniform. They respond to calls for help not just on violence, or dowry torture and death but also police inaction and corruption in the district administration. Their fame has spread beyond Bundelkhand, as the unique nature of their way of working is a natural media draw.
Jain’s film, however, moves beyond the celebratory prose of what has been written about the Gulabi Gang and Sampat Pal in particular. The latter, incidentally, has managed to get nationwide attention by participating for a short while in the reality show Big Boss 6. Jain’s documentary tries to be non-judgmental, recording some of the cases that the Gulabi Gang tackle and through this bringing out the many shades of grey that layer the work as well as the issues around violence against women.
For this reason alone, such documentation is important. It is much too easy to come out with pat solutions for any number of problems facing women. Empower them, educate them, make them economically self-sufficient – then they will not have to suffer violence. Yet, despite all this, we know for a fact that even educated, professional women cannot escape domestic violence or violence in the public space.
The film brings out quite effectively that even as injustice and violence bind these poor women together, prompting them to either join the Gulabi Gang or seek its help, religion, caste and class divide them. Women have many different identities and often their other associations take precedence. Thus, an active member of the Gang argues for honour killings, justifying it as a custom that is legitimate in her view. She withdraws from the gang when she finds others do not share her views.
Similarly, although it is encouraging that members of the Gulabi Gang have entered the political fray by contesting panchayat elections, many lost. Those who lost are bitter that their own gang members did not vote for them. The daughter of one such member who lost speaks bitterly in the film and wonders why her mother was persuaded to stand if the other members of the gang were not going to vote for her. Clearly, no one had explained to her that in elections, caste and community often play a much larger role than gender.
The film also highlights how the deeply ingrained custom of looking for a “leader” also affects a group like the Gulabi Gang. Even though there are other strong women who have been a part of the gang for the last six years, it is only Sampat Lal who is identified with the Gulabi Gang. And she clearly does not dislike the attention, including people touching her feet and garlanding her.
Finally, can arming women – even if it is only with sticks and not guns – really deal with the embedded issue of violence against women? The State so far seems to tolerate these women, even humour them, but clearly the systemic issues that underlie the violence, the inability of the criminal justice system to respond to the victims, and the fact that society accepts that such violence is inevitable, have not been touched.
One could argue that every effort to highlight and tackle violence against women, and all kinds of collectives of women, should be lauded because even if they cannot change everything, they do make an impact. The film shows us that even participating in the activities of the Gulabi Gang is meaningful for many of the women. The very fact that they can walk into a police station, or a district office, without fear is almost revolutionary in a region where women have no voice.
Yet, that is not enough. For even as women are finding a voice in so many ways, some of them quite unusual, the elements that perpetuate violence against women remain firmly in place.
(To read the original, click here.)