Monday, September 30, 2013

The politics of violence

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 29, 2013

Riot-affected women and children at a makeshift camp in Muzaffarnagar.
PTIRiot-affected women and children at a makeshift camp in Muzaffarnagar.

In all the reports about the recent communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar, little has been written about the trauma suffered by women.

Imagine if you are a woman with several children and a riot breaks out. You can run, carry one child, hold the hand of the other. But what about the rest? Who do you leave behind? How can you make sure they will be safe? How do you live with the choices you made in that moment of terror and panic?
These are the harrowing choices that hundreds of women must have faced when the communal violence flared up in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district last month. As Muslim families fled, leaving behind their homes, some were also forced to abandon members of their own families. And now they have no idea what happened to those they left behind, whether they are alive or dead.
This is one of the more disturbing accounts that comes through in a small report prepared by a group of 11 women working in U.P. with different non-governmental organisations whose focus has been gender. The report is impressionistic; it does not pretend to be a balanced fact-finding report. Yet, in its very simplicity, it conveys some of the trauma and immense sadness that is a reality for the thousands who continue to shelter under shaky tarpaulin shelters in the humid heat of September.
Titled “A human tragedy unfolds as the State watches”, the report describes six relief camps; three each in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. Calling it a Preliminary Citizens’ Report, it narrates what the inhabitants of these camps told the team. Possibly because the team consisted only of women, the report gives us a small but essential insight into what women experienced. For instance, they quote a number of women telling them how they had to leave children behind. Yet, even after the violence ended, the district administration has not been able to help them trace missing family members or even to prepare a list of people who are missing.
Also unspoken and unwritten are stories of sexual violence. They are not easy to record. Some of the women spoke hesitatingly about rape, about having their clothes torn off. But they were afraid to go into more details or to register cases.
We cannot forget that it took a team of women to visit Gujarat soon after the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 to write a comprehensive report on the sexual violence perpetrated on women. Their report, “The Survivors Speak: Sexual Violence Against Women” is still relevant today even if the searing testimonies of the survivors in the report relate specifically to Gujarat. For through these testimonies we understand how women become the collateral damage during such communal conflagrations.
In Muzaffarnagar, too, such a follow up will be needed so that this ugly side of communal violence, that scars the bodies and souls of so many women, does not go unrecorded and hence unrecognised.
It is so easy to miss women’s narrative at a time of heightened political competition in the run up to the general elections next year. Yet each recording of such testimonies informs us that regardless of the location, there is a common theme that runs through them — that men and women experience violent conflict in different ways. And there can be no real healing or rehabilitation unless this difference is noted and recognised.
The displaced women in Muzaffarnagar have no voice at the moment. Given the status of women in that region, where men fight feuds and their women are part of an unwritten “honour” code, they might never find a voice. Yet experiences around the world have underlined repeatedly, that women must have a say in the aftermath of conflict and in building a peace that lasts.
Currently, the dominant theme of discussion around Muzaffarnagar and the fallout of the violence is politics — who gains and who loses, who started it, who fanned the flames, who is to blame. Yet, the real politics of such violence is the grief a mother feels when she is compelled to abandon her child; the nightmares a young woman confronts each day as she recalls sexual violence; the harsh daily reality confronting pregnant women, nursing mothers, elderly women surviving in makeshift camps without sanitation, privacy or health care. Who is bothering to address these issues?
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Let’s talk about men

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Sept 15, 2013

Documentary film-makers (from left): Sanjay Kak, Rahul Roy, Amar Kanwar, and Saba Dewan at a press conference in New Delhi. Photo: S. Subramanium
The HinduDocumentary film-makers (from left): Sanjay Kak, Rahul Roy, Amar Kanwar, and Saba Dewan at a press conference in New Delhi. Photo: S. Subramanium

We write and talk about women’s rights, about violence against women, about stronger laws to “protect” women and about punishing the men violating these laws. But there is little discussion on what it means to be a man in today’s India. An on-going project titled “Let’s Talk Men” ( has come up with some interesting perspectives on this subject.
Has the understanding of being “masculine” changed even as women have begun to think of themselves differently from their mothers? Or are boys and men, barring a handful of exceptions, no different from their fathers and grandfathers? Has their view of women changed? Or do they continue to believe that women, whether they are mothers and sisters, or wives, are basically there to serve them?
Under the Let’s Talk Men project, launched in 1998, five filmmakers from South Asia — India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan — were encouraged to explore concepts of masculinity in their own countries. Now 15 years later, these filmmakers have followed up with another set of films.
I have seen Delhi-based filmmaker Rahul Roy’s film, Till We Meet Again. It returns to the four young men — Bunty, Sanjay, Sanju and Kamal from Jehangirpuri on the outskirts of Delhi — who featured in his first film. In 1999, when Roy made When Four Friends Meet, these four men were single. In the new film, all of them are married. The film explores how these men see their own lives, what they think of their wives, why they justify hitting their wives (something they did not support when they were single), and what they feel about the expectations of their families and society from them.
Such an exploration is particularly relevant at the present moment when there are so many questions being asked about the growing violence against women in the public space — although the greater violence women continue to experience in their homes has never resulted in such great outrage. What is it that makes men, who seem perfectly reasonable characters as the ones in Roy’s film, think it is acceptable that they should hit their wives because, as one of them says, that is the only way to make them understand?
Roy’s film raises questions around masculinity through the lives of these four men, all from the same class, living in a lower middle-class neighbourhood. Two of them have work and bring home an income while the other two are unemployed. Yet, the latter would never consider helping their wives with housework.
These men’s lives reflect the reality in many of our cities. In a milieu where the value of a man is measured by his ability to take care of his family, men who fail must fear that their “maleness” will be questioned. Yet, there is little in our educational system, or in the media, that seriously addresses these concepts. On the contrary, entrenched views of masculinity are being reinforced every day.
Discussions on “gender” tend to leave out men. We do not, for instance, make an effort to understand the impact of socialisation and family on the roles men are pushed to play. We do not know what is going on in the minds of men as more women get educated. Or why, despite education, the sexual division of labour persists within homes.
There is also a serious gap between what women want, and what men expect from them. In response to my last column, a young woman articulated this well: “What I experience as a college student is that there is a growing sense of unease among those who are comforted by the blanket of patriarchy, by the liberation of women. They feel that their space is being invaded and they feel threatened. What they don’t seem to realise is we are only taking back what was ours in the first place — the freedom to be oneself and chase one’s dreams.” Roy’s film suggests that young men today don’t believe that women were ever entitled to such freedom.
Clearly, there could not be a better time for a project looking at and questioning concepts of masculinity. But it is a project that needs to find a resonance in our homes, in our schools and colleges and in our work places.
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Salute the survivor

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 1, 2013

Photo: AP

While the young journalist’s attitude to not see the assault as the end of her life is exceptional, how do we tackle the patriarchal mindset that still views women as commodities?

As a journalist, a woman and a Mumbaikar, the dastardly rape by five men of a young woman journalist in Mumbai on August 22 was particularly jolting. Of course, every day rapes are reported; of young and old women and of little girls, of women in uniform, of women at work, of women at home, of women on their way to work, of women on their way home.
The day after this ghastly assault, a front-page story reported the gang rape of a policewoman in Jharkhand. And just in the vicinity of Mumbai, in Navi Mumbai, a 13-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly raping his five-year-old neighbour; in Mankhurd, a northeastern suburb of Mumbai, a 22-year-old man was charged with raping a 21-year-old woman; and in Pune, the body of an 11-year-old girl who had been raped and murdered was found.
Rapes are not a creation of the modern world. They have happened before. It is the tool men use to assert their power over women. It is a tool men use to assert their power over other men, by raping “their” women, especially in an arena of war and conflict, but even otherwise.
Today’s rapes are no different. They have increased in number. They are reported. And a media, which has realised that readers have a vicarious interest in reading about crimes, is obliging by amplifying, selectively, a few of these crimes and acts of extreme violence against women. Pages and pages are devoted to detailed reports about one or two of these crimes, such as this recent incident.
What is different today is the way politics is being played out on the wounded bodies of women. One of the most distressing and distasteful aspects of the media’s coverage of the Mumbai gang rape was the way it gave air time to politicians to hold forth, to score points against rivals, to demand resignations and to blame other communities. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray announced his absurd conclusion on prime time television that recent migrants to the city were responsible for the increase in crimes while also joining the chorus demanding the resignation of Maharashtra’s Home Minister R. R. Patil.
The problem with this volume of hot air emanating from the talking heads on television talk shows is that it contributes to the pall of unreality that surrounds many issues in this country. It perpetuates the belief that there is a quick fix solution to every problem. One such quick fix is to insist that the home minister should resign. Of course, Maharashtra’s Home Minister did not help his case by suggesting that every woman journalist on an assignment should take along some security. The suggestion was too absurd to even merit serious debate.
Every time there is a case like this which the media spotlights, we go over the same ground. We did it last December. We are doing it again. After some time, the news slips to the inside pages, and the questions that we should be asking are forgotten. Until the next time.
The question that got asked before and needs to be addressed today is: How do we tackle the patriarchal mindset in this country that still views women as commodities? The men who raped the young journalist in Mumbai apparently called up their friends and used the word “maal” while referring to her.
It is this mindset that makes men pour acid and disfigure for life women who dare refuse their overtures. It is this mindset that compels even women to abort female foetuses rather than raise daughters. It is this mindset that views all women out in the public space as available, as targets, as women who must be taught a lesson.
The second issue is the culture of impunity that has come to prevail in this country. It begins at the top but has now permeated to every level. It is interesting that one of the men arrested for the Mumbai rape admitted that he never expected the survivor to report the rape.
It is this belief, that women will not report because of the shame society associates with their being sexually violated and, second, that even if they do nothing much will happen, that encourages those planning and contemplating such crimes. In this case, the young woman had her wits around her and gave a full statement to the police within hours of reaching the hospital. Also, she and her male colleague were able to describe their assailants in detail. Given the publicity around the crime, the government and the Mumbai police were compelled to move quickly and as a result the five alleged rapists have been arrested.
But we must remember that this is an exception; it is very far from the norm. Until the systemic issues that prevent such crimes from being reported and investigated, and then prosecuted, are addressed, we will always only have exceptions. And if such crimes are only tackled in exceptional cases, then the culture of impunity will become even more embedded.
I write this when the Mumbai rape case is still on the front pages. What stands out in the last few days since that brutal crime was committed is the attitude of the young journalist. It has been exemplary. She has declared that she wants to get back to work. She has not hesitated to recall every painful detail for the police. She has refused to see this as the end of her life. She is in an exception — of a kind that this country badly needs.
(To read the original, click here.)