Monday, May 26, 2014

What should we expect?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 25, 2014

Photo: The Hindu photo archives
Photo: The Hindu photo archives

The shouting is over. The voters have voted. India has a new set of rulers. And for the majority, who did not cast their votes in favour of the party now in power, this is a time for reflection.

How do we weigh this outcome? How should we respond if we feel less than enthusiastic? Should we be resigned and say ‘the people’ have decided and therefore we must accept? Or do we, the majority that did not vote this party into power, take on the role of the real opposition — one that is as essential a part of any democracy as elections?

And then again, if we consider ourselves the real opposition, given the truncated elected opposition in the Lok Sabha, how should we conduct ourselves? How do we make our voices heard when an election has allowed one grouping to get what is termed a ‘brute majority’?

In the post-election euphoria, these might not seem the relevant questions to be asking. But this is precisely the moment when these issues should be discussed.

Let’s take the question of women, for example. Since the December 16, 2012 gang rape in New Delhi, India has gained the reputation worldwide of being a country where its women are under attack — in the public space, in their homes, in villages, in conflict zones. Some of the reporting in the western media is out of context, even alarmist. Yet no one will dispute the reality that violence against women is growing and that it ought to be an issue of urgent concern for any group that claims it will provide the country with good governance.

Every mainstream political party endorses ‘women’s welfare’. The much-overused term ‘women’s empowerment’ slips off the tongues of politicians of all hues with ease. Yet, the women of India know that there is a difference between rhetoric and reality, between promises and performance, between the ‘safety’ of being confined and the ‘safety’ of being free.

So as a new government takes power in Delhi, what should we as women be demanding of it and what should we expect?

The most obvious demand is likely to be the passing of the Women’s Reservation Bill. It has been passed by the Rajya Sabha and awaits the consent of the Lok Sabha and half the state assemblies before it can become the law. This ‘brute majority’ should have no problem passing the Bill. But will it?

Even if it does, will that establish the new government’s credentials as a supporter of women’s rights? Not necessarily because even the most vociferous advocates of this law know that political representation is only a very small part of the overall struggle to ensure that all women get equal rights.

A more important test, I believe, will be to monitor if and whether the party in power reins in members of its ‘Parivar’ who have little regard for women’s rights. We have seen these elements in action as they attack young women in pubs, stop films where they conclude without any evidence that ‘Indian’ culture is being demeaned, demonstrate the extent of their misogyny when they launch personal and vitriolic attacks on women who speak out, women like the actress Nandita Das.

These elements have in the past supported the barbaric tradition of ‘sati’ claiming it was part of ‘culture’, they have refused to condemn honour killings, they have looked the other way when men like Babu Bajrangi, now serving a life sentence for the 2002 Naroda Patiya massacre of 97 Muslims in Gujarat, forcibly prevented young people of different faiths getting married. According to such people, the rights of Indian women are confined within the definition of what they choose to call ‘Indian’ culture. The new Prime Minister of India has already equated Hindu and the nation in his self-definition as a ‘Hindu nationalist’. So women should worry as the line between ‘Indian’ and ‘Hindu’ has been erased.

The real threat to the rights of all women, irrespective of class, caste or creed is from these self-appointed defenders of ‘Indian’ culture — the likes of the Sri Ram Sena, the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad —who will feel no compulsion to hold back now that their ‘family’ members are in power.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Don’t let it die

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 11, 2014

Young girls walk past a market area in Delhi.
The Hindu Young girls walk past a market area in Delhi.

When the election noise subsides, some perennial issues will re-emerge. And one such is how we deal with the growing violence against women in India.

There is little doubt that violent assaults on women have increased. The law is tougher now, but is it being implemented? Recent reports suggest that even today, women have a tough time getting a complaint registered.

In any case, regardless of the law, we know that ultimately it is the attitude of people, and particularly men, which must change if we are to see any serious decline in such violence — both within the home and outside.

In the last two years, rape has been the subject of discussion and debate in India. But attention to it waxes and wanes. For instance, in the last couple of months, there is hardly any mention of rapes. But they are occurring, every day, somewhere in the country.

For the media at the moment, there is only one story — the election. Even if the media gaze were to turn once again to sexual assault, it would not solve the problem. But it would act as an important reminder that here is a problem that is not going away.

In that context, it is interesting to look at the way the United States, which on paper at least has a higher incidence of rape than India — although the higher figures could also be because more rapes are reported than in India — is dealing with the problem, specifically with rape on American college campuses.

According to statistics, there is rape every 21 hours on some college campus in the U.S. The most vulnerable are the women who have just begun their college stints. Nearly one out of every five women going to college is in danger of being sexually assaulted during the years they spend on a college campus. So it is a serious problem; one that has recently drawn more attention as students from several high-profile universities complained to the government about the ineffectual action taken by the authorities when they filed complaints of rape and sexual assault.

In response, US President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden have taken an initiative that is noteworthy in many respects. They have set up a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and launched a public campaign against college rapes. The website is an attempt to reassure any college student who is raped that there is a way that this rape can be reported and followed up. Additionally, a video with several well-known male actors titled “1is2Many” is being widely shown where the essential message is: “If she doesn’t consent or can’t consent, it’s rape, it’s assault.”

In addition to this public campaign, the federal government has also tied funding to universities to compliance with stricter laws on sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses. For instance, it is compulsory for all instructors and those in positions of authority over students to undergo training on sexual harassment. This informs them about the existing laws but also tests them on their ability to know which law applies in certain situations and what constitutes sexual harassment. It is the kind of training that everyone who is a manager of any kind should be given. We have nothing like this in India, as far as I know.

Another interesting initiative is called “bystander intervention”. Students receive training on how to intervene when they see a situation where a woman is being forced upon, or is not in her senses and does not know what is happening to her. Students themselves have come up with many different and innovative ways of doing this. It is not vigilantism; it is a way of being aware and concerned. It also involves young men in ways where they see how they can help.

Vice-President Biden is quoted as saying, “It doesn’t matter what she was wearing, whether she drank too much, whether it was in the back of a car, in her room, in the street — it does not matter. It doesn’t matter if she initially said yes then changed her mind and said no. No means no. (Sex) requires a verbal consent — everything else is rape or assault.”

You would think much of what he states is obvious and has been said before. Women have been shouting this from the rooftops for decades. And yet the message somehow fails to get through. Why is society so deaf? Why should women the world over keep repeating the obvious?

In India, the Justice Verma Committee Report and the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013 were just the first steps after the furore over the December 16, 2012, gang rape in Delhi. There is much more to be done to create awareness, to set in place systems within organisations that give out a clear message that sexual harassment and assault are unacceptable, and to give women the support they need to file complaints and follow through on them. This is a conversation that must not stop. 

(To readd the original, click here.)