Sunday, December 21, 2014

Roots of the problem

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 21, 2014

Pooja and Aarti meet the press.
Pooja and Aarti meet the press.

I am writing this a day before an unfortunate second anniversary, December 16, a day etched in our collective memory as signifying the horror and pain so many women experience for no other reason than that they are women.

But before going into the grim reality of how little has changed since that winter evening in Delhi in 2012, there is some good news. After my last column about a woman taxi driver, who incidentally worked for one of the new taxi aggregators that have now been banned in some cities, there is some encouraging news. The Mumbai transport department has issued 200 licenses exclusively for women taxi drivers; Hyderabad is launching a women’s service; in Chennai, a non-government organisation is training women drivers, and a taxi aggregator has announced that they will encourage more women to be hired.

This is good news. But let us not confuse this with women’s safety. While women taxi drivers would be reassuring for women passengers, particularly late at night, let us not forget that in some cities, like Delhi, women drivers are not safe. The mere sight of a woman behind a wheel seems to trigger primitive instincts in men who proceed to harass them by chasing them, trying to push them off the road and generally making life hell for them. Given these attitudes, who will guarantee the safety of the women taxi drivers? How can we be sure that male passengers will not harass them? Or will they have to stick to women passengers, an unsustainable business model. So, even if more women taxi drivers would be welcome, this cannot be viewed as a quick fix to deal with women’s safety. It is important because it gives women a livelihood option, one that carries with it a sense of dignity and self-worth.

The bad news is that despite a renewed focus on women’s safety, triggered by the December 6 rape in a private taxi in Delhi, the underlying issue has once again been overlooked. While no one disputes that the new app-based taxi services need to be regulated and more important, the corruption that allows serial rapists and offenders to buy character certificates from the police must be checked; this alone cannot guarantee women’s safety.

What is the other option? The safety of a prison; one where women are told when and if to step out? Or the example of those two plucky Rohtak sisters, Pooja and Aarti, who chose to thrash their tormenters rather than sit back and tolerate? We already know how that story has played out. From being celebrated, and even promised a special commendation by the Haryana government, suddenly the victims have become the villains and the men are being projected as victims of a game of blackmail.

I happened to be in Delhi recently when Pooja and Aarti spoke to the press. They faced a room full of journalists, the majority sceptical and even slightly hostile. The girls were remarkable in the calm way they answered all questions. To me, they came across as straightforward and gritty. In a state, where the sex ratio is one of the lowest in the country, where girls are simply not wanted, where every girl grows up in a highly sexualised atmosphere particularly when she enters the public space, the spirit of these two girls has to be lauded. They travel each day almost 35 km to their college and have to change two buses to do this. Their mother has backed them fully in their desire to study, as has their father. Coming from such a family, these girls have been encouraged not to take so-called ‘teasing’ by being quiet.

Without going into the minutiae of this controversial case, we should look at the issues it raises. Given the reality of constant harassment by men of women, particularly in north India, should we train our daughters to fight back as did Pooja and Aarti? Even as I applaud their courage, I fear for them because they are greatly outnumbered. More so, because no one supported them on the bus and since then there is a clear strategy to discredit their evidence. Such a battering, both physical and emotional, could break any ordinary girl. If these two sisters survive and win their case, it will be all the more remarkable.

Instead of seeing women’s safety as a technical issue to be fixed by putting in place ‘safer’ transport — both private and public — or training girls to fight back if harassed, we need to realise that ultimately there is no shortcut to dismantling the institution of patriarchy, an institution that gives all men a sense of entitlement to beat, harass, rape, kill, injure those women who dare to question their authority.

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