The Indian parliament is debating an anti-rape bill. The bill has various provisions, which include changing the term “sexual assault” to “rape”, and adding voyeurism and stalking to criminal offences. Some of these are welcome measures while others are open to debate. However, as a woman I wonder how much the bill will really change the ground realities? At the India Today Conclave 2013, Dr. Arun Shourie had said, “instead of tougher new laws, we need to implement the existing laws.” I agree with this view and believe that laws are meaningless unless they can be enforced and paired with a fundamental change in mind-set. Let me elaborate on this point with a few stories.
The reality of abuse:
My first experience of a male erection was through an act of violation. I had got on a Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus, after missing my usual ladies special from college. It was a short ride to my house. The bus was reasonably packed. A man stood behind me and at some point started pressing against my back. Irritated and uncomfortable, I inched forward, giving him space. He rubbed against me again, I moved again. And the pattern continued. Naïve as I was, I did not realize immediately what he was doing. By time I understood, it was mercifully time to disembark. I got off, stood outside my gate, doubled over and retched. When I had stopped shaking, I took a few deep breaths, put on my ‘normal’ face and went home.
I was a very lucky woman as that was a minor incident (just like so many others that I had faced), and each one left a minor scar on my psyche. To atone for the sin of allowing perverted strangers to touch me, I smothered my feelings of anger, shame and revulsion in a blanket of silence. I changed my body language in public places (no eye contact with strangers, arms hugging chest, big bag covering the bottom, always). I self regulated my travel & freedom. I modified my already modest dressing. I learnt to be hyper-vigilant. Thus I survived Delhi.
Role of culture and context:
I understood what freedom meant when I moved to Mumbai. In those days Mumbai was still Bombay. It was still a cosmopolitan place & was relatively safe for women. For the first time in my life, I could hail a taxi back from work at odd hours, and not really have to worry about being molested, kidnapped, raped or murdered. I could walk down the street in a sleeveless top & jeans, and not be subjected to surreptitious groping, lewd comments or wolf whistles. Best of all, I could travel in the general compartment of a local train with my husband. In a space where people stood cheek-by-jowl, the men, in an act of basic courtesy, would miraculously contort their bodies such that nobody actually touched me.
So why did the public behaviour of Indian men vary in different places? Why for instance, did men in cities like Ahmedabad or Bangalore*, not think that it was their birthright to paw strangers? Afterall, patriarchal attitudes, violence against women, and chauvinism were pan Indian realities. I believe the reason lay in culture and context. It had to do with the fact that in some regions, there was a general rule of decorum that implied that no matter what happened behind closed doors, it was not acceptable to behave badly in public with women. The society simply did not sanction it.
The role of policing and law:
Many years later, I worked at an NGO in Singapore. As a part of my job, I conducted psycho-education groups for people recovering from addictions. Some sessions were held in the evening at a halfway house, located in the heart of the red light district (the local equivalent of Kamathipura or G.B Road). By the time I head back home, the area was alive with night trawlers. Yet, I went alone, and never for a moment did I feel unsafe.
Contrast this to my behaviour in Gurgoan , where I hesitated to drive alone in my own neigbourhood after dark. If I ventured out, I rolled up the windows, locked all the doors, kept my phone ready on the dashboard, and said a prayer for safety.
Why was there such a difference in my attitude between Gurgaon and Singapore? I knew that human nature manifested in all its dark forms across the globe. Nothing in my experience suggested that the men in Singapore were better human beings than the men in India. There was no evidence to show that the tendency to commit crimes against women was higher among Indians. So why did I feel so unsafe in Gurgaon?
To my mind, the answer lay in law enforcement, or the lack of it thereof. In Singapore, I could count on the police & the judicial system. I knew that if something untoward were to happen, the response would be immediate. Conversely, potential attackers knew that if they dared to act out of line, they would be punished severely. The knowledge of certain, swift and strict punishment was a strong deterrent.
In India, my faith in the enforcement system was shaky. I would hesitate to walk into a police station or approach a patrol car alone at night. This was tragedy at a personal level, for as cop’s daughter, the sight of a uniform used to represent familiarity and safety for most of my life.
Moreover, I knew that even if the police were to do their job, the clogged, slow moving legal system would ensure that that conviction and punishment was almost a pipe dream. I was not the only one who felt this way, for every potential abuser knew that he could act with impunity, and get away with it.
Role of the attitudes of women:
It has taken years to overcome my sense of victimhood. It was a long time before I was able to say: “I will not take the blame for other people’s bad behaviour, rotten values and lack of self-control.” It was years before I was able to stop analyzing what I could have done differently, each time a man behaved inappropriately.
My views were based on what I had been taught as I was growing up. I was taught that issues related to a woman’s debasement were not important enough. I was told that chastity, morality and safeguarding the body were women’s responsibilities. Somehow it was the always the woman’s fault. Somehow my teachers were mostly women.
I may have moved on but the disturbing mindset was obviously embedded and appeared in many ways. In the capital last year, a young woman had been brutally raped, tortured and murdered. Her only fault was that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet to my horror, even then, instead of rallying as one in outrage, some women responded in the old ways: “She should not have fought back” said a wine sipping auntieji, blaming the victim. “Her case got attention because she was a middle class girl,” said a celebrity activist, minimizing. “She shouldn’t have been out with a guy at night”, said an epitome of traditional womanhood, moralizing. And so it went on.
The toxic mindset also meant that in a place where the top political positions belonged to women, (chief minister, leader of ruling party, leader of opposition, speaker of the lower house) there was no political outrage. It seems that they too had bought into the view that issues related to a woman’s debasement were not important enough.
The role of legislation:
The silver lining in the sordid saga was that a public outrage happened, and it shook the establishment in its fury. The political leadership seemed stunned at the level of anger. A friend put things in perspective when she said, “I thought I had grown up, moved on and left all the bad experiences behind. Now I realize that although so much had changed, nothing had really changed.” She was spot on. For many women, this case grazed old wounds that they thought had healed. Thus, when they cried for the braveheart they also grieved for themselves. When they demanded justice for her, they also sought amends for themselves. I know that I did.
At the end of it all, the government’s hasty attempts to pass an anti rape law seems like an inadequate and knee-jerk reaction. There is no talk about speeding up the judicial system, no talk of better policing, no talk of changing demeaning procedures for rape victims, and no real measures for changing mindsets or empowering women. What women really need is “action, not acts”. Alas, the only concrete action from the government thus far has been the announcement of a bank run by women, when of all the things, we were perfectly happy with the banks run by men!
1.I deliberately do not dwell on the role of male attitudes as enough has been written on the topic already.
2. Delhi has been used as an example for this article since most of my experiences are derived from there. It does not absolve other cities of their versions of misogyny. Also, the Delhi example is meant to highlight larger issues, which go beyond city specific details.