Tracing A Not-So-Fine Line: Why Protecting Women Is Not The Same as Empowering Them

Pleasantries and a sense of celebration are in the air as my parents and I move into a new house. The god-awful school year has only reached the halfway mark but I have suspended all melancholy in the pretense of joviality, from being surrounded by my cousins and friends. We are all sitting down for dinner and happily hogging on the treats made for the get-together when I accidentally spill some food on the floor. After dinner, I stand up and get a wet cloth to wipe the food stain. I am interrupted by my eldest aunt.

“What are you doing?”

“I dropped some food, I am wiping it off the floor.”

“No, no. You are a boy. You can’t do all this.” she exclaims as she snatches the cloth from my hand.

My elder cousin sister goes on to wipe the stain off the floor as I stare in disbelief. My house. My fault. But someone else will clean it? This was my first explicit brush with the ‘Guy Privilege‘.

The ‘Guy Privilege’ in India is hard to notice but deeply rooted in our interactions with one another, a behaviour that is so deeply ingrained in our society, that it has started to personify our ‘culture’ itself. There are never any overt rules or conventions, but subtle indications which are often unarticulated that indulge in the gender policing of both the sexes, with a result that is devastating for both. The mainstream conversation on the issue of women’s rights in India tends to focus unequivocally on the gender policing meted out to women, which leads to limited success. Unfortunately, the reality is that men play a dominating role in any society in the world. But what makes the Indian context so unique is the irony of the common argument – women need to be controlled because they are too precious.

Image Source: Better Photography

Image Source: Better Photography

The Protectionism

Religion has played a central role in India for centuries. While we pride ourselves on being the melting pot of the world home to a unique example of diversity, religion is misused rampantly in this country. The mixing of religion, politics and society is a potent amalgamation and no better example can be put forth when it comes to the role of women in India. The surest trick of ensuring protection to anything we hold dear seems to be to declare it sacred. The examples range from food to geographic locations, to even individuals. The same has been done to women by worshipping them as powerful Goddesses. But while we defend some symbols such as cows from slaughter, we often victimise women for their exalted status.

Ghar main Laxmi hui hain“, “Aurat ghar ki izzat hoti hain” and scores of other such statements are used to promote a view that women should be held in high esteem, but these ultimately shackle her and keep her from freedom. The signs are subtle and yet rather hard to miss; some of the most obvious sign stem from the regressive societal view of “Ladki toh ek bojh hain” (A girl is a burden on her family) which is often used as an excuse for the horrific crimes of female foeticide, child marriage and even honour killings.

The perceived weakness of the fairer sex has led to the creation of a deep-seated bias which is imbibed by our daily culture, too. The separate seating or compartments for women are a tacit sign of such protectionism, which can only be justified to a certain extent; what if these same protectionist attitudes act as impediments for the same group they claim to protect? I only need to offer you your daily life examples of having to drop your female friends to their house after a late-night plan – not an impulse of chivalry or civility, mind you, but rather a practised norm whose underlying connotations read: a woman is not freely allowed to be by herself and feel safe, especially not outdoors after dark. The repercussions of this mindset are many – from women having to decline and limit their work opportunities, to suppressing their innermost desires for freedom.

A rigid system of patriarchy and entitlement now exists where we hold these archaic conventions, which in some ancient or medieval time made practical sense to have, are enforced violently and unabashedly. Take for example the district of Rohtak in Haryana. Raju Pradhan, president of the Kalkal, a sub-caste gotra khap, condemned the brutal gangrape of a woman in Rohtak in February.

Image Source: Huffington Post

 The Rohtak Sisters who gained notoriety for standing up against harassment and then infamy for false accusations. Image Source:       Huffington Post

But he went on to add the following,But society also needs to be blamed. Earlier our parents would keep a constant watch on the children. Now, because habits of the city have perforated into the village, girls do what they want to and come and go as they please. We still have certain traditions that we follow. If a married woman doesn’t cover her head or if an unmarried woman applies make-up, we will object. These problems are happening because of women becoming more modern.”  

The Khap Panchayat and scores of other cultural and political leaders have placed similar blame on modernity which aims to evolve the existing state of our society. They seek a ban on mobile phones, jeans and western life, all the while holding the woman as an entity which needs to be protected and ‘honoured’. These regressive measures are not unexpected out of our old ‘guardians of Indian culture‘ but it is when the young subscribe to similar notions as well, that things get rather disturbing.

“Look at women these days. Their clothes are getting shorter and shorter. This obviously pollutes the environment,” says a 21-year-old in Rohtak, an area where stalking, leching at and objectifying women is a daily routine. A survey by CMCA in 11 cities in 2014 found that 59% of college boys agreed that women dress and behave in certain ways to provoke violent reactions from men. The same survey found that 44% of college boys agreed that women have no choice but to accept a certain degree of violence and 51% of college and high school students agreed that main role of women is to take care of the household and bring up their children.

The traditional Indian approach of protectionism of women can be seen as a clear failure – failing to protect women as it claims to, and creating restrictions instead based on an archaic mindset that ultimately boxes them in. A bird in a cage is always safe, save from the iron bars which shackle her.

The Watershed moment

Image Source: Huffington Post

Image Source: Huffington Post

16th December, 2012 changed a lot of things for different people but to me, it was an event after which everyone around me was suddenly a feminist. The people who would be comfortable in casually using rape in humour, or freely objectifying women and passing comments on their character were now strongly condemning the incident in Delhi. The reactions were certainly natural, as never before had the mainstream of Indian media presented to us a vivid portrait of a crime as gruesome as this, followed by the sheer scale of protests. The comfortable cocoons of our ignorance had been shaken up and everyone with a conscience was shocked and moved.

But I was still hesitant about this change; I am a huge admirer of integrity in human beings, though I might be spectacularly lacking in it myself. This made it hard for me to grasp how people who were so misogynistic and lecherous in their daily attitude, could be suddenly condemning the insensitive comments that were being said or siding with the protesters. The reason was simple and yet profound – our lack of empathy. The world we live in today is designed to say so much and mean almost nothing. The insensitive jokes and ‘innocent’ ogling had been previously been carried out at face value, never realizing the extent of their effect on another human being, or the reality of what rape is, until it was shown to us as the evil it is.

Everyone was dumbfounded about the appropriate manner in which they should react. This was not the first instance of rapes being reported in India but what really caught the attention of my generation was the element of identification – “It could’ve been us.” Two friends going to watch a movie is a common concept for India’s urban youth, irrespective of the genders involved (Yes, Advocate Sharma, it’s a common thing and a part of at least the Indian youth’s culture). A passing statement in this panic-stricken phase I heard was this – “She should die. Who can live after this?” While this can be seen as a lingering example of the lack of understanding on the part of the general public, the December 16th gangrape was instrumental in changing the conversation about women in the country. It was high time we reflected as a society and not focused simply on the parties involved in a crime.

Empowerment

Working towards Women Empowerment is an ugly and dangerous process, partly the reason why many countries in the world have still not achieved it to complete fruition. The reason for many a squeamish reaction or half-baked approach stems from the fact that women empowerment has more to do with men than women. There are no government programs, schemes or classes to achieve this but something far more arduous – self-reflection, and ultimately self-realisation.

Image Source : ENCA

Image Source : ENCA

When men start to question a few routine behaviours in our society, the answers start surfacing themselves. The implied ‘Guy Privilege’ in our society starts becoming noticed and understood for what it is and the fact is: the truth is ugly. I would often pride myself on being progressive and open-minded but the reality which I faced down this road left me fuming at myself. Let’s start with a basic norm we have formed in India – a woman is supposed to be the homemaker. The years of coming back home from school, college or work and shouting at the top of your voice “Mom, dinner!”,“Mom, my clothes” etc, coupled with the same norm repeated in different families makes one complacent about the role of a woman in a man’s life. This complacency then shakes one to the core when your girlfriend questions you,”If we are getting married, why are you naturally expecting that I will take care of everything? I am not satisfied with being a housewife and never will be.” The answer shocks you, not because of what was said but because it has you suddenly wonder – why and when was this latent expectation formed in your mind in the first place?

Then comes the objectification of women which is hypocritically blamed on movies and western culture. The fact of the matter is that ogling and leching is perceived as a no-harm activity by Indian men so much so, that it’s disguised as a euphemism in ‘eve-teasing’ instead of calling it for what it is – sexual harassment. I recall the first few weeks of my junior college where the new ‘friends’ I had made would happily pass on filthy jokes, porn clips or pass comments about the girls in the class. Donning a rather ‘holier-than-thou’ approach, I refused to be a part of such fun and was almost instantly ridiculed. I was automatically dubbed ‘gay’ for not participating in these activities, a term that shamed me deeply, a result of my ignorant homophobia in 2008. It wasn’t long before I succumbed to the ogling and objectifying myself, perhaps even more than what my classmates ever indulged in.

The reaction to such behaviour is often given through our traditional sense of protectionism. ”Ghar main Maa, Beti Nahin Hain Kya?” - an ubiquitous statement which is meant to inspire the reflection of one’s actions in relation to the women in a man’s life which is instead a subtle reinforcement of patriarchy, that disregards the fact that women are human beings too. We perceive them only as far as the extent of the roles they play – mother, daughter, sister or wife, but fail to see that they deserve equality and rights because they are humans first. The sad part is that our government and leaders continue to be in complete agreement with this patriarchal view.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared passionately at the adoption of Jayapur village his support for preventing female foeticide.”If we kill a girl child in the mother’s womb, then what will happen to the world? If only 800 girls are born against 1000 boys, then 200 boys will remain unmarried. Will the government do this job?” he declared. Even at the launch of his Beti Bachao,Beti Padhao Andolan, the PM reiterated a similar view by saying “Beti Nahi Bachaoge toh Bahu Kahanse Laoge?”. While his efforts and initiatives are noble and commendable, the reasoning behind them is dangerous and misguided.

Image Source: PIB Mumbai

Image Source: PIB Mumbai

Women are not utilitarian. They do simply have the right to exist, just like a man. It’s also a stark reality that while we in urban India may talk about first-world feminism and equality, the rural and remote parts of the country offer a situation where gender equality is still in a nascent or non-existent stage where the PM’s reasoning would be widely acceptable, and an encouraging first step. But the problems posed by standing by these patriarchal senses unmistakeably outweigh the perceived benefits, because they lay down the roots of a gender bias in the future. If a girl child is born in any village, she will be tied down to an early marriage with no freedom on her part, thanks to the endorsement of such views by our leaders.

What Now?

Who can we blame then for our predicament? Our parents? Our ancestors? My father or mother have never explicitly instructed me to demean or insult women. Yet, I found myself harbouring many prejudices and misogynistic tendencies whose origins I still can’t fathom or locate. Let us for once not try to blame any entity – man or woman – but instead take an objective look at our shortcomings as a society. The constant opposition offered by certain elements of our society to evolve by absorbing the various ideas of other cultures has been our biggest failure in delivering an equal society. No culture is perfect, but each culture can strive to be a sponge of ideologues which accepts the best of both worlds. The apathy and rigidity of Indian society, not to mention its resistance to evolution and critical thinking, has been the biggest roadblock for us in attaining social progress.

The process of self-reflection and introspection, which started in the aftermath of Delhi gangrape needs to be further emboldened. Men and women alike have to join the conversation and discuss the education regarding gender that our future generations deserve. The task may seem daunting, as every radical change ever proposed is, but it cannot be left to the government alone whose only solution to social problems seems to be bans and reservations. Women do not demand reservation or exaltation, they demand equality which has long been denied to them. As pointed out earlier, there is a divide in the rural and urban understanding of women’s rights but that cannot mean a pandering to the old patriarchal mindset but a policy rooted in the basic truth that states that men and women are equal. Any antithesis of this is archaic and unnatural. The conversation from then on needs to be about conditioning equality in the smallest aspects of our lives – from how we talk about women and men in public, as well as private, spaces.

8th March shouldn’t have to be International Women’s Day. Every day should be as much a day dedicated to women, as one for men, or any other living being.

                                                                                                                                     

         He for She,

Not because She needs He,

But He is the problem

You Don’t See.

 Words: Devang Pathak

 

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