Rarely in history can any significant social change ever be pinned to a single moment, but December 16, 2012 was one such moment. In the five years since December 16 horrific gang rape and murder, there has been a sustained and relentless focus on women’s rights in India, in the media, in public discourse and in political statements. The stigma of reporting sexual abuse is steadily becoming a thing of the past, and women feel no shame in saying ‘me too’ while publicly naming and shaming their tormentors.
Victim blaming still occurs, but we can at least count on a strong backlash against it. The ‘Why Loiter’ and ‘Meet to Sleep’ movements are just two of many imaginative and unprecedented ways in which women are claiming public spaces. Women proudly participate in ‘Slutwalk’, a provocatively named protest against judging sexual assault victims by their clothes and lifestyles. Today we refer to Jyoti by her name, but the media-coined ‘Nirbhaya’ still holds true — for the fearlessness it awoke in women across the country. A five year anniversary is an important opportunity to assess how far we have come, where we are going, and how to achieve our goals.
Women’s empowerment has become the newest arena of populist politics, and while this signals a mainstreaming of women’s concerns which is welcome, it also brings with it a lowering of women’s rights discourse, to its basest, crudest and most simplistic forms. One area where this plays out is in equating women’s empowerment with women’s safety. This kind of discourse is not only wholly inadequate in its understanding of safety, but circumscribes women’s struggle of gender discrimination into a single concern – to not get raped.
All the injustices that women face, from the womb to the school, the workplace, marriage, inheritance, legal and other public services, or simply the inequities in inhabiting public spaces, is now reduced to a single concern of rape. And not even all rape – rape by strangers in public spaces. Marital rape is still legal, and the home is the site of a great deal of violence that women face.
The singular focus on protecting women from this kind of rape is not then about empowerment. Jailing women in their homes might, in some cases, keep them safe, but it isn’t empowering. Spying on citizens through CCTV cameras, phone tracking, or Aadhaar might catch a perpetrator or two, but it will not give women the freedom to enjoy their safety. Safety in the absence of equality and freedom is not empowerment. As citizens, we need to be careful about ensuring that safety demands are firmly placed in a framework of liberty, or we will be missing the larger picture.
While safety is being made the central focus of women’s rights, criminal law is fast becoming the only way these rights can be achieved in popular imagination. Following the Nirbhaya incident, the Verma Committee passed a series of recommendations on amendments to criminal law, which were essential steps towards taking the process of gender justice forward.
But legal definitions are only a first step. Many of our laws have been strengthened, and the focus now has to be on other areas that require change. Strict punishments are of little use when there is no swiftness and certainty of punishment. Processes have to be reformed, corruption targeted and efficiency rewarded. But for any of that to happen, we have to first take a long hard look at our own society, our own communities, our own behaviour.
We say we treat men and women equally, but would we really accept a man who stays at home to look after the kids while his wife goes out to work? Or a daughter and son-in-law living with her parents after marriage? A child getting her mother’s surname instead of her father’s? A son who likes to play with dolls? We spend far more on a son’s education and career than a daughter’s; and more on her marriage than on his. We hire women, but we don’t hire women who might get pregnant. Our daughters might excel at studies, but it is the sons who will inherit the family business. We have laws ensuring a daughter’s right to inheritance – we evade that by writing them out of our wills. We have laws against dowry — we call it gifts. We have laws against rape – we ignore it if the perpetrator is a friend or a husband. We want an effective and honest police force – unless our children are in trouble.
Laws can only take us to the water, they cannot make us drink. The national obsession with law and legal remedies allows us to ignore our own complicity in perpetuating gender inequality, in contributing to corruption and lawlessness, in strengthening rape culture.
Let’s also not forget that our law makers, law enforcement and law implementation agencies – politicians, police and judges – are from the very same society that we refuse to reform. Ourselves. They will have the same prejudices and stereotypes that we have and that we have held on to.
So however strong our laws might be on paper, in practice they will only reflect our own mindsets and biases, magnified, and, as with any law or legal practice, difficult to change. We need to take a long, hard look at ourselves, acknowledge the monster in the mirror, and do what it takes to change. That is the only way we can repay Jyoti’s sacrifice.