There has been a constant flow of commentary in the media,on social media,in drawing rooms and in bylanes on the recent acts of violence,especially sexual violence,against women. Questions of whether the rising incidence of sexual violence can be attributed to an increase in reporting by victims,and whether victims have now overcome the shame that was earlier associated with sexual violations,are repeatedly asked. We cannot rule out that the incidence of sexual harassment and violence against women might have risen. Indias child sex ratio has been skewed against girl children for half a century now,slipping to 914 for every 1,000 boys in 2011. This has led to an increasingly masculine demography,which is especially visible in the north and northwest of India. Research still needs to be done to determine whether such a demography implies a greater threat to womens safety,security and well-being. But reports of sexual harassment and violence against babes-in-arms,young girls and older women,certainly send a signal that the female gender,across age groups,is vulnerable to violence.
The discussions around the recent high-profile cases of sexual violence against women have,however,been limited to reiterating the need to implement the legislations that have been designed to address it. Few pieces,if any,have asked the fundamental questions about the current gender trajectory of Indian society. The role of the state in protecting and providing a safe environment for women has certainly been raised,albeit in a largely metropolitan context as sexual violence in small towns and villages does not have as much traction in the national media. The state,for its part,has reacted in various defensive ways: Sheila Dikshits unforgivable statement that women should not venture out alone after 8 pm; some in the judiciary allegedly contemplating not hiring women interns; universities attempting to impose dress codes on female students; the informal state khap panchayats arguing that women should not have access to cellphones or be able to choose their own partners and so on.
Such responses militate against the contemporary reality of women who educated or illiterate,rural or urban need to venture out to work,run errands,and just socialise. Current economic conditions and womens own aspirations are driving more of them to access public spaces,and to be assertive within the family and the social and work spaces they inhabit. The primitive responses of the state to such everyday needs pose a direct threat to womens right to participate in development,and to be able to do so in a secure fashion. Equally,they pose a threat to
womens demand for greater gender equality a demand birthed by the womens movement,the new work world and the widespread exposure through education and the media to a world where gendered roles are no longer straitjacketed or unchangeable.
Indian society has not faced a challenge of such great proportions from women until now. Indeed,the shifts that took place a long time ago in the Western world are only now surfacing in India. The entrenched patriarchy,and all that it implies for gender roles,now faces stiff resistance from new generations of women. Whether it is by entering politics,working night shifts at call centres or excelling in school finals,a critical mass of women is striving to enter mostly male-occupied bastions. And there is a quiet self-confidence in this transformation.
Yet,this transformation is not going to be complete without bloodletting,it seems. At the centre of this is the womans body,which is facing the brunt of social upheavals and gender struggles. Throughout history,in patriarchal societies,the preferred mode of resolving contentious issues (between men,dynasties,tribes,kinship groups,castes and classes) has been to control womens sexuality and fertility. It is womens bodies that bear witness to dynastic struggles,government plans for population control,the retrieval of mens honour,not to mention the struggle for their own rights witness the Bhanwari Devis and Malalas fighting against child marriage and for girls education. Violence against Dalit women bears witness to caste struggles. Young women who say no
in intimate relationships face
And it is once again the vulnerability of the female body and its use,or misuse,to settle scores or work out personal traumas or inadequacies that is coming to the fore in the current violence.
Whether it is allegations against an ageing but powerful Tarun Tejpal or a retired judge,they point to men visiting their insecurities on the women they see as posing a challenge to them. It is not the weak but the striving woman,the woman who dares to say no,who is at greater risk today. While feminists rightly exhort
women to demand their rights,society must take up the
challenge of reworking patriarchal institutional and individual mindsets to accept the new reality of women.
The writer teaches at IIT Delhi