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A culture of assault and impunity

We are painfully verbose and smug on gender relations

Written by Krishna Kumar | Updated: January 9, 2014 10:34:11 pm

We are painfully verbose and smug on gender relations

New Delhi’s famous Lodhi Gardens was hurriedly spruced up and adorned to receive Japan’s Emperor Akihito. Flower pots already in bloom were hauled out of the nursery and dug into the ground. Grass sheets were rolled out,creating soft patches of green beside the walkways where the emperor’s glance might fall. Stones paving these walkways were individually scrutinised,lest the royal foot might tread on a loose slab.

A few weeks earlier,the garden had gone through a different facelift. Many new garbage bins were installed and citizens were invited to paint them,according to their individual fancy. Leaves,flowers,birds and animals are among the common motifs depicted,but there is one that displays a girl with her hair yanked up in a flying ponytail. The message painted on her body is: “Use Me”. Above the slot through which you toss garbage into the bin,there is another script: “Is it a plane,is it a bird,no,it’s the garbage girl.” Apparently,the artist wanted to invoke Superman in the viewer’s mind.

“Use me” is,of course,a common message garbage bins carry in many parts of the country,but the idea of a girl saying it is new. We don’t know if the Japanese emperor noticed this bin. But the hundreds of walkers and schoolchildren on picnic will surely see it. In all likelihood,they will not find it particularly barbaric. The city of Delhi is steeped in a “use and throw” culture. The verbosity of a bin screaming “use me” is quite in keeping with the ethos in which common pleas for courtesy need loud proclamation and men have to be told that they are being crude. They are surprised when a woman says so. Her audacity apart,she seems strangely unaccustomed to a norm.

Last December,the city’s youth responded in anger,sustained over several days,to a brutal attack on a girl. The horror and anger did lead to some reform in laws governing gender crimes. However,the culture of assault and impunity is a different,deeper issue. To begin with,this culture is not confined to Delhi. Second,it is not merely a behavioural trend. Over the last few years,I have been studying the ethos in which girls are socialised into women. I have found that the discourse of social change,especially in education,has made us painfully verbose and smug on gender relations. Girls wrongly assume that they are free to be fully human. They also assume that they are empowered citizens,but the state — its apparatus,consisting of police,politicians,teachers,etc — takes their claim to citizenship with a knowing smile. Of course,they are full citizens in a technical sense,but in no civic space,such as a road,park or market,can they afford to feel the way a boy or man does. The more open the space,the greater their fear and sense of caution.

The artist who painted the garbage bin described earlier could only be oblivious to the problems his or her message might well evoke. A bin’s plea to be “used” is neither wrong nor redundant in a society where collection of litter is strongly associated with caste,poverty and gender. Bhasha Singh’s recently published book,Adrishya Bharat (“Invisible India”,Penguin) brings out these linkages in a stunning survey of the lives of women who clean dry latrines and carry human excreta on their heads. They are seen every morning,but remain invisible as a social category of humanity. Of course we know what they do for a living — our knowledge is based on the caste system. Yet,we don’t notice them because they are women. In this respect,they share the common fate of women in India. They stand and walk around in the public space like anyone else,but they must scream in order to be heard.

Activists are understandably impatient to change this reality. Listening to them,one gets the impression that a great deal of change has already occurred. This impression does need correction,for if improvement had occurred,it would be more visible in the urban middle class than elsewhere. For now,though,the malaise seems to be aggravated,as evident in the reactive violence girls and women face today. They are being punished,and secretly sneered at,for speaking out. This reactive violence suggests the advent of a new phase of patriarchy. Men can be expected to act more brazenly in this phase; whether they are educated or not will make little difference. The rag doll image of a usable,disposable woman,displayed in a public garden chosen for a foreign emperor’s visit,symbolises this phase. This image presents a girl seemingly being yanked off her feet by the hair. We can expect this image to appeal to the male mind irked by the rise and acceptance of feminism. How long this phase will last might depend on the strength and depth of institutionalised reform in politics,law and culture.

The writer is professor of education at Delhi University and a former director of NCERT

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