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How a patriarchal state punishes parents for not policing daughters

Shilpa Phadke writes: In both Hathras and the rape of a nine-year-old in Delhi, the parents of poor Dalit victims were seen to have no rights vis-à-vis their children — not even the right over their dead bodies.

Written by Shilpa Phadke |
Updated: August 13, 2021 7:44:28 am
Security at Hathras village. (Express file photo: Praveen Khanna)

Four men, including a Brahmin priest, have been accused of raping and murdering a nine-year-old Dalit child at a crematorium in the nation’s capital on August 1 and then cremating her over her mother’s protests. Less than a year ago, in September 2020, four upper caste men were arrested for raping a 19-year-old Dalit woman in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh. Two weeks later, she succumbed to injuries and, according to reports, was forcibly cremated by the police while her parents and family were locked in their house. In both these cases, the parents of poor Dalit victims were seen to be of no consequence. These are Dalit parents and it would appear that they have no rights vis-à-vis their children — not even the right over their dead bodies.

Only weeks earlier, in July 2021, four men posing as policemen were accused of raping two minor girls on Benaulim beach in Goa. The Chief Minister’s response was to blame the parents, asking how their children had been allowed out on their own so late. The Goa CM was taken sternly to task on social media and reminded of the responsibility of the government to ensure law and order. He responded by asserting his own status as the parent of a 14-year-old girl, perhaps attempting to suggest that he had responded as a “parent”, a “good” parent.

The Goa CM’s comments in regard to the teens being on the beach all night suggested that the parents of these girls had failed not just to “protect” their wards but also failed at controlling them adequately. The parents here are charged with the responsibility of being the “guardians” of their daughters’ virtue by way of restricting their bodies to spaces where they might be controlled. It is this virtue that is tied to ideas of reputations of families, communities and, indeed, of a homogeneously defined Indian culture. Children, especially girl children, have few rights. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act (2012) raised the age of consent from 16 to 18, giving the state the right to decide that young people between the ages of 16 and 18 do not have rights over their own bodies in sexual contexts.

The state often tends to arrogate to itself the status of the parent, with its citizens often seen as recalcitrant children, but equally when it chooses, as in this case, it arrogates the right back to the citizen-parents of minors, relinquishing its role as state-patriarch. In this case, the state represented here by the Goa CM asserts the right of parents over their children as disciplinarians and guardians of their virtue and morality. These anxieties are particularly located in the bodies of Hindu upper caste women and it is their parents who are recognised as having rights over the bodies of their children.

This is reflected in the anxieties articulated in regard to the bogey of love jihad and the anti-Romeo squads instituted in Uttar Pradesh to ensure that “good” Hindu girls are not “ensnared by the wiles” of Muslim men. They reflect the zealous way in which upper-caste Hindus families are required to control their daughters, over whom they have ownership rights. However, the state is never entirely convinced that parents can indeed control their wayward daughters and, therefore, they continue to exercise their own controls. In an increasingly majoritarian communalised context, the state is uncertain, for instance, whether parents will satisfactorily regulate the romantic choices their children make and feels the need to step in. The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance 2020 must be read in the light of these observations. From the perspective of the communalised state-patriarch, then, women themselves are commodities either of little consequence if they are Dalit or Muslim or of relevance only as objects of patriarchy if they are Hindu and upper caste.

Many women, across caste and religion, refuse to be mute spectators to this travesty. The Pinjra Tod movement against hostel curfews and others like it grew out of such restrictions on women’s mobility, often supported by parents eager to endorse the surveillance of their daughter’s choices and especially their sexuality. Young women subvert and resist the tactics of their parents and the institutions to restrain them in a variety of ways, often becoming deeply politicised in the process. Such young women are a source of fear, and that they are feared by the state-patriarch can be seen from the pattern of arrests of young women, many of them Muslim and Dalit, in the last 10 months, especially in the wake of the anti-CAA protests.

What happens, then, when the state-patriarch gets anxious? It responds by becoming increasingly authoritarian, demanding that the citizen-parent either stay silent in the face of increasing violence from the powers that be or aid the agendas of the state in controlling not just their daughters, but also its unruly populations.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 12, 2021 under the title ‘When state is the patriarch’. Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist and co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets

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