My son recently asked me who was India’s earliest feminist. I told him our country’s first feminist was a man. Ram Mohan Roy took on orthodoxy, power, religion and relentlessly campaigned for the abolition of the barbaric practice of Sati. He was not just a social reformer but a fearless and tireless crusader for women’s rights. Through his journal Sambad Kaumudi, his tracts in the Bengal Press and his sabhas, he organised public opinion and reformist thinking to change social norms and behaviours so that the 1829 law banning Sati under British India could be implemented in letter and spirit. It was a classic example of effecting social change through pressure at the top and the bottom. That was 19th century India.
Earlier this week, a few days ahead of our 70th Independence day, I participated in a conference organised by the Centre for Social Research dealing with the issue of engaging men and boys in the fight against violence against women. I looked at the statistics put out by data journalism site Factly to see if things had changed post December 2012. The reporting and registering of rape cases has increased. On an average, there are three cases of rape registered every hour in our country. However, despite the setting up of fast track courts, pending trials have increased year on year. The challenge with statistics and frequency is that very often a society gets de-sensitised and it takes a gruesome incident to prick our collective conscience. From Pallavi Purkayastha’s brutal murder for resisting rape to Nirbhaya to the recent Bulandshahar gangrapes and the growing instances of rapes of babies — each incident has brought the darkness in our society to the surface. Earlier this week, Atanu Purkayastha chronicled in this paper a father’s aching loss and the systemic callousness of our criminal justice system.
I have often wondered about what it would take for us to change. Ranjana Kumari says that in her long experience as a women’s rights activist, she has often been told by men that we are raising our daughters like boys but nobody has yet told her that we are raising our boys like daughters. We don’t expose our boys to feminist values so that they can teach themselves and their communities.
In interacting with young people, men and women, I have observed five encouraging trends. First, increasingly, economic liberty allows women to fight stereotyping or being silenced. Second, what women want is changing — from economic to social and sexual rights. Third, women are not vacating their spaces. They will negotiate harder to expand them. Fourth, there is genuine partnership and collaboration among men and women, particularly millennials, to embrace meaningful equality. We saw a lot of this being displayed by young people during the December 2012 anti-rape protests. Finally, the internet and information revolution is helping women form communities and networks, giving them a bigger voice and tools to organise themselves as a vocal interest group and forge partnerships with men.
The millennial generation will increasingly use civic tech as a tool for social movements. Civic tech in our country needs social reformers, newer versions of Sambad Kaumudi and social media meetups to mobilise a social movement online and offline. It’s early days but it is happening in a de-centralised, organic way through local youth champions. In 2013, in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident, a group in Bangalore organised facebook meetups and events called “Skirt the Issue”. The campaign used satire to take on the orthodox view that a woman’s attire encouraged rape. It asked men to wear a skirt for a day and tell other men why they were doing it. Laxmi and Alok Dixit’s partnership and tireless campaign — Stop Acid Attacks — against retail sale of acid and violence against women is a 21st century example of social change. CSR is organising Men’s Collectives at the grassroots level to engage men and boys to address gender issues, re-orient definitions of “masculinity” and gender equality. These are small but powerful steps for change.
Aristotle described three types of friendship — friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of good. Friendships of utility are the ones you find in Lutyens Delhi, transactional in character. Friendships of pleasure are those where individuals seek each other because of the joy it brings like associating with each other because of a common hobby. The first two types of friendship are transient and relatively fragile. Friendships of good are friendships based on mutual respect, admiration for each other’s values and a strong desire to help each other. As we prepare for our 70th Independence Day, I hope men and women come together in a friendship of good to fight the scourge of rape in our country. A necessary union to preserve the soul of our country.