This is a particularly fraught time in gender relations across the world. Institution after institution is struggling — and largely failing — to respond to the unmasking of sexual predators in its midst. None seems as utterly clueless as India’s National Commission for Women (NCW).
As priests face allegations of sexual abuse of women and a minor, the church in Kerala is staring at a moment of crisis. Has that prompted the NCW to come up with ways of helping women to speak up against figures of religious authority? No, it has instead boldly blundered into this landscape, swinging its rusty sword at an imaginary foe. Off with the practice of confession, it has recommended. Only by whispering their secrets, believes the NCW, do women place themselves in positions of vulnerability vis-à-vis priests and other religious heads. In this worldview, a design change, a flip of a switch is all that is needed to counter the enormous force of patriarchal religion that binds women and children into obedience. The NCW’s suggestion is reckless and damaging. It is ham-handed needling of a minority’s right to decide its essential practices, particularly at a time of majoritarian excess. It pits matters of faith against the safety and bodily integrity of women — no better way to force women to scurry back into silence and fear.
But, given its past record, this is no surprise. Over the years, in many important debates, the statutory body has often played the role of a foot-soldier of frivolousness. Just recently, the current NCW head accused women of crying rape to settle property disputes and to claim compensation. This particular twist in logic was used to deflect the claim that India is the most unsafe place for women. Earlier heads have, on various occasions, revealed the name of a molestation victim, or questioned women’s failure to protect themselves at a Mangalore pub raided by the right-wing moral police. A lot has to do with the way the NCW has imagined its role: As a maximum noise, minimum value post for the ruling dispensation’s women politicians. Instead of amplifying the voice of women on various issues, or doing the hard labour of building alliances, or shaping the urgent debate around consent and sexuality and autonomy, it chooses to parachute into sensational media “events”. Sound bytes proliferate, silver-bullet solutions are offered but the commission remains toothless. For Indian women, the path to smashing patriarchy might be a long, unpredictable one. But one thing is certain: It doesn’t go via the NCW.