The hardest and most urgent challenge in India today is to change the conversation from that of ‘safety from rape’ to that of women’s autonomy. In her recent article Rape, Rhetoric and Reality in a national newspaper, Rukmini S points out that while sexual violence is indeed a serious concern, India’s problem of epidemic proportions is the “restriction on women’s autonomy, across caste, class and religious groups”.
This means that instead of finding ways to lock women away for ‘safety’, our priority must be to expand their autonomy and mobility. The main finding of a ‘safety audit’ conducted by women’s organisations in Delhi on December 16 is that “the single biggest factor that would make women feel safer is the presence of other women in public spaces”. In other words, it is women’s freedom to wander in public spaces, rather than the presence of CCTV cameras, which actually makes those spaces safer for all women. It is this understanding that underpins the ongoing #Why Loiter campaign that has women sharing experiences of ‘loitering’ for the sheer pleasure of being in public spaces and demanding that the State provide infrastructure that enables and encourages such a presence of women in public space.
Rukmini S has also pointed out that no less than 40% of “what is classified as rape is actually parental criminalisation of consensual sexual relationships, often when it comes to inter-caste and inter-religious couples”. Each of the women in these ‘rape’ cases, then, is a victim not of rape, but of coercion and violence by her own parents and family, in her own home. But this violence remains an open secret, surrounded by a complicit silence.
The movement that followed the December 16, 2012, gang rape in the Capital broke that secretive silence with the full-throated cry for ‘azaadi’ — freedom — not only from the fear of rape, but from the khaps and the parental and social restrictions on the freedom to dress, love and live as they choose.
In the two years since then, it seems that there is a powerful political offensive seeking to drown out that cry for freedom. Women’s safety becomes the pretext to justify political riots in Muzaffarnagar and racial mob violence against African women and men in Delhi. Such rhetoric allows the perpetrators of actual violence against women — the khaps in Muzaffarnagar that commit ‘honour’ crimes and those who raped Muslim women, or the mobs in Delhi that victimise alleged sex workers and transgenders — to pose as ‘saviours’ of mothers, daughters, sisters and morality.
From the new Haryana chief minister, Manohar Lal Khattar, to the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh student outfit Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, to police in various states, there has been an exponential rise in organised moral policing, attacking the right of women to dress in jeans or have mobile phones. Prominent leaders of most political parties have indulged in blaming of rape victims.
The khaps and moral policing-Hindutva outfits are exposed and ridiculed by the media, which assumes that these are remnants of ‘backwardness’ and a ‘medieval mindset’. What is less acknowledged is the use of the same moral policing to control women workers in modern, globalised industry. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now exhorting multinationals to come and ‘Make in India’. Under what conditions do women currently ‘make’ for MNCs in India? Flawed Fabrics, a report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and the India Committee of the Netherlands on women workers in Tamil Nadu’s textile industry that produces for a variety of top American and European brands, reveals the extremely exploitative conditions there.
Women workers are admonished and penalised for going to the toilet, for speaking to male co-workers, and are denied the right to form unions. They live in hostels they describe as ‘semi-prisons’, where they are denied mobile phones and allowed phone calls to parents only in the presence of wardens. These conditions, predictably, are defended by managements in terms of “safety and security” concerns of the workers’ parents, and “our Tamil Nadu culture.”
Therefore, it is not just Indian families or khaps that are implicated in moral policing — the multinationals and global capital are equally implicated. And working-class women as much as college girls feel the need to fight for the right to have mobile phones, befriend male and female co-workers, ‘loiter’ freely outside tightly controlled hostel premises, and join organisations and unions.
Why are our ruling parties, governments and mainstream media silent on such work conditions for women? If these conditions are not rectified, ‘Make in India’ can only mean that India is offering cheap labour, cheap health and lives, and unfreedom of women and oppressed castes, as the USP to attract global capital.
Around December 16, one heard many in the media demanding why the Supreme Court had not yet disposed of the appeals of the convicts of the 2012 gangrape who are sentenced to death. The same week, the Supreme Court directed `10 lakh compensation to be paid to the mother of Thangjam Manorama, raped and murdered by Army personnel in 2004. An inquiry report revealed the ‘brutal and merciless torture’ to which Manorama had been subjected — was this any less brutal and merciless than the torture suffered by the December 16 victim? Hardly any in the media were heard asking why Manorama’s rapists and murderers are yet to be brought to trial! Manorama’s torment is a brutal reminder of the AFSPA, which emboldens and shields the perpetrators of such torture, and is a tool to suppress and deny the autonomy of the people of the North-East and Kashmir.
What women need and demand above all in India today is ‘azaadi’ — freedom — from the regime of surveillance and control to which they are subjected to by families, communities, schools and colleges, factories as well as security forces in conflict areas. Are the political parties, governments, and global funding agencies listening?
Kavita Krishnan is secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association
The views expressed by the author are personal