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Violence and rape have nothing to do with sex: Sharmila Tagore

india Updated: Oct 13, 2016 07:06 IST
Sharmila Tagore
Sharmila Tagore
Hindustan Times
Sharmila Tagore

Rape and violence are about a misplaced sense of power and about wanting to humiliate a woman and teach her, or through her, the family a lesson, writes Sharmila Tagore.(HT File Photo)

Let’s Talk About Rape : Eminent Indians write open letters in Hindustan Times to discuss the reality of sexual assault in India.

In this letter, acting legend and former chairperson of India’s film censor board Sharmila Tagore writes an open letter to her countrymen on how we need to change our mindset so that women feel safe.

Let us consider the headlines in all the major newspapers in the Capital over the last few days. Even going by the trend of pessimistic news that we are generally exposed to, the gruesome murders of young women one after the other must have shocked even the most insensate and hardened of hearts. Their only fault -- they said “No” to their stalkers. Yes, the time is nigh upon us. It is time we talk about crimes against women in earnest.

Even after achieving a degree of economic independence and success, sometimes I wonder how empowered am I. Without the safety of my chauffeur-driven car and the multi-layered privileges that cushion me, I wonder how safe I will be.

I remember the day when I arrived at the station in Hyderabad and my car hadn’t reached. Within minutes I was surrounded by a mob, but because I had three-month-old Saif with me I was treated with deference.

Only a few months ago, another mob’s reaction had been entirely different. The feeling of empowerment for young women, I think, comes from being treated with respect and from a sense of security in a public space, both sadly lacking in our public and sometimes even in our private spaces. We can claim these spaces only when the world around us changes its mindset.

We’ve had our politicians tell us we shouldn’t travel alone after 9pm, that we should wear “proper” clothes. What can be more misplaced than such gratuitous advice? Ask the women whose stalkers bludgeoned and stabbed them to death in the heart of Delhi recently. They were, by all token, your average women -- dressed “properly’ and going about their everyday work; not being “provocative” in either their dressing or in the time they were out of home. Violence and rape have nothing to do with sex. They are about a misplaced sense of power and about wanting to humiliate a woman and teach her, or through her, the family a lesson.

In the name of family honour and tradition, women continue to be subjugated. They are constantly harangued with words like propriety, dignity and modesty and always told to “behave like a girl”.

Sadly, women are conditioned to see themselves as a part of this patriarchal construct. “We are still living with the ideology of compromise and not the ideology of recognition,” as Dipin Damodaran says. In rape or violent assault against women, we have to be very clear that it is not the woman who is at fault but the man who is guilty.

Centuries of patriarchal conditioning has had a strong hold on our collective consciousness and informs our views on the status of women. These views are being reinforced almost on a daily basis. It is this that gives men a sense of entitlement where even a simple “No” causes deep offence and fury --enough to scar a woman with acid, to rape, even to kill.

This entrenched mindset prompts men to think of women as a lesser entity and treat them as an economic burden. But the fact is, this is no longer true. There is an urgent need to recognise that. Given the opportunity, there is no doubt that women can learn to chart their own path and pursue their dreams. In fact, it is three women who saved us the blushes in the recently concluded Olympic Games in Rio.

Society can be protective of us but that is different from policing us. Simone de Beauvoir said, “Girls are weighed down by restrictions, boys by demand -- two equally harmful disciplines.”

Women need to be seen as equal partners. We are not the lesser half, the second half or even the better half. We are equal. It’s time we stopped putting women into manageable slots. And this change needs to start from our homes, the microcosm of our society.

For the longest time, our mainstream cinema has been blamed for commodifying women. The manner in which sometimes the camera objectifies women does make me unconformable but we need to ask why only women’s bodies are singled out. Why only item girls are vilified. Isn’t someone who is covered from head to toe in expensive brand names equally commodified? Look at the constant sexism in the advertising world. Ads selling cars, computers and gizmos go to men. When it comes to domestic or beauty products such as cooking oils, washing machines or jewellery we have women.

So, how do we stop violence against women? There are no easy answers. No quick-fixes. Things will not change overnight. The patriarchal mindset is too deeply entrenched. But it is time we started addressing the issue systematically, beginning from our schools and homes. That is where our basic approach to life and people is shaped. We should raise our boys to understand and respect women. And young girls should have the freedom to exercise their choices and options to feel self-worthy.

The response to the Jessica Lall murder and the horrific gang rape in Delhi connected all of us in so many ways. There was a concerted citizen response to these, highlighted and driven by a missionary media. We shared outrage and propelled a change in the rape laws.

My family, Saif, Saba, Soha, Kareena, Kunal, had incessant discussions on the role of the police and the law, on what rape victims have to endure at police stations and in the courts etc. But we need to go beyond that. Beyond the candle-light vigils and protests, to quality education, sensitising people and more timely and stringent enforcement of the law. The conviction rate for rapes remains critically low at 25% or so.

We should perceive gender on a spectrum and not as two opposing sets of ideas. Men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus. They are both people. Gender equality is a human right issue, not a woman issue. We need to remember that out of 23 pairs of chromosomes only one is different. And yet only on that one, the difference of the gender is based, pretending as if all the 23 are different. Except for that one set of chromosomes, we are equal in every respect. It is imperative that we are treated as equals. I am as uncomfortable about women being treated as a goddess, the eternal mother, as I am with them being looked upon merely as a pleasure object. We need to fight these stereotypes.

As spiritual activist, author, lecturer and founder of The Peace Alliance, Marianne Williamson says, “Men in our culture have been spoiled, treated with false reverence.” That is at the root of the issue. That is what has to change.

At the same time, it is time for women to make themselves heard. Quoting Williamson again, “Don’t stop now. Keep going. The next time someone makes you feel, ‘winning as you are, perhaps you’re getting too big for your britches’, say to them silently, ‘I haven’t even started yet’.”

Our series has drawn to a close, but the conversation continues. Use #LetsTalkAboutRape to comment, discuss, respond. To read all the coverage, visit http://bit.do/letstalkaboutrape

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