The aggravated sexual assault on a woman in Guwahati, wrongly termed “molestation”, exposed the colossal insensitivity and gender bias that pervades the administration, the police, the media and even institutions specifically created to protect women’s rights like the National Commission on Women (NCW). The NCW chairperson — Mamta Sharma — advised women to be “careful” about the way they dress because “such incidents are a result of blindly aping the West”. “Westernisation” is “eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen”; under its sway, “there are no values left”.
This is a deplorable retrogression to the ‘Bharatiya nari’ and women’s ‘purity’ discourse. It buys into stereotypes specific to this patriarchal society and is at odds with the NCW’s mandate. Women are no more inherently purer or holier than men; nor are men inherently more lustful or aggressive. Their behavioural attributes are socially conditioned. This statement ends up blaming the victim for “provoking” a crime by, for instance, dressing skimpily. But most cases of sexual assault or rape have nothing to do with the attractiveness of women or their attire. Rape isn’t about attraction, but about sexual domination and violence.
There is no connection between “Westernisation”, typically used as a misnomer for liberal values, and the assault. On the contrary, it is precisely a lack of liberal and egalitarian attitudes towards gender issues that explains the machismo that drives sexual violence against women. What we are witnessing here are new forms of male aggression in a social context marked by a recent explosion of consumerism and hedonism, itself linked to India’s “fast-track” high-GDP capitalism, rapid urbanisation, and growing acceptance of swagger, raucousness and testosterone-driven competition among young men for female attention as normal through Dabangg mannerisms, Mumbai-style tapori lingo, and loud, boastful cellphone conversations.
The National Crime Records Bureau statistics show that between 1953 and 2011, the incidence of rape rose by 873%, or three times faster than all cognisable crimes put together, and three-and-a-half times faster than murder. In India, a woman is raped every 22 minutes, and a bride is burnt for dowry every 58 minutes. Last year, 42,968 cases of molestation of women were registered. The number of crimes against women, including sexual harassment, cruelty by the husband or his relatives, kidnapping or abduction, and human trafficking, exceeds 2,61,000.
The roots of sexual aggression lie at least partly in the way children are brought up and conditioned here: boys and girls don’t mix freely or play together; sexual segregation is enforced early even in co-education schools, and male-female stereotypes are rigidly formed well before adolescence. Male “virtues” like bravery, physical strength, capacity for “toughness” in language and action, and inability to cry, are celebrated. Girls are encouraged to imbibe “feminine” characteristics like modesty, gentleness, soft speech and hard work, especially domestic labour.
Both boys and girls, particularly boys, grow up feeling uncomfortable with their own bodies and their sexuality. Puritanical values and the concept of brahmacharya (abstinence) are often a major part of boys’ upbringing. As is their overdependence on their mothers, a phenomenon many psychologists have noted. This is at odds with their increasing exposure as young men to film songs choreographed to suggestive movements and gestures, through “item numbers”, or through pornography. This produces a peculiar dissonance.
Most Indian men grow up repressed, with deep anxieties about their ability to enjoy sex, even close physical contact. Many adopt as their role-model the hero who is in search of objects of desire whom he must conquer by showing himself off through power and aggression. This has very little to do with a natural, passionate relationship of affection or love to which physical contact comes organically. Even less has it to do with values such as compassion, sensitivity, cooperation and solidarity.
This is reflected in the loutish conduct increasingly visible in our cities, in which young women suffer lewd taunts or forced contact and groping. Beneath the aggression lies lack of self-confidence among young men. As more and more women get education, and join the labour force, they become more visible, independent and self-assured. For a decade, girls have tended to dominate the toppers’ lists in school-leaving examinations.
This is producing new insecurities and fears among men, who seek to control women in various ways. Take the recent incident in Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh, where a khap panchayat ordered that no woman can use a mobile phone. The all-male panchayat fears that women might use the phone to talk to strange men. However, no such restrictions are imposed on men.
Other examples include the imposition of conservative dress codes on women by numerous colleges and religious community leaders anxious to preserve their “purity”, attacks on women in Bangalore pubs by Sri Ram Sene fanatics, and “punishments” like public humiliation of women who wear “inappropriate” attire even in supposedly cosmopolitan Mumbai.
It won’t be easy to fight India’s entrenched male-chauvinist culture without a campaign of social reform that combats patriarchy, casteism, communalism and other forms of parochialism and hierarchy, and promotes enlightenment values such as reason, freedom and equality. This kind of reform was (a weak) component of the freedom movement in its early period and has fallen off the social agenda altogether.
Social reform must be revived through the efforts of progressive intellectuals, teachers, enlightened politicians and concerned citizens. As for now, it’s our administrators’ duty to protect constitutionally guaranteed gender equality and non-discrimination. They must all be put through gender sensitisation courses and held down to provide the security and freedom that women deserve.
Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political commentator and environmental activist
The views expressed by the author are personal