What defines sophistication of a society? It’s our attitude towards women: by the ability of a woman to walk down the darkest alley at midnight without an iota of fear and remain unscathed; by the freedom to travel anywhere and everywhere in jam-packed buses and overcrowded trains untrammelled by the concern of lecherous glances and vulgar pawing. Scaled by these standards, society appears to have sunk to a new low, reaching the deepest trenches of moral degeneration as evidenced by the recent gangrape of a young woman in a moving bus in Delhi. On Thursday came another piece of sad news: a minor girl committed suicide in Punjab a month after being “raped”.
These two cases, along with the Guwahati molestation case in which a teenage girl was molested by a mob and another ghastly incident from Karnataka in which a 19-year-old girl was set upon by a gang of four and thrown out of a train, should send us running for cover.
When a man disrespects a woman it can be ascribed to individual depravity but when a group indulges in such despicable behaviour, it suggests a disturbing flaw in society.
More disturbing than the act in the Delhi incident is the audacity of the criminals. The fact that they dared to indulge in this act at 9:30pm, a reasonable hour, points to a lack of fear of the law. What the other two incidents underline is public apathy: onlookers were content to be mute spectators. This deadly combination of public apathy and criminal audacity does not augur too well for our society.
Universal condemnation and punishment are essential to deter the harassment of women but constitute only the tip of the iceberg; these measures address only the symptoms, not the disease. We need to delve deeper to ascertain the etiology of this horrendous malady to eradicate it.
What is it that brings out the worst in men with regard to women? Is it lack of education? Are sexually segregated schools the problem? Does being unaccustomed to close interaction with girls in the formative years engender an ignorance and awkwardness in boys that finds expression in such warped behaviour?
These are the questions we need to confront in order to effect a behavioural change in our society to create a more equitable pact between the sexes.
We teach our children the intricate complexities of science but fail to impart to them the fundamental tenets of male and female interaction. The responsibility lies with society as a whole and the family unit in particular.
In an atmosphere like this, I think Union women and child development minister Krishna Tirath’s proposal to launch a new scheme — the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Boys — aimed at building character of adolescent boys and changing their mindset towards women is certainly a step in the right direction and must be implemented without delay.
Vivek Gumaste is a US-based academic and political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal