Economic prosperity has triggered real changes in gender dynamics across India, so that it is now vital to engage in a public debate about the conflict and confusion that arises when traditional Indian society comes up against new and radical post-feminist views and lifestyles. Or, put another way, what happens to our collective notion of gender justice when a patriarchal, conservative society invokes the morality of second-wave feminism to win rights and freedoms for women but devolves into a state of post-feminist amorality — not immorality — after it has achieved some degree of gender equality? Irrespective of gender sensitivity training, is it fair to expect semi-educated Delhi policemen from less-privileged backgrounds to understand this clash of feminism with post-feminism that even the more privileged among us struggle to come to grips with?
Undoubtedly, the Delhi Police’s cavalier attitude towards rape victims exposes not only a lack of gender justice from the very system that is meant to support and protect women but also an inherent misogyny in Indian culture of which the police are just an extension.
To hold that women who do not dress and behave within so-called acceptable boundaries are begging to be raped is not only to shift the blame to the victims but also to overlook that it is men who must alter their predatory mindsets, and Indian society as a whole that must introspect. In any civilised society, the burden of shame associated with rape must lie with the perpetrators, not the victims.
But, increasingly, in India, pragmatic world views stemming from market reasoning encourage casual sex, ‘friendships-with-benefits’, non-exclusive sex, post-marital affairs and open marriages. Society remains non-judgemental, arguing there is nothing wrong with choices made by consenting adults who may or may not be stressed out by the demands of lonely, dystopian living. But, in doing so, do they objectify and dehumanise themselves as well as others? For, in the name of ‘fun-without-strings-attached’, do they teach both men and women to use each other as a means to an end, robbing each other not only of their dignity and respect but also of their individuality, creativity, morality and spirituality? These are questions that must be explored in our public intellectual discourse: if India wants a real feminist debate about rape and gender justice it must also talk openly about the right way to value love, sex, and commitment.
Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of second-wave feminists (both male and female), many Indian women from the upper and middle classes have real democratic choices available to decide about their bodies, minds and lives. Not only do they have access to good education and healthcare but they also have the freedom to marry a partner of their choice if and when they want, and the freedom to reproduce if and when they want. They are no longer victims of their circumstances, nor can they complain about an uneven professional playing field. They are also free to dress and behave as they choose for, across society, the people who care about them do not control or restrict their freedoms but, instead, support them to enjoy the same rights that men do: the right to love fearlessly, think independently, voice opinions freely, move safely in society, earn and/or inherit wealth and property equitably.
But when these privileges are stretched so that market values of mutual convenience over-write the underlying principles of justice and morality (not to be mixed up with religiosity or rigidity) that afford women these freedoms and rights in the first place, there exists a crisis at the core of our culture. Put simply, when some women’s personal choices are driven by their lowest instincts but defended by faux intellectual doctrines of women’s empowerment or the celebration of sexuality, there occurs an abuse of hard-won freedoms and rights.
A world where sexual power and equality are misappropriated as rights for women — or men — to shed all ideals is the very opposite of what the second-wave feminist movement struggled to achieve. The desire for self-respect and the need to love and support one’s partner are fundamental feminine traits. To disengage from that is to de-feminise. And perhaps that is exactly what the Delhi Police are saying, albeit very inarticulately: women’s equality is also about women taking equal responsibility not only for their rights, freedoms, words and deeds but also the strength of their feminine identities.
Market values do not care either about the spiritual and moral meaning of people’s choices or their non-utilitarian worth or consequences, so they hold that people’s private lives are no one else’s business. But there is nothing personal or private about choices that have the potential to dehumanise or render dysfunctional. Therefore, more clear and open public debates that include emotional and psychological content are necessary so that we know what we lose when we say it is all right to barter sex without mutual love, respect, trust, honour or commitment.
Nandita Patel is a Mumbai-based writer
The views expressed by the author are personal