Between the upside and the downside, the facts are still sobering. Crimes against women are up. Child sex ratio is down (at 914, it is the lowest since Independence). More women are entering the workplace, but earning on average 75% of what men earn. In agricultural work, no state gives equal wages to men and women. The unorganised sector — 93% of India’s workforce — includes millions of women with no access to labour laws, doing piecemeal work under exploitative conditions. Literacy rates for women are up by 11% since the last Census. But 2011 still finds well over 200 million women who cannot read and write. Enrolment of girls at all levels of schooling is overtaking boys, yet access to higher education remains a distant dream, and dropout rates are higher for girls at successive levels. Dalit, tribal and Muslim girls occupy the bottom of most statistical heaps.
But though the Women’s Reservation Bill is repeatedly stymied, over a million women have entered political spaces in panchayats and urban local bodies through the 73rd / 74th amendments. A slew of laws — some flawed, some promising — have been enacted to address violence against women (Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013, Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013).
The recent amendments to rape and sexual assault laws do advance women’s rights — with new offences, new levels of state accountability, and a definition of ‘consent’. But impunity remains resilient. For a law cannot wish away a chauvinist social order determined to keep itself alive. When even a high court judge in Tamil Nadu, while inaugurating a Mahila Court last month, reportedly warns of ‘women inviting trouble in some situations’ (namely, travelling at night) we recognise the familiar sickening stink of patriarchy that has inveigled itself into all parts of the justice machinery. The gulf between formal and substantive equality for women sometimes appears too enormous to imagine it will ever be bridged.
Yet a momentum has been achieved. Amid the hysteria, white noise and self-serving media-led activism of recent times, a small sane shift is discernible. The voices against injustice to women are louder than ever before. Many multiple women’s movements are moving, alert and angry. Sometimes pushing legislation quietly behind the scenes, at other times hitting out publically at multiple patriarchies — religious, institutional, and familial. Newer, younger constituents are joining ranks of protestors, not just as picketers but as persuasive advocates. The women’s question has come to occupy public discourse in more serious ways than it has for decades.
That the discussion is led by cases of violence against women is inevitable. For violence — the rapes, gang rapes and acid attacks — is the most visible face of inequities faced by women in India, and the world over. A single case and a victim story are easier to tell. So we get to hear just that. We appropriate and iconise victims, and christen them with made-up names, creating commodities of them, so much the easier to consume.
But the discussion is, has to be, larger than that. Even the Justice Verma Committee, given a narrow mandate to address laws on violence against women, shifted its boundaries, embraced the experience of women’s rights activists, and became rightfully more expansive. It spoke of sexism in school textbooks and of misogyny in society as a whole. Causality requires us to dig deep, beyond symptoms, to systemic inequities.
The question is how deep will we allow this discussion to go? What should worry us is when the electronic media is urban and unrepresentative, yet televised debates pass for ‘the public mood’ (even though TAM — admittedly just an urban dipstick — is discredited, so really who knows who’s watching what). Worry, when these debates on women’s security begin and end with — ‘depraved mindsets’, ‘unemployed youth’, ‘women’s clothes’, ‘pornography’, ‘badly lit roads’ and ‘poor street policing’; when the structures that spawn violence against women are not subjected to scrutiny; when acts of violence are ripped from class, caste, community, and societal moorings (who rapes whom, and how that rape is viewed by police, courts and the passerby); when some rapes do appear to matter more than others; when systemic violence against Dalit women is not essential to the discussion; when specific vulnerabilities of Muslim women don’t cause alarm even as communal polarisation increases — freezing identities, threatening women’s rights in the private sphere and violence to their bodies in the public.
Worry, when Thangjam Manorama’s memory is silenced by the bogey of national security; when Kunan Poshpora re-appears — an uneasy blip on the radar of our conscience — decades after justice was due, yet the altar of ‘patriotism’ demands more forgetting, more denial; when the class and community question surfaces only to tell us that rapists are often ‘low class’ and unemployed, or (in the Mumbai case) migrant scum from another community. India’s great class divide becomes a barrier to fear, not a shameful chasm to take collective responsibility for and bridge. Never mind that over 90% of rapes are committed by men known to victims, not by demonised, impoverished strangers outside ‘our’ gated society.
We’ve seen eager young people on the streets, acting out a human instinct for equality. We must worry when they ask for vengeance not justice — not for due process of law, but for stripping away rights of juveniles, and for death by hanging. And a fearful middle class applauds public interest messages asking Indian men to be ‘real men’ — soldiers in the battle to ‘protect our women’. Missing the point entirely — that the machismo of protective soldierliness undermines the essence of empowered equality. Yes, amid the charged urban rallies and calls for women’s rights, feminism — even humaneness — is in short supply. This must change and there is work to do.
Yet, the spirit of feminism is alive in millions of ordinary acts of ordinary women. In exercising their freedom to walk a street or break a mould. To make choices. One woman chose to be a photojournalist, to freely point her lens at the vast public, subverting quite literally the male public gaze. And she now refuses to let their rape shatter her life. Many women across India are being who they are, pushing boundaries of aspirational mobility — physical and metaphoric.
They dare, because it is their right. And the battle to preserve and expand these rights is fought every day, often won. Young girls, of all sizes and communities — Dalit, Muslim, Hindu, tribal — every day walk to schools in search of affirmation and equity, seeking education that will not discriminate on account of their community or their gender. Will the threat of violence quell this surge? Will it send women scurrying back into homes? Will the public moment of unrest and anger pass, and leave us only with the backlash of protective patriarchy, seeking to curb mobility, deflecting the discussion from violence to sexuality, from women’s rights to women’s morality?
Public memory can be a flighty creature in our attention deficit age. The challenge is to seize this moment and craft new institutional memory, ending the tokenism that has characterised the state’s handling of the ‘gender question’. Budgetary Allocation (11th plan) for the Ministry of Women and Child Development was around 97% for children (largely the ICDS) and 3% for women specific programming. Can an institution so focused on children, address the myriad needs of women? When its dominant response to declining sex ratios is to put up paternalistic posters telling us to ‘save the girl child’, we need an overhaul. And reform also India’s apex rights body for women — the National Commission for Women; its membership determined solely by the state executive, and a track record of abdication and silence when its voice could matter.
Indian democracy is in a churn; state institutions under public scrutiny like never before. For the momentum of women’s rights to continue, the India that is angry with corruption, needs to redefine the very idea of corruption beyond pecuniary benefit to corruption of the mind; cleansing institutions of sexist ideas and attitudes that corrupt the core of India’s constitutional promise of equality to all. But institutional reform will not happen by itself.
It will have to be led by the political class. So when large sections of this class, display, with a wink and cheerful impunity, the most regressive attitudes to women — as many did during Lok Sabha debates on the Criminal Law Amendment Bill on March 19 —yes, we need to overhaul this political class too. A tall order? It always is. But feminism is about hope. And perhaps the rise in the NCRB’s crime graph signals not greater violence, but more women reporting it. For accountability is in the air. And the women’s question in India is not just alive, but an essential part of how we today define the idea of the larger public good; how we judge the health of democracy.
Farah Naqvi is a writer and activist working on public policy and the rights of the most marginalised. She is a member of the National Advisory Council.