The Blank Noise Project is run by a few people in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. It seeks to establish that ‘eve-teasing’ is a sexual crime, and is unacceptable. At a recent meeting of this project’s volunteers in Delhi, the conversation revolved around what could be done to sensitise Delhi’s men to the fact that leching, groping and passing remarks is not the best way to win girlfriends or influence people. One of the women said she could not understand why men behaved in this manner. What pleasure is there in making a lewd remark or grinding an elbow into someone’s breast, she asked? I do not know why men behave in this manner, but I am certain the fellows who do these things do it only because they get away with it.
What can be done to prevent such incidents is a difficult question. The Blank Noise Project seeks to alter men’s thinking so that they do not react with whistles and comments to women wearing short skirts or low-waist jeans. Its aims include reclaiming public spaces for women so that men do not react with excitement to the sight of a woman walking alone in a park at night.
These aims are based on the principle of equality of men and women. Its adherents ask why men can do perfectly innocuous things — like wearing the clothes they want, and then going for an evening walk — whereas women do not have the liberty to do so unmolested. The entire liberal world would be on the side of the Blank Noise Project women on this.
There is, however, the other camp. This lot would say that women should learn to behave in a manner that does not invite the unwanted attention of men. They should walk with eyes lowered, and refrain from wearing revealing clothes. They should not try and do all the things men do, because they are not men.
Most of the Islamic world, and conservative South Asians everywhere, are on this side.
It is a difference of opinion that divides the world. In its March-April 2003 issue, Foreign Policy published an article by American professor Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris. The article was called ‘The True Clash of Civilisations’. It was based on the cumulative results of the World Values Survey (WVS), conducted in 1995–96 and 2000-2002. This is what they found:
“A comparison of the data yielded by these surveys in Muslim and non-Muslim societies around the globe confirms the first claim in (Samuel) Huntington’s thesis. Culture does matter — indeed, it matters a lot. Historical religious traditions have left an enduring imprint on contemporary values. However, Huntington is mistaken in assuming that the core clash between the West and Islam is over political values. At this point in history, societies throughout the world see democracy as the best form of government. Instead, the real fault-line between the West and Islam, which Huntington’s theory completely overlooks, concerns gender equality and sexual liberalisation. In other words, the values separating the two cultures have much more to do with eros than demos. As younger generations in the West have gradually become more liberal on these issues, Muslim nations have remained the most traditional societies in the world.”
The current controversy over the use of the veil in Britain, and the earlier one concerning headscarves in France, highlight this clash. The Blank Noise Project in India is also, perhaps, a small example of the same phenomenon. Inglehart and Norris would probably find that Hindu, Muslim and Sikh India are all ‘traditional societies’ that largely favour democracy and economic growth, which means the market, but, to different extents, mostly oppose sexual liberalisation.
It would be easy and tempting to conclude that these traditional societies are in urgent need of modernisation and, therefore, that liberal ideas and views must be taught to the people who hold that men and women are not equal.
The opinion that men and women are not equal is derived from the view that gender follows naturally from sex. In other words, a man is biologically masculine by birth, and a woman is feminine. There are flaws in this logic — as the growing numbers of gay men and lesbian women show — but it is likely that this opinion does contain ‘a portion of the truth’.
There is need for much greater gender equality and sexual liberalisation. Every person should have equal rights to education, regardless of whether they are male or female or, for that matter, rich or poor, Dalit or Brahmin. Similarly, every person should have equal freedom to pursue a career or hold a job, and that includes driving taxis and selling paan.
However, what prevent this situation of equal opportunity from coming into being are more general problems. For example, what prevents women from going out safely at night? Or driving taxis? In large measure, it is the law and order situation, which itself is linked to the economic situation, and perhaps to the gender ratio. A woman can safely hang out all night inside a five-star hotel. Any incident there would be an aberration. However, the same woman would be unsafe on the road outside. This is despite the fact that there are plenty of men, and even groups of drunk men, in most five -star hotels.
In a perfect world, every place would be as safe as a five-star hotel, and there would be no crimes against women or men. Unfortunately, the world is far from perfect. That calls for economic upliftment and better law and order everywhere.
It does not call for a ‘clash of civilisations’.
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