To protect women, challenge patriarchy
Seldom has the State’s concern to protect one half of its citizens been so high. In Andhra Pradesh, a Disha law. In Maharashtra, a Shakti Bill. And “love jihad” ordinances in three states. All in the name of protecting women.
We should be so reassured. But even as Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was launching a “samman” (respect) programme, explaining how employed women can register at the local thana so that they can be tracked for their own safety, came news of nine men raping a 13-year-old multiple times over a span of a couple of days in Umaria.
India’s endemic rape problem is a matter of concern. Laws passed since 2013 have not flatlined the graph. In nine states, the number of young women who faced sexual violence as children has gone up, finds the latest round of the National Family Health Survey.
Now, Maharashtra’s stringent Shakti Bill, based on Andhra Pradesh’s Disha law, expands the death sentence for rape, but also dilutes the standards of consent, making rape more difficult to prove in courts. An outcry by women activists has led to a review.
So many laws, still no solution. Perhaps because there’s a contradiction here. The contradiction in wanting to protect women but within the decorous folds of patriarchy. We will keep women “safe” as long as they are bound by family structures, even though data on domestic violence and sexual abuse tells us the family is not the safest place.
In Uttar Pradesh (UP), the police have announced they will use artificial intelligence to spot women in “distress”. How is distress defined? How this will work is yet to be revealed. What we do know is that UP subscribes to the idea of the helpless Hindu woman duped by the scheming Muslim man. This is the bedrock of its “love jihad” law that robs adult women of autonomy, an autonomy that the Allahabad High Court and some other courts still defend.
Safety means empowering all women — single, divorced, rebellious — to live as equal citizens. It means respecting women’s choices. Rape stems from male entitlement and the idea that a woman’s consent doesn’t count. You cannot solve it with laws that spring from the same patriarchal mindset.
This mindset is not limited to our legislators. The chief justice of our highest court wants women to stay away from protests, as if we have not been an integral part of movements from Independence and Chipko onwards.
The head of the National Commission of Women (NCW) meets the Maharashtra governor to discuss “love jihad”, even though NCW has no evidence of it. One of its members says a rape and murder in Badaun could have been avoided if the 50-year-old anganwadi worker had not ventured out alone in the evening. Clearly, we are looking at the wrong solutions. A good start is a new vocabulary. Reduce words like “protection” and “respect”. Embrace a more affirmative language of empowerment, independence, rights.
Namita Bhandare writes on gender
The views expressed are personal
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