Thursday, July 19, 2012

What Women Want?

This article was first published with the title This is Not Fair in Seven Sisters Post ( in two parts on 19.07.12 and 20.07.12

The recent incident, of a mob attacking and molesting a girl coming out of a bar in Guwahati, Assam, has been occupying television prime time, drawing room conversations and facebook walls of the Assamese and Indian people with fervor. People have been voicing a range of concerns starting from the role of media, state of law and order in the state to questions of morality and the so called ‘modern’ or ‘western’ influence in our societies.

In this particular 10th July incident some of the popular reactions have been to demand that the police arrest the culprits immediately, and give them severe punishment which will be so exemplary that such incidents will not take place in the future. Also this typical reaction demanding punishment to the culprit is like a stock reaction people of India has for every incidence of injustice that occupies public interest.  This naïve and simplistic expectations are cute and knowing the competence of the police for perhaps a bit far-fetched. In fact news has been going around that the community to which one of the arrested culprits belongs to has been protesting against his arrest. They have claimed that he is a very good man and it is unthinkable that he will do something like molesting a girl in public. It just so happened that the group of people were molesting the girl when he was passing by and he felt the need to join in! 

Typically the administration’s reaction has been to put a series of moral impositions on the public. No music, live or piped, in any bars and clubs, an infantile closing time of 10 pm for bars and heightened road blocks in the city. Living in the war zone of India, we, who live in the North-East, are used to administrative impositions. We have learned to develop coping mechanisms like humour and house parties to subvert any control on our social pleasures.

Another set of reactions, again endearing although naïve is coming from the people of Assam who live outside of Assam.  They have been outraged by the rupturing of the image of beautiful, peaceful, the-most-wonderful-place-in-the-world Assam that they carry in their expat hearts pained by separation from motherland. They have been shamed in front of the outsiders they live with. Assam is not like this they have been telling. Please stop showing Assam in such bad lights. The statistics on violence against women is wrong. Assam cannot be worse than UP and Bihar.

In addition to all these sentiments and reactions, is the outcry in the media. Yes, local media’s handling of the incident has been appalling. They have broken every possible ethical rule and standard in portraying news related to women. There hasbeen breach of confidentiality,  violation of safety measures, and  character assassination. On top of this, the same channel which has broken all these basic ethical lines of responsible journalism has been going rabid discussing the reasons behind the incident – women’s morality or the lack of it. The channel seem to have a set of favourite ‘renowned’ people, writers, actors, psychologists, beauticians, civil society representatives etc who have gathered in various panels to talk about the declining morality of women in Assam and Guwahati. The gist of their noisy opinions seems to be that violence against women is increasing in our societies because women are inviting it on themselves by wearing half-pants (a synonym of Shorts in some parts of India), going to bars and such places at night and  drinking. The public outcry about the media has mostly focused on why the reporter was filming the incident instead of valiantly rescuing the girl.

With renewed attention from the national audience the case seems to be spiraling into inter-spatial complexities with new accusation of the incident being instigated and staged by the reporter of the news channel, the girl’s age and marital status changing every second, one of the accused being accused of receiving protection from ‘influential quarters’ etc.  It has even prompted ‘reflection’ among the national media channels who now claim that despite being seasoned journalists- even they were not able to catch the anomaly of the molesters brazenly performing to the camera; whereas usually in a mob situation – the camera persons are the ones who are first attacked by the mob which tries to cover its face!

What happened on G.S. Rd on 10th July is not just an attack on an individual; it is an assault on every woman’s right to be in a public place, her bodily autonomy and her right to determine her actions. These rights are not something that is merely to be guaranteed to a woman by the state or by the society. Every individual is born with these rights. What is alarming is that there has been a sharp increase in occurrence and in media performing the role of moral police on incidences of similar nature where a woman has been attacked because of her questionable morality.

In 2006 when the rally organized by the Adivasi community was attacked by a middle class mob of Guwahati city, what made most news was the attack of the mob on a woman, tearing her clothes away in public. This happened in front of media and police.

In 2010, a group of women who are members of political parties and who claim to be social workers beat up a Mizo girl in Guwahati city when she knocked on someone’s door to ask for directions. This happened in front of TV and press media.

Last year, in Jorhat district, 2 girls came out of a bar. One of them was quite tipsy. Her friend was trying to find a rickshaw so that they could go home. The media arrived and the camera chased them around in that market place despite their repeated plea to be left alone. What followed was not any public outcry about media invading the individual space but the decline of Assamese culture because of women, particularly young girls drinking.

The incident of our MLA Rumi Nath had seen media discussions veering towards communal sentiments and also raising the question of Rumi marrying for the second time. The issue saw its unsurprising conclusion in a mob of over 200 people attacking the pregnant MLA, beating her up in public and in front of the media.

These incidents are only a few in a series of escalating violence against women in the state of Assam. For the patriotic sentimentalist – yes it is very sad but true. Assam and Guwahati are no longer safe spaces for women. Walking around in Guwahati streets, travelling alone through the state at any time of the day or night is not safe. Growing up in Guwahati as a rebellious teenager, I now myself live in fear every time I have to take public transport or walk on the street on my own. There is no longer guarantee of public protection in the city.

Nanao, a 34 year old woman from Manipur who has been living in Guwahati for 9 years shares, “Although I have lived in this city for a long time, I never feel safe here on the streets. Because of my ‘chinky’ looks people always stare or pass comments when I am in any public space. Even the police are biased towards people from the rest of the North-East who look chinky. There have been more than once instance when me and my husband (boyfriend for a long time then) were taken to police station while returning home at night. Each time they thought that I was a prostitute. For the Assamese people every ‘chinky’ girl is a prostitute, of low or loose morals and can be humiliated or molested any time. I have not been able to call this city home even after so many years and after being married here.”

The experience is not very different for Assamese women either. Anusmita, a 23 year old student who is from Guwahati says, “One never feels safe travelling by city bus or walking on the street             . You face eve-teasing from people of all ages - whether it is a young boy or an old man. If any incident happens and you protest no one ever supports the woman. Instead you get blamed for being out in public. People say you should not come out of your home if you have so many problems!” 

These unpleasant experiences of women in Guwahati city has increased manifold in the past 15 years or so. According to Sheetal, a 29 year old professional who is from the city, “It is even more restrictive when you have to go somewhere at night. Most of the time I decide not to go if I cannot find someone to accompany me at night. I miss out on a lot of functions and sometimes even have to postpone work related travel due to this. Moreover, the city does not have even basic amenities required for the protection of women. Streets are not lit up, there is no public toilet, and there is no help-line for women. Once I called the DC help-line to check if it works. Someone answered saying they cannot do anything. “

In Assam, the local electronic media seems to have appointed themselves as the moral police in recent time. According to urban legends, reporters from various news channels park themselves outside bars and nightclubs to catch people who are coming out after a few drinks on camera. Naturally, in this hypocritical society where despite the fact that Assam hovers amongst the highest alcohol consuming states of India, being caught drinking is still news. No one wants to admit to drinking even if they do it on a daily basis. This gives immense power to the media to exploit people’s fear of social shame. I have heard from many that often the reporters resort to blackmailing people caught by them and extort money in return of secrecy. Where are the morals in such behaviour?

With all its anomalies valid, the G.S Road incident has brought us an opportunity to raise these issues. Let us accept that our city is not safe for women even when they are not going to bars at night.  There is a patriarchal mindset, institutional support and media driven propaganda that violates women’s rights behind this situation. Let us understand that the moral question in a rape and molestation case is the audacity of the rapist to violate another person’s personal space, invade their bodily integrity. The question is not and never should be about whether the woman did something to deserve it. No one ever deserves to be harmed. No amount of moral concerns or cultural protection can allow this.

What however is worrying is the fact that in this sudden outpour of moral consciousness, the central character of the drama, the one who seems to embody the entire morality of a society and culture – the woman - is completely missing. Where is the woman (not the victim, but the woman from the womanhood)? What does she do?  Where does she go?  What does she have to say? Does she have a voice? Does she have rights? The basic of understanding women’s rights is to start from the premise that each woman is an individual and each one has their indivisible, inalienable human rights. Like men, women have the right to self determination and personal choice. Sometimes these choices and determinations made by an individual can be destructive to the person themselves. But that does not allow anyone including the state to violate a person’s personal freedom. To prevent crime, for protection of society and in accordance to the cultural norms of a society there are laws. These laws are applicable to every citizen of the country. In case an individual breaks any law, he or she, irrespective of the gender should be brought to book. The law, although often highly polemic in this patriarchal set up, has the right to take corrective action. Not self appointed vigilante, the moral police.

The slipperiness of morality and any judgment based on it is that there is not really a definition of the right moral behaviour in any society. Particularly in fast changing societies like ours we are faced with new roles and new spaces everyday which extend beyond the norms so far.Every new day brings out new challenges to women. I for example like many million other women have to earn our own keep. We also need to satisfy our creative urges, meet our intellectual demands and enjoy our hard earned freedom and socialize with like minded people. We also need sex and sexual freedom. We need to look after our bodies and minds. We have the right not to face violence because of any of this. Our freedom and our choices need to be respected. Our bodies and our emotions need to be respected. Till these basics, of respect and rights to a woman, are accepted in a society, no society can claim to be tolerant, respectful, progressive.

Preety, 34, who live in Guwahati for 4 years and is now based in Colombo fumes over the internet to me, “This entire debate has been usurped by the media and the political classes to extract their own mileage by playing on public sentiments- which in a patriarchal society always sidesteps the woman. I say we need to turn the whole thing on its head and get it back to the women. Women’s safety in public places- in public transport. Women’s right to have fun! Women’s freedom to choose and live as they like. Go fill the pubs and wear the shortest of skirts. Get out on the streets at midnight and yell the choicest abuses. And lets ensure the pulverizing death of a patriarchal mindset!”