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Can women break free of societal fetters?

Bhawna Gera
I wonder, when should a woman take the liberty of moving out in public? Can she move out at night in secluded places? Oh, no! comes the expert advice. Don’t you know, never do public spaces belong less to women than they do at night? What can explain this better than the fact that a north-eastern call centre employee was abducted and gang-raped in a moving vehicle around 1 a.m. on November 24 in Delhi.
Ok. So, can she move out in daytime at crowded places? Before replying in the affirmative, hang on! Don’t forget, recently, Gul Panag was groped at the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon, which was surely organised in the morning with 600-700 participants.
These two examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds and thousands of incidents of physical/sexual abuse and culturally justified violence happen every day to women in this country. It is unnerving that a woman, even in the 21st century, cannot step out of the household at any given time, assured of her physical and sexual safety.
Gender-based violence — which is not just physical or sexual but mental, verbal, emotional, financial and intellectual — is a serious problem in our society because it is deep-rooted in the cultural and social relations between the two sexes. Deeply internalised patriarchal conditioning gives moral sanction for the use of coercion to enforce compliance by women, and that is why violence becomes a tool that men constantly use to control them. Susan Brownmiller in her book, Against our Will, emphasised that men dominate women through a process of physical and sexual abuse.
Conscious process
Men have almost created an ‘Ideology of Rape,’ which amounts to a conscious process of intimidation. This fear of violence determines what a female does, when, where, how and with whom. These acts shape her attitude to life and expectations from herself.
They reduce her self-confidence and make her physically and psychologically dependent on the protection of others. She herself starts believing that she cannot think for herself and take her own decisions. Moreover, it restricts her autonomy, curtails her mobility and her ability to work and participate in social activities.
The extremity of the situation was seen in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule, where a female was not allowed to move out of her house unless she was accompanied by a male relative. This violence not just violates her human and fundamental rights but deprives her of her identity as an individual.
Benevolent paternalism
Another important factor is that patriarchy does not directly represent itself as oppressive, rather it operates under the garb of benevolent paternalism which, in order to control women, creates subservient norms: a female has to stay away from places and situations that are potentially violent, avoid public places, stay home as much as possible, should not go out at night, should not travel alone, should not protest if someone misbehaves and so on. But it presents these norms as beneficial to women ensuring their safe and peaceful existence within society, if adhered to.
The immediate consequence of this is that it makes women alone responsible for their safety. The usual argument in cases of sexual harassment/rape is that the female must have provoked the assaulting male by either being out of her home so late at night or by her clothes or manner.
It almost amounts to saying that she probably deserved it because she did not follow the norms prescribed by society.
So, essentially, instead of creating conditions in society where women live and function as freely as men, instead of addressing the prevention of sexual harassment and rape while preparing and executing the blueprints of a city, instead of moving into more effective mechanisms of law enforcement and gender sensitive planning, the patriarchal and paternalist society’s norms make the female bear not only the burden of pain and humiliation caused to her but also the responsibility for what happened to her as well.
Recently, Police Commissioner of Delhi, B.K. Gupta briefed the media on his plans to make Delhi University campuses more secure, beginning with the North Campus through the appointment of a Woman Station House officer and deployment of more women officers on beat patrolling, Help Desks and PCR vans.
Although it is a welcome initial step towards making the Delhi Police more female-friendly at least on campuses, it would not strike at the root cause.
Instil confidence
Why can’t the male constabulary be gender sensitive enough to instil confidence in female students? When would we start talking about training and sensitising our males at least in the two most important social institutions, i.e., the home and the school? It is high time that ‘we, the people of India’, both men and women realised that violence against women is not just a ‘women’s issue’ and the responsibility of preventing violence against women lies with society as a whole, not with women alone.

(The writer is a student of Delhi university)

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