Sometimes you find that what you thought was your world is proved to be so totally wrong that it is shocking. Sometimes what you thought you knew about other people’s problems is shown to be so totally inadequate that it is humbling. The TOI meet on ‘
for Women’ proved to be one such experience.
It is not that I believed that the problems of women were only exaggerated versions of hyper-sensitive people. On the one end women need to deal with criminal behavior like domestic violence, eve-teasing and its worse manifestation up to rape and sexual harassment at office. On the other end is the struggle for equality – the lack of which denies choices and opportunities to women.
In “A Ravaged Society”, I had tried to explain what attitudes need be changed and what behavior needs to be fostered. In my “Guest Post forRachna Parmar: In defense of Men” I had also tried to point out the fact that the social system also binds men in stereotypes that make it difficult for them to change.
The TOI meet, however, shocked me in quite a few ways. One of the things that I did expect to hear was of the lack of safety for women in public places and I did hear quite a few instances of that. That did not shock me but not because of a ‘Boys will be boys’ attitude on my part nor a dismissive attitude to the complaints. I realize that a criminal element exists and such criminal tendencies are on the increase. What shocked me was the sheer callousness with which ‘normal’ people could treat women.
The one incident that stuck in my mind was that of a woman on whose innerwear a neighboring boy had written lewd comments when it was hung out for drying. She complained to her landlord and the boy was taken to task. The aftermath was shocking. The landlord, apparently, evicted the woman in the middle of the night. That inexplicable callousness shocked me to the core. What was it in Society that made it possible for people to even consider such behavior? Whatever other impression had been created about the woman in the landlord’s mind later what could justify such cruelty?
Society is changing and the position of women in Society is changing. The increasing presence of women in the corporate world and their increasing assertiveness tends to challenge the existing power structures and, in some men, evokes the desire to convert their own feeling of impotence into sexual aggression as a means of asserting their ‘superiority’. Stereotypes about the character of a woman based on how she dresses and comports herself appear to give these men license – the ‘she was asking for it’ defense. Add to the mix the increasing influx of rural people to cities in search of employment with their prejudices about ‘good women’, the increase in of woman-targeted criminal activity is explainable.
It can be explained but it certainly cannot be condoned. But, if the so-called ‘law-abiding’ members of the Society will feel comfortable about acting in the manner that the landlord behaved with the concerned woman, it is time for serious introspection. It has become common for the ‘common man’ to refuse to intervene in cases of molestation or even in blatant cases of rape. This inclination to stay away from involvement is bad enough but to also become active participants in harassing women is certainly the sort of change that needs condemning in vigorous terms.
In times of Social change, the management of the attitudes of Society ought to be done by the leaders. Given that Society is moving towards more equality to women, outmoded ideas about their role in Society as well as ridiculous attempts to categorize them based on how they dress need to be changed. Unfortunately, we have a lot of leaders who are themselves incapable of changing. Even the well-meaning ones have this incorrigible habit of putting their feet into their mouths with great frequency.
I mean, if there is a major robbery at, say, Anil Ambani’s house, is that the time for a leader to mouth off about amassing of wealth? You may have your attitudes about wealth but to say that at that time is to condone the robbery. When you realize that you can't blame the guy whose pocket was picked for tempting the pickpocket by carrying money why does it seem so easy to blame a woman for tempting a man into molestation? At least from ‘leaders’ I expect that they need to keep their personal opinions aside when it comes to condemning crime – instead of giving the appearance of lending social sanction to the crime.
Changes in attitudes are difficult and take a long time in coming. That is not to say that attempts to do so need to be abandoned. The point, however, is that changes in behavior can be enforced and government needs to put in place the systems and procedures whereby, no matter how inclined a man is to molest a woman in a bus, say, he is constrained from doing so. The problem is that government sees it as only a problem of making laws – when the real problem is in the enforcement.
There is a serious disconnect between the law enforcement agencies and the ordinary citizen. All the women in the TOI meet seemed reluctant to take their cases to the police or, indeed, believe that any action would result. The government cannot merely put up its hands and say that if they will not approach the police, it is their problem. Managing perceptions is as much the job of government as any politician ought to know.
Attitudinal changes are necessary and should be pursued. Given the short attention span of the public, I think that any specific action plan should target the putting in place of some system whereby there is more assurance that improper behavior will be punished. If that can be done by a dedicated help-line of the Police department for women and prompt action on their complaints - coupled maybe with an NGO which works specifically as an interface and a watchdog – then pushing for that now would be useful. If the deterrent can be in place, then we shall have the leisure for changing attitudes without paying a high cost for the delay in doing so.
The developed countries do not have lesser people with criminal tendencies than we do. It is just that the law can be invoked by the victim without fear and the criminal faces punishment with more certainty than obtains here. Let us, at least, move forward on being developed in this one area for a start before aiming to become a super-power.