I hear a lot about marches and anger and support in India, and about how we would not bring up our children in India. But I see a pattern: when we speak of change we tend to change our own location to a more favorable one, but we do not change the location/situation surrounding us for the better. Where is the most required thing of all now — Indian citizens’ voices irrespective of gender speaking to each other with assurance that they can rely on one another in the future? Where are the civic discussions among ‘us’–with your maid, your driver, your sister, your brother, your boss, your office boy, your bus driver, your autowallah? Or don’t the elite and the middle class talk to ‘these people,’ and talk about these things at all?
I want more than words and fashionable anger. A few small points to start with:
1. a. Let’s have mandatory self-defense classes for women in schools and colleges. Instruction about escaping sexual predators at home and outside. Freedom for a girl to call the police from her school or a safe house if she is threatened or attacked, and attention being paid to her even if she is a minor. Self-defense will not solve anything, but publicly shared knowledge creates a mindset that might prevent or help someone in distress some of the time.
1.b. Mandatory co-ed interactive workshops for boys and girls in high schools, colleges and undergraduate institutions run by city police or similar agencies about public safety, public duty, emergency protocols, and safe habits. Rope in the NGO’s, rope in the girl and boy scouts, bring in successful working women from all industries, bring in the liberal minded CEO’s from all types of sectors. Let’s see good examples of what to do and what is possible.
2. A focus on public ethics: where is the public’s morality in these instances? Instead of ‘moral science’ classes in school where we speak about god, instead of using religion as a way to teach women their place outside school, we need open discussions about masculinity and femininity and on not using sex as power, i.e.we need to create and maintain a climate of opinion about women and men and children that is more benign.
4. Citizen duties being made clear. Period. India prides itself on its democratic sensibility where the people do not have to obey the government, but it is time the people took control of maintaining their own freedoms. Anarchy is not democracy.
Let me speak for many women: In spite of perhaps a loving family and perhaps even progressive parents, ‘I’ was abused as a child, in which ‘I’ become like so many millions in the world for whom there is no proof and no witness to trauma little or great. ‘I’ was molested regularly on the street, on buses, in tutorial classes throughout ‘my’ teenage years and into ‘my’ twenties, like so many hundreds of thousands of others. If ‘I’ was pretty and unaccompanied in public ‘I’ was considered automatic game, even if ‘I’ dressed modestly and minded ‘my’ own business. India in the 90’s told ‘me’ this was ‘normal.’ If ever and in great peril ‘I’ reacted strenuously to harassment (and then ‘my’ name would be kept out of the newspapers), ‘I’ would be called ‘strong’ in private and foolish in public. ‘I’ was neither, because resistance to wrong should be normal, not extraordinary. ‘I’ speak for ‘you.’
Let me speak for many women when I say: Where are my brothers, friends, ordinary ‘bhai’ citizens? If women cannot feel safe in the company of men they know, who can they trust when faced with strangers? I want more men to say of their own volition: “The responsibility lies with men as well as women,” and to act accordingly.
Women who are lucky enough to be safe in cars and ensconced in money, whose struggles consist in competing for money or applause, where are you when it comes to giving back to society? Where is your ‘noblesse oblige’? Charity and donations help no one in the long term; they merely reinforce the hierarchy of power and powerlessness. Take some time out from your drinks and parties and turn it to real work for the future. Come to your alma mater, give talks and advice to both boys and girls on power and success and what it means to remain human as you fight to gain recognition. Talk about discrimination in the workplace and outside it. Make the success of a person seem non-threatening to others, make it seem normal regardless of sex or gender. Talk about honor, not just ‘Leaning In.’
And make the money count. Where do you put your charitable donations? Where are the labs and high-tech services all our engineers and scientists and computer and biotech gods could imagine and build in a year with their money? Where the backbone, the sense of a unified community of disparate entities agreed to work for the maintenance of a common good? Where the demand for a common good, and the demand for it in the everyday life of buttered bread?
There is an accelerated breakdown of the sense of the public sphere in India, a sense of something held in common, something that needs work and giving and (god forbid!) sacrifice of total gains to keep alive. Individualistic democratic energies have been channelled too far into fragmented sectarian sentiments. We fight each other for a share of the common pie, we do not want to do anything for the common pie lest the other man or woman get a bit more, let alone more than me.
If there is work to be done, it is this, and this in a time of scepticism about the ‘nation’ or similar formations–we need to encourage the public to regain its sense of what allows it retain the privileges of a democracy, what grants it its rights, why it has the freedom to pursue its narrow individual goals at the cost of the nation or its society; there must be some sense of public and civic duty, of value in what exists in common. There is no escaping that common; and the only way for a reasonably just society or nation to exist is to limit the looting and sacrilege of that common allowed to any one.
Some further notes:
I and we haven’t touched upon many other related issues here or in many public discussions:
Male rape, little discussed in India. Rape is rape, bodily harm is bodily harm, trauma is trauma. Gender, age, ability are not mitigating factors.
The penal code. Many are calling for the death penalty, many others are using moralistic arguments to counter what they see as calls for ‘barbarity.’ I do not support simple imprisonment as a punishment for violent rape because prison is neither hell or punishment for many violent offenders: it is partly a place of organized crime where many strings are pulled, many rackets run, and which often has safe ties with the outside world. Imprisoning more people will likely lead to a surge of private prisons and another industry of arms and security and war. How many prisoners can India feed and care for? Why build a Bastille? I would rather make an exception and ask for some ‘hurtful’ ‘revenge’–naming and public shaming, mandatory public service, crippling and long-term financial penalty, and public police records so that the person is maimed for life as much as they have maimed the raped for life with shame and bodily trauma. Punishment must be fearful enough to be a deterrent. If vasectomy and castrating are required in extreme cases, so be it. If I am being ‘barbaric,’ my premise is this: the rights of one do not override the rights of another.
I would ask women lawyers to start enacting real reform, perhaps by teaching ordinary girls they know about the law and what needs to be done, to find ways to enforce civil safety. Women still rely on word-of-mouth networks that function as underground railroads.
And we all need to ask for laws barring those with records of sexual crimes from holding responsible public office. Start voting with minds and words and an eye to the future. We have to take the commons back, for women as well as men.