By Amrita Misra
Red Monthly, September 2013
On 21st August, 2013, most women celebrated Raksha Bandhan. On that very same day, many women were assaulted as well – including the 23-yr old journalist in Mumbai, who was gang-raped and thankfully emerged more than a mere statistic.
At 22, I started interning for a national daily in India, working from 10pm to 2am; hitching a ride with a male friend on his motorcycle every night. While returning, we would all come back in a group of four and I used to be dropped off at my home first. The fear was real of being out at that time of the night – not only for a young girl but for the men as well.
But the nature of fear for the genders is different in India. The men have to protect themselves from getting robbed of their material possessions and a woman has to perpetually be cautious of being robbed of her ‘being’.
As expected, the internship didn’t last long, as neither my employer nor my family could take the risk much longer.
For the photojournalist in question, her and her entire family’s worst fears have come true. To be born as a girl is just an incident. But the incident becomes a cruel saga for most. One cannot undermine the social privileges this girl was lucky to have to be alive this long, to have obtained an education, an opportunity to embark on a career. However, none of the privileges shielded her enough from being reduced to a body, to be violently violated. In her saga, the accomplishments and fears of being a woman remained neatly juxtaposed.
With every report of such incident from any part of the world, I wonder, if women are being careless. Are women overstepping the boundaries assigned to them? Are women really meant to live at their homes under safe supervision of male family members so as to not become victims of abuse outside?
As girls we were taught not to go out alone especially after the sunset. Even a seven year old younger brother walking behind a 16 year old girl is supposed to protect her from the ‘evil eyes’ beyond the walls of her home. Ironically this single-male protection idea has miserably failed in both the Delhi and Mumbai gangrape cases, and must have failed likewise in innumerable others.
This brings me back to the festival of Raksha Bandhan, or Rakhi, as we called it in Orissa. This festival, like the other observations of Karva Chauth, Sabitri Puja or Bidai etc., not only accentuates the common perception of women as the weaker sex in need of perpetual protection, but endorses the unequal status implicitly accorded to girls in contrast to boys in all social units from the day they are born. These festivals are testament to how the girls are liabilities in our society, not because of their sex or gender but because of how the boys are raised and eventually are allowed to become unquestionably entitled men with the power to protect or destroy a woman at their will. I am sure that each of these ‘alleged rapists’ have flaunted arms full of “rakhis” in the past, are probably Devi bhakts themselves, and/or believe in traditional role of women in society.
I grew up among my four sisters. I personally do not know how it is to feel sisterly towards a male being. I mostly have identified with the men in terms of platonic friendships. Yes, I had male cousins but I cannot really say I grew up with them to forge a traditional brother-sister bond. One cousin had indeed molested me for years, the scars of which I shall bear for rest of my life – which, in retrospect, may actually have killed any urge to feel sisterly towards males. I never tied “rakhi” to boys outside of my family and could never understand why girls were eager to tie threads to boys in school and why boys bragged about the number of “rakhis” they got, as if higher number of threads equated to greater testimony of their popularity among girls. My father had suggested to tie “rakhi” to boys who bothered me the most, to convert them from being lusting pests to become protective brothers! Well, I don’t remember trying that formula out. But I remember the phrase ‘savere bhaiya, raat ko sainya’, to imply that Raksha Bandhan was the only occasion boys and girls (unrelated) could spend time with one another in close proximity without the judgmental stares of elders. Anyways I digress….
From my life experiences, I have seen that most brothers have lent superficial support to their sisters- and that too, only until the sisters are married off. My maternal uncles are estranged from my family for over 15 year now, because my mother claims inheritance rights to their parental properties. My paternal uncles are estranged from my family because my father suggested that their sisters should get equal share in the paternal property, especially because our grandfather did not offer dowries at the time of giving away his daughters in marriages. My mother has not observed <em>Bhai Duj</em> (Raksha Bandhan) as per her Sambalpuri culture. My paternal aunts on the other hand have continued to observe it with their brothers, who denied them equal property rights, because assurance of brotherly protection in time of imaginary ‘need’ is apparently more important than claiming equal rights at the present times.
I do not view safety and women’s rights as exclusive to each other – and, they certainly do not depend on male concessions.
News reports say that the reported rape cases in Mumbai are far fewer than in New Delhi, so for a girl to be gang-raped came as a surprise to many. Mumbai is very densely populated, so for such an incident to occur could be surprising. However, I am sure that the perpetrators have been successful in finding their deserted or secluded spots to unleash their macho criminality, anyway.
The word of wisdom we are offered usually is to remember in the mantra of ‘strength in numbers’, i.e. to move around in groups. In many advice columns here in the US for young girls starting college who are for the first time staying away from the safety of home and parental guidance, majority of tips include how to be safe on campus. And these tips are no different than those handed down to most girls in India from a very young age. The advice columns never target the parents of the boys instead, asking them to educate their macho young men against rape. Maybe it is high time for the parents to start talking in clear terms to their sons from a young age about rape, or ‘eve teasing’, rather than advising their daughters only on how to stay safe.
Many propose that stricter laws against rapists may deter some from committing such heinous crimes, but I think stricter laws would only make many of us feel comfortable with that flawed assumption. And in fact the anti-rape laws in India have become slightly stricter in wake of the Delhi rape case. Nevertheless, the Delhi rape convicts have yet to be sentenced and there are hundreds of reported & probably a few hundreds unreported cases in between the Delhi incident and the Mumbai incident. The change in laws could reflect the need of a changing society or could address issues that have been neglected. But I believe that any systemic change in the way men treat women will see a dent only when there is a change in the way girls and boys are raised. For boys and girls to grow up with mutual respect calls desperately for dramatic changes, which will facilitate for the next generations of men, women and those in-between to peacefully coexist in both a densely populated area and in a desolated space.
We must have policy changes in place with a view to reshape elementary years of children and parental responsibilities that can then reject any social notions or cultural misgivings of male superiority perpetuated by superstitious festivals, apart from making stricter laws advocating harsher punishments. The latter it appears, is not only the easier part, but in so many ways, it becomes even unnecessary/redundant, if we adequately attended to the former.
Amrita Misra is a conscientious objector to the racist, sexist, homophobic, sweatshop-laden and greed-driven world order. Hailing from Orissa, and living in New York, she identifies herself as a feminist of color.