A new dawn after dark travails

Women will dress as they like, go where they want. Enough of all the cultural traps: women as mothers, sisters, wives, daughters. They must be respected as independent human beings.

In his book Rights from Wrongs, noted American lawyer, jurist and political commentator Alan Dershowitz rejects the idea that basic rights and freedoms are an “inalienable gift” to us from our creator, or something “inherent” in our nature.

Our notions of rights, he argues, emerge when we are faced with and shamed by the enormity of the wrongs we commit. I think he is right.
Nearly four decades ago, sexual assaults on three women in police custody — Mathura (Maharashtra), Rameeza Bee (Andhra Pradesh) and Maya Tyagi (Haryana) — catalysed the birth of the autonomous women’s movement in India. Small groups of women active in various social movements came together in the late ’70s and early ’80s to focus on the myriad modes of gender discrimination and violence against women.
The indigenous movement came close on the heels of the “second wave feminism” in the West founded on the writings of women such as Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1949), Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963) and Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch, 1970). Here was feminist theory that resonated with women’s own experience of male-domination even in progressive, Left movements.
Women’s groups in India networked with the international movement engaged in consciousness-raising, celebrating sisterhood, advocacy, agitations and legal interventions. Such actions over the last 35-40 years did result in new laws and policies aimed at protecting and promoting the rights of women. Yet, the doyens of this movement are the first to point out that patriarchy continues to retain its tenacious grip on society. Besides, the communal polarisation of Indian society in recent decades has brought to the fore male-compliant women’s organisations aligned to right-wing politics. Rape or gangrapes of women from the “other” community by “our men” was no longer an issue.
Perhaps the terrible wrongs needed to pile up; perhaps a specific trigger was needed to stir the nation’s conscience, jolt the foundations of patriarchy. The savage and murderous gangrape in the nation’s capital in mid-December, I believe, proved to be our moment of collective reckoning. Perhaps it was the message the 23-year-old sent out from her hospital bed even as she battled for her life.
No, she was not ashamed of being “dishonoured”; no, she had brought no dishonour to her family. In her statement, she spoke of the sexual and physical assaults with dignity and courage. She did not see herself as a “zinda lash” (living corpse). She wanted to live the life of a brave survivor, not a cringing victim. To the great credit of her family, they were/are not ashamed either.
The Delhi braveheart and her family’s message got through: shame on the monsters guilty of the heinous crime, shame on a society where women are not safe in the public space. Thousands and thousands of young women and men poured out on the streets of Delhi, day after day. Nursing a million mutinies in their hearts, they braved the onslaught of water cannons, stormed the barricades, demanded accountability from the system — police, government, politicians, judiciary, and from society — family and the custodians of parampara. The spontaneous, self-propelled protesters may have been weak on feminist theory but they were in no doubt of what they wanted from life. The Bapus, the patriarch-in-chief of the RSS, the Jamaat-e-Islami, can say what they want but the victims will no longer tolerate being treated as the accused. Women will dress as they like, go where they want. Shame on a state that fails to ensure their security. Enough of all the cultural traps: women as mothers, sisters, wives, daughters. Women must be respected as autonomous, independent human beings. And how dare anyone treat them or their body as male property or protectorate.
Sadly, the Delhi braveheart is no more; inevitably, the protest sit-ins are long over. But I doubt if the voice that emanated from a hospital bed in Delhi, resonated through the streets of Delhi, travelled via the print, electronic and social media into millions of homes across India and the world can now be silenced. In the last days of December 2012, the four-decade-old demands by women’s groups across India got amplified a thousand times over.
I think the “December Spring” gave new wings to Ghazala Abbas, a 19-year-old resident of Jogeshwari, a western suburb in Mumbai. Furious over the misconduct of a Best bus conductor in December, Ghazala went from police station to police station, determined to lodge her complaint. She next took her story to the media, which resulted in showcause notices and a departmental inquiry against six policemen from Goregaon, Amboli and Oshiwara police stations. (Perhaps someone in the media should find out what happened to the conductor and the errant cops.)
I think “December Spring” has left its imprint on men, too. Addressing an audience comprising largely young Muslim women at Burhani College in Mumbai on February 20, the city’s police commissioner, Satyapal Singh, made the unusual admission that the graph of crimes against women in the city has shot upward in the past two months. He was quick to add that this did not mean that such crimes had increased. “It’s just that through repeated statements I have encouraged women not to remain silent but report every incident of sexual harassment, however minor, to the police. I have issued strict instructions to my force that every complaint must be registered. And I ask all of you to come directly to me if my men are unhelpful.”
In the over three-decade-old Mathura rape case mentioned above, the accused policemen were acquitted by the lower court. On appeal, the Bombay high court reversed the order, but the Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s verdict. “Because she was used to sex, she might have incited the cops (they were drunk on duty) to have intercourse with her,” the apex court judge had ruled. I doubt if any judge today would dare make such a shocking observation; I doubt if policemen guilty of sexual violence would get away so easily.
India’s “December Spring”, hopefully, has ushered in a new dawn.
Happy Women’s Day!

The writer is co-editor, Communalism Combat, and general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy

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