India Journal: What You Can Do to Make Women Safer
By Tripti Lahiri, India Real Time, December 31, 2012
Let’s face it: There isn’t a solution. Or, at any rate, there isn’t any one solution. Certainly not one that can make a difference to how women in India live within the next week, month or year.
That is what many women I’ve spoken with have said. One friend said she was glad that finally, in the wake of a brutal gang rape and beating that cost a young woman her life, the media is connecting the multiple acts of violence women face from before birth (feticide) and after (rape), and seeing it as part of a larger culture of misogyny. But as to how to change that culture, she couldn’t say.
Another friend said that many of the “solutions” regarding policing and speeding up the judicial process have been recommended for years. And women on panel discussions this week have noted that reports on such reforms are gathering dust in government offices. Once the outrage over the Dec. 16 attack dies down, it’s likely nothing will happen because politicians believe people don’t vote on these “soft” issues.
My mother, upset about a piece she had read in the papers blaming how mothers raise sons, asked, “What about the role of fathers?” When a husband beats up or otherwise demeans his wife, and nothing happens other than she gets up earlier the next day to make him a packed lunch, what lesson does that teach young people?
When this young woman’s story fades from the papers, as the anti-corruption struggle did before it; when India Gate is open to the public, but no one goes there to light a candle for this young woman; when it seems like her brutal end is forgotten, it is going to make many people feel helpless and frustrated. It will be hard not to dwell on the fact that this is a country where the punishment for a man who rapes a woman is seven years, but the punishment for a woman who boards a bus at the wrong time is death.
But change is a marathon, not a sprint, a jigsaw puzzle composed of hundreds and thousands of tiny little pieces that seem insignificant individually but over years and decades, hopefully, add up to something.
Here are some things that people can do in their roles as fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, working men and women, and educators, culled from conversations over the years, and in recent days.
1. Stop raising little kings: Sometimes, when taking a train journey or skulking on the edges of a large get-together, my attention will be caught by a child. Sometimes the child is insisting, without so much as a “please” or a “thank you”, that an older family member – usually a mother or a grandmother – acquiesce to one demand after another. Sometimes the child adds a push or a tug to the demand, which seems to be regarded as endearing, since the child is so little. Or perhaps the kid is yelling and shouting to the distress of fellow train passengers but the blithe unconcern of his parents.
All children behave less than ideally sometimes. But why is it that almost invariably, in India, the child that is behaving this way in public is a boy?
Boys in India tend to learn early that they matter and that girls, on the whole, don’t.
And what do little Indian girls learn? There’s a whole host of “affectionate” admonitions for little girls who are too outspoken. In West Bengal, for example, too-talkative little girls are dubbed “pakka buris” or literally “overripe old ladies.”
So, for the most part, little girls learn to be quiet and to be oh-so-careful; to try not to be alone in a room with that certain uncle; to walk on the streets curving their bodies away from this or that person who seems intent on a collision even though there’s plenty of space to pass each other; to figure out the best place to wedge herself into on a crammed bus to reduce the chances of a furtive hand – or several — snaking along her breasts or her behind; to text message friends about her whereabouts after dark.
The parents who send boys into the world with an inflated sense of their importance and entitlements – which can easily turn to anger and resentment in a world that doesn’t always offer the adulation promised by that upbringing — make India that much more unsafe for all of us.
2. Don’t let your daughters down. A close friend of mine was molested in her own home by a family friend when she was eight or nine. The next day, when her father was giving her a bath, she burbled innocently about what “uncle” did.
Her aghast father went to the man, confronted him about his act and told him never to set foot in his house again. He confronted the man’s wife too about what her husband had done. And he told his daughter she would never have to see that man again.
Maybe he should have gone to the police. But my friend said what he did was enough. It made her feel safe and protected and that there was someone in the world she could count on to stand with her against the bad things that might happen. Most of all, he made it clear that the shame belonged to that man, not her.
3. Make a fuss as often as you can. For women to feel safe, it has to become harder for men to commit these crimes. Part of that involves, as has been said many times, more effective policing, including quicker registering and prosecuting of rape. But according to the “broken windows” theory, people need to raise more of a fuss about the small daily acts of violation in order to reduce more brutal crimes.
I think of the many times that I have let things go when I should have grabbed someone by their collar and yelled at them. There’s the man in the sari shop (more than one sari shop, actually) who, on the pretext of helping me drape the sari, felt me up. That boy on the metro, who grabbed me while exiting the train, even though, astonishingly, he was accompanied by his father.
I could have bolted after them and called for the police, but didn’t. Part of it is that letting things go, ignoring them, is the default coping mechanism of many women living in India. How many fights will you pick, after all? Another factor is that my initial reaction is always paralyzed disbelief: Did he really do that? Maybe I imagined it? Maybe it was an accident?
By the time my brain forms the thought ‘do something’ the perpetrator is out of reach, the train has moved on. We could all try to do a better job of frightening what sometimes feels like an army of gropers. It may not be possible every time, but at least some of the time?
4. Of plastic bags and gender relations. I often hear parents of young children recount how effectively the school they send their kids to is brainwashing their young charges. After Earth Day, for instance, children might admonish their parents from littering or using plastic bags or beg them to plant trees and so on.
It’s probably too much, at this stage, to ask schools to incorporate fully-fledged sex education and conversations about rape. It wouldn’t be appropriate for all ages, in any case.
But surely school is a place where, starting quite young, some conversations on appropriate and inappropriate gender relations could take place, particularly to counteract what children may be witnessing at home. They needn’t focus on sex crimes but could talk about cultural norms, how gender relations are manifested in everyday life, and perhaps where to turn to for help when it’s needed.
Ideally, these conversations should take place between boys and girls, with the help of teachers. It’s not a good message to have these kinds of efforts and lessons directed mainly at girls, as in the well-intentioned anti-date-rape program at my Chicago public school, when all the girls were shown a movie about how to protect themselves from their date/potential rapist, while the boys were sent to play basketball.
5. Look within: Dear Indian men, it’s odd how you hold everything under the sun responsible for crimes against women, except the men who commit them. So let me be very clear.
It’s not cable TV: Many friends and family members have recounted stories of being molested by family friends in the days when the state-run broadcaster was the only choice around, offering mainly advice on which pesticides and fertilizers farmers should use.
It’s not drinking: If that was a viable excuse, drunk drivers who kill people should be let off rather than prosecuted. And there are many men in this world who don’t beat their wives or commit brutal assaults no matter how much they’ve been drinking.
It’s your attitude.
When you were a teenager and your friends made derogatory remarks about girls based on how they were dressed, did you ever say anything? Or did you just snigger? Have you ever spoken explicitly with your adolescent son about appropriate ways of treating women? Or do you just think to yourself, boys will be boys?
The attitudes that led to this crime are not class-specific. I am frequently amazed at the casual sexism and disrespect towards women shown by men who have been to “good” schools and probably consider themselves progressive.
Even though you express sorrow at crimes like this, the remarks you regularly make show that you think only certain kinds of women deserve protecting. You don’t often seem sympathetic to women who cross all sorts of invisible but well-understood lines – being out at the wrong time or having too many friends of the opposite sex.
I still remember a cousin’s friend who took it upon himself to point out that a friend of mine was “oversexed.” (The dictionary definition of that is “exhibiting an excessive sexual interest.”)
Why? Because as a high school senior she happened to have a boyfriend.
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