Some time back, I had been thinking about the Delhi gang-rape and constantly trying to make sense of the public reaction. It is a very difficult thing to do – trying to make sense of “why people are doing it” when it involves such an emotive issue. However, the public anger/activism has by now died its natural death. There are no longer public debates on this issue in the media or in our drawing-room conversations. Calmer, saner voices, that had got drowned in the noise, are making themselves heard now. They too are trying to figure out what exactly happened and why.
Even along the way, when the brouhaha over the issue was its max, people were airing their views trying to make sense of the situation. Be it the general public on Facebook or the politicians through the media. Everyone got a chance to put their views forward and most did. But the reactions to them were lop-sided. People demanding the culprits’ head got full support whereas public figures who suggested how rapes could be avoided got the brickbats.
I had found the xenophobic reaction of the public quite strange. This intolerance of contrarian views and a compulsive need to bracket everything as good or bad resulted in some pretty disturbing yet funny statements by the public figures and equally funny yet disturbing reactions from the public.
Throughout the month public figures across the country were asked for their views on the issue. And when they responded, they were berated for having a patriarchal mentality. ‘Patriarchy’ is a much-misunderstood term often used in the wrong places. ‘Feminism’ has got a similar mistreatment. We in India will never be able to truly understand these terms which have their origin in a Western society; and so will never be able to apply them correctly. Our society is much more complex since it is much older. It has gone through various stages of subjugation and revolution unlike the Western ones. It has been a melting pot of cultures, religions and migrations; some friendly, most not. So we should be very careful before applying the “male vs female” argument here. It is more “ying and yang”, not “ying vs yang”.
And so when politicians and godmen make statements that sound “patriarchal” or “sexist”, please stand back and look at it in a larger context, of the society and its history. None of them condoned the rape. They were just trying in their own way to figure out why it happened and how it could have been prevented. They might sound wrong but they are not wrong. And they have full right to air their views.
So when Asaram Bapu says that she should have begged for mercy and called them brothers, he is suggesting that emotional appeal rather than physical retaliation might have prevented the rape. Just like the heroines in our movies who plead the villain “bhagwan ke liye mujhe chodh do.” It is a plausible scenario and Asaram Bapu has every right to his opinion.
When some Dr. Anita Shukla says that had the girl not resisted so much she might have been spared of the violence, she is not saying that the girl should have submitted to the rape. She is suggesting how the violence could have been avoided and a life saved. It is matter of another debate that whether the violence could have been prevented at all. But Madam was definitely not supporting the act and has every right to her opinion, just like we have.
When Sushma Swaraj says that the victim’s life has become worse than death, she is not seeing rape in the patriarchal context of ‘honour’ as was stupidly alleged, but to the effect of violence on her health and the pain she would have to go through. (The girl was alive when this statement was made.)
When Mamta Banerjee calls a rape victim a whore who got raped because of a deal gone sour, she is not saying that all victims are whores. She is trying to figure why the girl was out so late in the night. After all, who else but a prostitute will be out in the streets so late in the night? Her upbringing does not allow her to think that even a prostitute is not out on the streets to get raped. That whatever happened, she did not ask to be raped. That somebody could be out just to have a good time. She is trying to make sense of the fact that a girl decided to break the rules of conduct but unfortunately paid for it.
When Abu Azmi says women should not venture into the night with males who are not kin, he was not treating women as ‘property’. He was reacting to reports that the culprits had asked the two victims what they were doing at night when they weren’t related. He probably thinks that the fact that they weren’t related led the culprits to think the girl was ‘available’. His logic might be skewed and his thinking regressive, but Azmi has a right to give his opinion, however unpopular it might be.
When the khap panchayat dude says that noodles cause sexual excitement in men leading them to rape, he is not being ignorant. He is in his own rustic way trying to figure what is wrong with the modern rural youth culture that is leading the young men to rape. Because he firmly believes that traditional rural culture with its subjugation/protection of women leaves no scope for a stranger to rape. We might have a field day taking him on this one, but he has a right to air his opinion nonetheless. Especially because he sees his role as a protector of the village culture.
When Pranab Mukherjee’s son comments on the protestors being ‘dented and painted’ women, he is not supporting the rape. He is merely suggesting in his uniquely crude way that the protestors are a representation of an urban minority (which is embarrassingly true). We can reject his opinions but not deride the person.
Maybe Gandhiji’s maxim of ‘hate the sin and love the sinner’ holds true for public debates also.
Indeed, there are many amongst us whose reaction was that the girl brought it upon herself. If you don’t believe it, read the comments to articles on blogs/news sites (not the facebook updates but the anonymous comments). Or even try it out within your own family – you will get surprised. Every time there is such an incident, people try to figure out whether some blame lay with the girl also. Was she venturing out too late in the night? Did she forget to be extra careful knowing it is Delhi? Was there something wrong with the clothes she wore? Did she talk back to the teaser thus provoking him? What else did she expect after behaving like this? What wrong did she do that, out of so many girls, she was the one who was raped/molested?
I don’t think this represents a patriarchal mindset or that our brains have been hardwired to believe that there must be something wrong with the girl. I think the hypothesis in these cases is that molestation and teasing is common, but it doesn’t lead to rape. Many men do it and it happens all the time. What then did this girl do, or not do, to cause it. What was the nudge from her that finally pushed the man over the edge? The question is not how or why, but ‘why her?’ It is more of trying to make sense of the event, an attempt to figure out, sitting far away from the scene yet emotionally invested in it, what might have happened to trigger such a crime.
It is again not a question of who is right and who is wrong. The more important point is that every person gets a chance to air his or her opinion with no fear of being judged as a person. If we cannot create such a culture or provide a neutral platform (something which the electronic media is failing to do), then we have failed as an evolving dynamic society.
Our society is going through a complex transition. Economic compulsions are forcing families, especially in urban areas, to allow girls to work outside. And when someone brings money, they command respect. They can demand greater education and say in family matters. This brings empowerment and more public participation. Consequently, they demand their fair space – physical, social and economic – and the rights that come with it. This is a juggernaut which cannot be stopped. And there are bound to be repercussions and tension in the social fabric. This is not necessarily a bad thing even though the pioneers will be considered corrupt or automatically assumed immoral (or “available”).
Whoever was earlier controlling that space will resist the intrusion and treat it as invasion. Be it the mother-in-law or the man on the street. And there will come up people/groups on both sides championing the cause, be it the guy organizing the candle-light vigil or the khap panchayat. It is again not about right or wrong. It is about the society trying to find its equilibrium. It is only a matter of time that it finds it. Only question is; how much time? For the last thirty years, the balance has been shifting toward the equilibrium, slowly at first but at an accelerated pace now. It is like a pendulum. Now that it has picked up pace, it will keep on going with its own inertia and the pace will accelerate exponentially the closer it gets to the equilibrium. The Other side might try to stop or reverse it – and will apply increasing force – but cannot stop it. I reckon the equilibrium will be reached in another fifteen years.
Till then, be patient and keep pushing.