December 29, 2013

2013: The Year of Outrage about VAW in India

Random Rant about the discourse on women's 'rights' 

Because, of course, there's no shortage of people who will tell you that 2013 was the year in which women began raising their voices in India. When women's rights began to be considered seriously. When feminism became the in thing (though not always necessarily a good thing).

And, yes, there certainly have been many, many, many column inches devoted to violence against women in India’s newspapers and magazines this year. And there have been more than a few journalists who’ve written gut-wrenching pieces about violence against women in India for media outlets abroad.

That said, it isn’t at all clear (to me) that there has been any substantive change in attitudes towards violence against women in India: it’s undeniable that more people talk about the subject but it’s worth listening to what they’re saying before beginning to celebrate about seeing the subject having become talked about.

The fact of the matter is that many conversations supposedly about ‘women’s rights in India’ are conversations about violence against women. They are not conversations about women’s rights and the freedom which women should enjoy – they’re, far too often, conversations about protecting (some) women (who are usually upper class) from (some) men (who are usually ‘lower’ class).

For one thing, the discourse of protection has a tendency to manifest itself in a series of diatribes about how women should be careful, and how women’s freedom should be circumcised so that they are not exposed to danger(ous men). Just for example, it’s about ‘(Women) not drinking as they’re supposedly more likely to be raped if they’re drunk,’ than it is about ‘(Men) not drinking if they’re more likely to rape when they’re drunk’.

For another, the focus of conversations in India hasn’t so much been on women being raped or otherwise abused by men whom they know, from their own class, within their own circles. The pushback against the criminalisation of marital rape was, for example, extraordinary. And, where women are of similar social standing as those who’ve (allegedly) abused them, conversations are invariably DoA.

There have, of course, been some exceptions: the Tejpal case, for example, where outrage unlimited was seen. And then, of course, there were the allegations of sexual harassment by retired Supreme Court judge A K Ganguly. Even in those cases, however, there was a power differential between the alleged abusers and the women who made allegations against them.

And both women, it’s worth noting, were from the upper middle class. A class which a woman must belong to for abuse against her to be taken ‘seriously’ – provided, of course, it’s convenient for other people in the upper middle class to express outrage against their alleged abusers, and provided the women appear not to have behaved in socially unacceptable ways, and provided their abusers aren’t of the same standing as them.

There have been any number of women from other classes, particularly ‘lower’ classes who have been abused horrifically throughout the year, and there has been absolutely no public outcry against their having been abused comparable to the outcry against abuse faced by a few select women of the upper middle class.

For the most part unless one belongs to the right class, and fits a number of other criteria, the violence one may, as a woman, face is still a non-issue. Notwithstanding the fact that a few select – ? lucky – women seem to ignite the sympathy and outrage of the so-called public (restricted to the upper classes who have a voice), violence against women is still usually ignored if not justified.

The upper class people who occasionally express outrage about select episodes don't really appear to give a damn about VAW beyond the episodes they aggressively express outrage about; they will outrage about one (or two) alleged abusers, congratulate themselves, and go back to living life in a manner which tends to breed more abusers.

At a structural level, there seem to have been no changes worth speaking of. The law relating to sexual assault was amended this year. In the case of marital rape, the law was (arguably) made worse. In many other cases, it was ostensibly strengthened, although it does not have clear gradations between sexual assault and rape, and the result is that it could easily be considered an extraordinarily non-nuanced law.

In other areas, a new Act supposedly protecting women from harassment at the workplace was passed, with its own flaws. At first glance, it appears to substitute the role of ‘family elders’ in domestic disputes with ‘committees’ in workplace harassment episodes, with both aiming at ‘conciliation’. There is a ‘misuse clause’ which could be invoked in the case of women bringing false complaints or using false evidence – men, however, are exempt from the false evidence clause of the law.

Of course, that women ‘misuse’ laws is a standard public perception, and misuse clauses have been ardently supported by some with reference to a range of anti-VAW laws, despite the existence of several provisions in the Indian Penal Code which deal with perjury. It isn’t clear either why specific misuse clauses are required (except to encourage women to be quiet about abuse), or why existing IPC provisions against perjury are not actually invoked routinely where the law is clearly misused.

Perhaps because having existing laws implemented is much harder than simply asking that new ones against misuse of the law be passed. And if there’s one thing we do marvellously… it’s talk, and feel outraged. Regardless of whether or not we know what we’re talking about. Regardless of whether or not we’ve spent 15 minutes running a search on Google Scholar or the like before opining. Regardless of how much harm we could potentially do in the process. And regardless of whether or not what we’re outraging about actually merits any outrage.

Because, of course, articulating outrage is what we do best. Only second to implementing cosmetic changes which, really, make no difference. What we need, after all, is a bank just for women; a few headlines if not a parallel banking system. Not to forget CCTV cameras. Everywhere. Or talk of CCTVs everywhere. Functioning ones, that is.

Voila! Outrage, cosmetic changes, and CCTV cameras… We can now claim to be well on the way to becoming a truly egalitarian society. Why on Earth would we even need to consider changing the socialisation of gender, addressing the cultural factors which lead to abuse and discrimination, or reforming the police and criminal justice system, amongst other things?

We have outrage. And column inches about VAW in India. Or some instances of VAW. But who cares about nuance? We are talking about VAW. And that's marvellous. It's also all we need.