Monday, August 21, 2000

We must first unlearn and then re-learn

Ayesha Chawla

Women symbolise and uphold the honour of a community. Yet the community just watches as the honour of women is regularly violated. Rajasthan has the highest record of rapes against women and statistics show that one Dalit woman is raped every 60 hours. The state is usually a silent observer with eight out of ten perpetrators escaping the law. Caste and religion work in tandem to magnify traditional stereotypical notions about the honour and respectability of women. Yet it is these very patriarchal structures that create a situation in which women have no protection or honour.

Kumkum Sangari, professorial fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, points out that there are multiple patriarchies, which may overlap and reinforce each other, or may contradict each other. The position of women depends on their location in these class, caste and religious structures. In Jaipur, the recent rape of a 17-year-old Dalit girl in a temple, by 11 men exemplifies the way that traditional notions of caste still thrive in what one hesitates to call `modern' India. First the family and then the community of the girl abandon her because of the shame that she has brought. The victim's religion, caste, and gender were violated at the same time.

Therefore these attacks against women are political in nature. Politics is about a power relationship that exists between two groups. One group determines the course of action to be taken, while another group is at the receiving end and is reduced to the status of the "other". Gender entails the creation and crystallisation of an identity by a society, over the centuries.

Women in India are systematically made to feel inferior to men from the time of their birth. In a nation of scarcity, more often than not, only the male child is entitled to privileges such as education and medical attention. Women are conditioned to believe that they must be obedient and self- sacrificing. In such a situation, rape and other forms of violence are additional components of guilt in a woman's personality. She blames herself for all the wrong that is done to her and her sexuality becomes her own worst enemy.

On the one hand, it is a society that asks her to give up all that she is for the sake of her own well-being. Yet, on the other hand, that same society cannot ensure for her a respectable existence.

Caste, religion, the state and the civil society are to blame. The solution is education and the strict enforcement of the law by the state machinery. Society at large must unlearn preconceived notions and then re-learn how to uphold basic values like liberty, equality and justice in the most democratic manner possible. The nation watches in horror as a girl child is married to a dog in Haringhata, Nadia; a woman's eyes are gouged out of its sockets; and another woman is branded as a witch and paraded naked in a village in Raipur for contesting a panchayat poll. But the law does nothing. It is time that the basic human rights that are guaranteed, are enforced. As political scientist and feminist Nivedita Menon points out, in the laws on rape and marriage, women's rights to property, custody and guardianship of children, the Indian state shows itself to be the protector of patriarchal values.

The lethargy of political will that can be seen in India today exemplifies these values. It is time that beliefs and ideologies are regulated by law. The state must uphold the rights of all its citizens. Including women.

Source: Indian Express, August 21, 2000

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