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Home > Women’s Rights > Moving ahead, in the shadow of fear

Moving ahead, in the shadow of fear

by Ravinder Kaur, 8 March 2010

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(Published earlier in the Times of India)

Even as Indian women break new ground, the threat of violence remains a constant, says Ravinder Kaur...

The 8th of March, International Women’s Day, is always a day for stock-taking and introspection. 2010 also marks the 15th anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women, a landmark in their fight for equality. Yet, international days come and go and so do conferences. In India, assessing progress at the ground level is an extremely difficult task given the diversity of Indian women of different regions, castes, classes, educational levels, and occupations. There are many of us who are still bereft of basic entitlements of food, clothing and shelter while others today have the freedom to make choices and lead the lives they value.

While we celebrate the coming out of purdahs of various sorts and being unshackled in various ways, there is one worrying trend that disturbs and imprisons a majority of Indian women today. Violence, or the threat of violence, is the common thread that knits us all together, poor or rich. Violent crime has taken within its fold an infant girl of a few months who was raped by a neighbour and extends to the murder of widows and single women in our metropolitan cities. Not to mention the few er girls being born due to their deliberate elimination with the help of modern technology - murdered in the womb. Is any female, old or young, ugly or beautiful, rich or poor, born or unborn, safe? Hannah Arendt talked about the ’banality of evil’ ; in today’s India, there is a danger of violence against women becoming banal in the same way. So pervasive it is, so taken for granted, that now we pass over reports of heinous incidents of violence with glazed eyes.

I had once offered the hypothesis that the increase in violence against women is a consequence of the narrowing of the gender gap in times of rapid change. That is, women are now closer than ever to men in achievements such as education, health, longevity etc. Women are catching up fast with men in education and while at it, are giving them some tough competition - witness the results in Board exams each year. Feminist movements and women’s organisations have been successful in pushing through various pieces of significant legislation such as the Domestic Violence Act and the revised Hindu Succession Act. These legislations will have far reaching consequences - if not in the immediate future, then certainly in the long term.

As a result, women’s visibility has been increasing, whether in the home, the panchayat, the work place, or at leisure. The ’invisible’ Indian woman is suddenly becoming visible - whether out of choice or driven by market forces, rising consumerism, the need for two incomes, or the need to sustain oneself as security offered traditionally by marriage and the family recedes in a globalising, modern world.

This visibility is a challenge to the uncontested domination of and by men. As a result, all equations today have to be re-negotiated and all standardised expectations of gendered roles and behaviour are up for revision. My contention then and now is that the majority of Indian men are unprepared to meet this challenge as mature, thinking beings who can look at a woman as another human being first and not simply a sexed being to be dominated or humiliated. To pause for a moment and consider the very recent case of an IIT Roorkee boy murdering an IIT Delhi girl - one newspaper reported the boy as saying, "I wanted to set an example before her. Hence I was also preparing for IAS. But she refused to give me a chance." Presumably, the girl had turned down his offer of a future together; another report mentioned that he got incensed at hearing about her past relationships.

Rather than an appreciative acceptance of equality, there is fear and jealousy over women’s advancement.
Psychologists will agree that violence is often a response stemming from insecurity. In intimate relationships, few men have learnt to take a no honourably. Added to these insecurities are those of being subjected to punishing competition at the work place or displacement in the home. What else but a similar fear lies at the root of the resistance to passing the Women’s Reservation Bill?

That such male fears and insecurities are not confined to cities and towns but affect women everywhere is clear from an equal preponderance of violence against women in rural areas - the so called ’honour crimes’ being an example at hand. The prevalence of domestic violence in Kerala, with its matrilineal past, high sex ratios and enviable literacy figures for women comes as a shock to all those rational people who expect to see one kind of progress go hand in hand with another.

How can women escape the noose of violence? By working harder and being more submissive? By remaining ’invisible’ while they contribute even more to society each day, or by accepting a second-class citizenship while shouldering the double burden of housework and jobs outside? Should they not demand the freedom and respect and safety that are the due of non-slaves? The chief minister of Delhi gave up and said that women of Delhi should sit at home after 7 pm - isn’t it the duty of the State and of the male of the species to ensure that women are safe and cherished for their ever-increasing contributions to society? Let all of us dedicate ourselves to non-violence against women as they rise to occupy a place in the front row

The writer is a professor of social anthropology at IIT Delhi.