Theater of the Absurd

The argument cannot be that women should not go out in the evening

DELHIBERATIONS

PADMA RAO SUNDARJI

Since December’s tragedy in New Delhi, public discourse has  revolved around women in India. If anything came out of the heartbreak, it has been the emergence, like never before, of India young and old, modern and traditional, poor and rich into the open and on the streets to take a long, hard look at itself and its elected representatives through a giant, collective magnifying lens. 
Center-stage remains occupied by our determined and admirable Generation-Next with a slew of valuable suggestions, ideas and demands.
But also showing on the sidelines of this debate is a theater of the absurd, whose main players are – unsurprisingly -our politicians and religious heads, all afflicted by verbal diarrhea.  Here are some barf-worthy examples:
-Abu Azmi, a Mumbai MLA of the Samajwadi Party (SP) – whose daughter-in-law, incidentally, is a Bollywood actress – declared that rapes happened because women wear ‘skimpy clothes’ and move around ‘late at night’;
-For RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat, there is an India, and there is a Bharat.  Crimes against women take place in the former, but not in the latter, because the women of Bharat “dress properly’; (he has obviously never heard of topless Jarawas in the Andamans but that’s okay. Maybe he thinks they belong to neither India nor Bharat, in which case every ambitious foreign naval power prowling the Bay of Bengal should be ecstatic)
- A  Chattisgarh minister blamed sexual abuse on planetary constellations;
- A Madhya Pradesh minister drew from the Ramayana.  Women have to abide by certain ‘moral limits’, he advised. Otherwise, they would be “punished, just like Sita was abducted by Ravana.”
- In Andhra Pradesh, the tragedy inspired a transferred epithet. A wistful Congressman reminded us that while India got its freedom from the British at midnight, this did not mean that women should travel in buses at that unearthly hour.
- As always, Bengal outdid the rest in eloquence. A CPI-M neta asked, rather “tastefully”, of the state’s lady chief minister who announced a “compensation” for rape victims ( certainly an absurd move) what ‘her own fee would be if raped ?”  He also admonished her for earlier, as opposition leader, bringing a Santhal rape victim into a discussion on sexual terror.  The victim from 24 Parganas, was, after all, he pointed, “a girl without a position in society.”
- When ‘cultured’ Bengal speaks, can the ‘civilized’ South, which sniffs the loudest about ‘crude, northern India’, be far behind?  A Puducherry leader came up with the brilliant idea of covering all girl students in overcoats and taking cell-phones away from them to prevent rape;
- Whether north or south, east or west, we all invest great faith in our spiritual babas. Soul swamy, Asaram Bapu,  held the rape victim herself as squarely responsible.  She should have called the rapists “brothers and begged them to stop”. (Yes, Guruji, even as the brutes were gouging out her intestines). “Can one hand clap”? he asked, much in the philosophical way of our ancient sages. “I do not think so.”
And finally, the blame for December’s tragedy in Delhi -at least in the city that calls itself India’s most ‘cosmopolitan”, i.e. Mumbai, had to be lain on ‘Bihari migrants’.  No prizes for guessing who said that.
But here’s some comforting news: misogynous gobbledygook is not restricted to ‘our Indian brothers’ alone.
US Republican and gynaecologist from Georgia, Phil Gingrey, agreed with his Missouri counterpart, Todd Akin, that women who are victims of ‘legitimate rape’ - whatever that may be - would not become pregnant because of the female body’s “tendency to not ovulate when under stress;”
Okay, okay, I won’t sicken you any further.
-“Western culture” (yes, the same which produced greats ranging from Joan of Arc to Mother Teresa) basically means jeans, skirts and ‘skimpy’ clothes as worn by women.
But whether anyone likes it or not, India, too, is very much part of a globalizing world.   The choice of a free market economy, especially if we are wooing investments from western countries, does, and will also attract cultural influences from ‘The West’.  Kids of this generation, more than any of us ever were, are and will remain ‘wired’, ‘tuned’ and ‘logged on’ to the big, wide world.
Commentators, on their part, will point to India’s own ancient culture and traditions and the “emancipation” of ancient Indian society. (Including a healthy acceptance of eroticism and women’s bodies as in Khajuraho, the Kama Sutra, etc. - but that’s another story).
Here’s the thing:  If a movie hall is given permission to screen movies till 1 am, then the same authorities must ensure adequate public transport for both men and women. The argument cannot be that women should not go out in the evening.   If pubs are granted licenses to serve alcohol to even those barely able to walk, let alone drive, merely to make profits, then the same licensing body must ensure that women are not attacked.  The answer cannot be that women should stay away from such venues.
But even if we were to accept the nonsensical argument that “skimpy clothes” provoke the inner beasts in our otherwise saintly men, why, in that case, have there been an estimated 2360 rape cases yet to be tried, in Jammu & Kashmir, where women do not, generally wear  ‘skimpy clothes’?
Yes, it is laudable that at CM Omar Abdullah’s instigation and within barely a month of the Delhi tragedy, J&K became the second state after Delhi to set up five fast-track courts for processing rape cases.
But will these new courts also deliver justice to the 32 women who were gang-raped by army men during a search operation in Kupwara in February 1991 ? To the families of the two victims in Shopian who were raped and killed in 2009? Or will those cowardly perpetrators continue to be protected by the AFSPA in the name of ‘security’?
And what about the ‘use’ of rape as a tool by security forces in Manipur? Will they, too, remain hidden in the comforting folds of the same Act?
In one way or another and rather than spending our tax money on education,  public transport, policing and relentless public information campaigns to reform a society deeply disdainful and dismissive of women,  our politicians seem hell-bent on laying the blame for India’s inherent misogyny – and even lesser evils  - at somebody else’s door.
For instance and other than ‘western culture’, there is always the other, convenient bogey of “Muslim invasion”.  Of course she is free to do so, but our former, ghunghat-covered President did once explain coyly, that Muslim invasions were the reason she covered her head (never mind that she is an elderly granny in the 21st century and the last Mughal was long laid to rest).
But I must admit that last week’s tragedy also got me thinking about how twisted the arguments put forth by rights’ groups too, can sometimes be.
Over the past weeks, many of my female activist-friends demonstrating against sexual abuse,  expressed the firm belief that wearing a burkha, too, is an evil enforced by men, whether in India or any other Islamic society.
This puzzles me. I have dozens of Muslim woman friends who like wearing a burkha, indeed, choose to wear one. I even have one whose US-born husband -also a Muslim – wishes his wife weren’t so ‘rigid’.  
When I point this out to my activist-friends, they insist that such women are lying under duress. 
Let’s ridicule the Asarams and the Azmis of the world for their chronic incontinence and double standards in being able to accept the worst vulgarity and violence in Bollywood movies, while spewing balderdash about ‘skimpy clothes’ on the streets of Mumbai.
But in our endeavour to reform India, let’s live - and let live.  Let’s be tolerant: of both skimpy clothes and burkhas, of the greatness of both western and eastern cultures.
Do we want to be a truly evolved society, democracy and nation ?
Then there’s no other way.

(The author is a senior freelance foreign correspondent)

Lastupdate on : Sat, 12 Jan 2013 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 12 Jan 2013 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 13 Jan 2013 00:00:00 IST




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