When we talk of women being harassed, we immediately think of sexual assault, physical abuse and torture. What escapes us is the continual discrimination women face everywhere- at the workplace, at home, indeed, in the highest places.
There is a widespread reluctance to accept the various forms in which discrimination against women manifests itself- try to defend a woman’s position where a crime isn’t heinous or visible, and you will be called a feminist, the word being thrown at you like an abuse. Attempt to demonstrate the lack of respect for women, and self-appointed experts will count off the names of Hindu goddesses on their fingers to paint a picture of pious veneration. India had Indira Gandhi much before Britain had Margaret Thatcher, they’ll say. Or look at the US, which is yet to elect its first female President.
Has electing Indira Gandhi to power absolved us of our responsibility to our women for good? Was it a favour done to Indian women, so that they could be made to hold their tongues forever? When I demand protection in this country, the status of women elsewhere is irrelevant to me. I may be better off than women in some other parts of the world, and my sympathies are with those who suffer, but this is by no means good enough for me.
You don’t have to look much further than India’s “booming” IT industry to be exposed to the indifference that is often a woman’s lot. Fresh from college, I was posted in Singapore and reported to an all-male team. My female friends and I struggled to get noticed- the grudging recognition we finally received came solely by dint of hard work, which wasn‘t the case with the boys in the team. When one of us answered the phone, we would be asked who else was around- which was a way of asking us to put one of the boys on the line, no matter how trivial the business was. The condescension we had to put up with from some of the team members was appalling; being new to the job, we were quite sensitive to the discrimination we were subjected to, and it helped prepare us for what we knew was going to be a long battle.
We’re talking of engineers and aspiring MBAs here, not uneducated men from the hinterlands. Having been exposed to a variety of cultures and working in Europe, surely they ought to have known better? No. An educated woman who likes to stand up for herself or indulge in interests usually associated with men is a threat. Words of advice come regularly from various quarters, advising women on the best way to dress and conduct themselves, with some people even suggesting it is against our culture for women to work outside home, ignoring the primary duty of bringing up children. But you see, women happen to be more than just bodies.
A gang-rape deserves all the condemnation it gets; so do patriarchal attitudes at the workplace and at home. When we can openly discuss on social networks a high-profile murder or a caste-based Parliament bill, why should women’s issues be taboo? Why is there an implicit assumption that a woman needs society’s approval before she can speak up in public?
Perhaps the answer lies in the way a woman’s actions are connected with the honour of the family, as pointed out by some columnists in the wake of the Delhi gang-rape. This isn’t merely an Indian phenomenon, but intrinsic to the sub-continent. One of the theories behind the rape is that it was perpetrated not for sexual gratification, but to assert power because the girl put up some resistance, could very well have solid grounding. After all, don’t we prefer sons and run clandestine sex-determination clinics so that girls can be aborted before it is too late?
Sexual assault is the worst crime a woman can be subjected to: but it is just one end of a spectrum of discriminatory acts that our society is routinely guilty of. These acts are not necessarily perpetrated by men alone. It would also be wrong to say that crimes against men don‘t occur- but it is only the most skewed mind that can use them as a justification for ill-treating women. Also, invoking the scriptures isn’t the answer to every question. Guardians of culture often fail to take into account the fluidity of our system that has helped us survive centuries of turmoil. Culture exists as much for men as it does for women.
I have a great deal of respect for our scriptures, but I don’t want anyone asking me to be Sita. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. I shall decide which principles suit me best. All I want is to be treated as an equal, which isn’t too much to ask.