The recent gangrape of a 23-year-old girl in the national capital, followed by the death of the victim, has sent shockwaves throughout the country. It has also triggered discussions about the kind of punishments rapists deserve.
There are arguments for and against capital punishment. In my view, our country has not matured enough to bid adieu to capital punishment. Nevertheless, capital punishment alone will not stop these abominable acts. Faster and stiffer enforcement of punishment is sure to help. Few years ago some college students who had brutally attacked a girl in a cinema complex in Chennai were let off with just a fine of a few thousand rupees.
Who fosters the mentality of indulging in violence against women? It is the family and the society. A scene from a recent movie depicts the hero, accompanied by the comedian, waiting at a traffic signal. He asks a girl whose face is covered and is standing beside him, something. When the girl unveils her face the hero spits on the road, as the girl is not good looking. No other cinema of any other country can boast of such scenes. Men who watch and enjoy these films sexually assault women at slightest chance. They eve-tease schoolgirls, just like our heroes do in films. And if a girl complains to her parents, they vitriolise her face. These incidents are not stray; they get reported with chilling regularity. I used to refer to Delhi as the rape capital when I lived there 20 years ago. Today the situation has worsened rather than improving. Similarly, in Tamil Nadu, too, crimes against women have increased.
Those who commit these crimes are usually first-time offenders and the crimes are not predetermined. They are people like us and live among us. They are not strangers or outsiders.
A woman from the elite class said to me recently that she was sexually abused by a cyclerickshaw driver when she was six years old. When I asked her why she hadn’t complained, she said that she was afraid to do so.
There’s another incident that occurred in a Chennai pub. It was a birthday party and we were four friends — three guys and the girlfriend of a friend. After the party, the next morning, the girl called me and told me in a tense voice that one of our friends at the party had been asking for her phone number secretly, through signals, which the girl was unable to comprehend. At the end of the party, when they were about to leave, the friend came up to the girl and said that he was asking for her phone number. This incident made me think. Is this okay? Or is this the portrait of a man who may stalk a woman and sexually assault her?
Women’s space is hidebound in our society. She is cramped inside the family. There is slight relaxation of boundaries to enable her to go for work nowadays. But apart from that she has no other space outside family and workplace.
A few years ago, a girl who had stepped out of a discotheque was chased to death, literally, by men who followed her in a car. It happened in Chennai. It happens everywhere. You may recall the moral police who would attack women in pubs. The core issue is that women should never move out of their “space”. If they do, they will be teased, molested or raped. “What was a woman doing with a man at this hour?” was the question of the offenders in Delhi.
In India, a woman’s space is walled off like a jail. If she comes out of her cell, her body is no longer hers. Delhi tops in this attitude. A slum-dwelling woman who had stepped out early morning was kidnapped in a car and gangraped in east Delhi. Last year, in Delhi, a 70-year-old woman was raped by a rickshawpuller and was thrown on a farmland. This incident happened in front of a police station.
Leave alone Europe and America. Even in countries in the East, women’s space is not restricted like it is in India. When I was in Malaysia recently, I saw working women everywhere, even at bars, wearing a tudung (headscarf), and at men’s salons. Remember, Malaysia is an Islamic country. Of course, petty crimes happen — signboards with the warning, “Take care of your footwear”, hang everywhere, in temples and pagodas, but crimes against women are unheard of.
The attitude of Indian men towards women is the reason for the increasing number of sexual and other crimes against women in India. A mother plays a significant role in developing her son’s views about women. But most men see their mothers and sisters as domestic help who wash, cook and assist them. An extension of this view is the image of women as a commodity, meant only for gratification, sexual and otherwise.
Even though we have a culture of worshipping women as goddesses, crimes against women is rising in number and audacity. Because women have come out of the sanctum sanctorum prescribed by men, they are being sexually assaulted and raped — punished for defying “norms”. Mahatma Gandhi once said that only if a woman can walk safely on the streets at nights can we boast of our freedom. If India needs to attain that state of true freedom, our attitude towards women has to undergo a drastic change.
Charu Nivedita is a post-modern Tamil writer based in Chennai.
His magnum opus, Zero Degree, is considered one of the best in trangressive fiction.