A recent video of the brutal mob-molestation of a 16-year old girl in Guwahati has shamed and outraged the entire nation. The impunity of the perpetrators who could continue their crime for over 30 minutes on a crowded main road in a capital city like Guwahati has deeply disturbed everyone. It is like watching the worst nightmare of every woman on the screen with the hapless young victim being savagely tossed around. Without discounting any of her trauma, hurt and humiliation, the crime in its manner of committing is targeted against ‘every woman’.
The crime has also given rise to many questions – What took the Police so long when the Police Station was not too far away? Why did it take the Police even longer to initiate proceedings against the perpetrators? Why did no bystander intervene? What created this mob mentality and such a bestial free for all? How were these beasts created in the first place who are turning out to be professionals and students? Is the role of the journalist involved entirely above doubt? What does this episode reflect about the safety and security of women in our country? What can be the long term solutions that prevent such crimes from happening again? And would the sensation created around this case lead to some groundbreaking changes or would the current interest again wane away till the next brutal crime?
Spurt in gang violence against women
The present incident is preceded by a series of incidents of gang-rapes across major cities in India and at least one major incident of mob-molestation in memory wherein hundreds of aspirants appearing for Police recruitment examination in Parade Grounds in Delhi molested scores of girl students of I.P. College in 2007. The stampede in a Delhi school in Khajuri Khas in 2009 which led to the death of five young girls also involved murmurs of mob-molestations during a sudden electricity failure at the time of change from the girl’s to the boy’s shift. Despite the furore, the investigations in those cases reached a dead end. However, the manner in which gang violence against women is on the rise is indeed alarming. Such crimes involve elements of bravado, exhibitionism and affinity as partners-in-crime among the perpetrators, rather than any shame, guilt or fear. Unfortunately, neither the law of our land, nor the National Crime Records Bureau deem it fit to record gang-rapes or any other variety of gang-violence as a separate category of crime that may merit a different treatment.
To locate the recent spurt in gang-violence against women, the gendered nature of this violence needs to be kept in view. This in turn can be traced to the entire context of the paradox that we are witnessing in our country today - that of increasing participation of women in the public realm on the one hand and rising crimes against women on the other. As more and more women are breaking the age old barrier of being restricted within the private/domestic realm, the age-old patriarchal equilibrium is getting deeply disturbed. The presence of so many women in the public realm is not exactly being welcomed. Each case of rape, molestation or sexual-harassment sends the message that women should remain within the safety and bounds of their homes. This is not to say that violence against women does not take place within the four walls of homes, or that every perpetrator understands the full ideological import of their crime, but that in sum, such crimes serve to intimidate women away from the public realm. The manner in which these crimes are acquiring a gang/mob character only shows how these crimes have started representing the ‘masculine collective.’
Yes, women have made great advances in social life over the past century or so, but dominant conceptions about them are still highly sexualized. From private sexual properties, they have transitioned into public sexual properties. Our entire mainstream culture industry, from cinema, television to advertisements, is a testimony to this view. Regularly subjected to the sexualized male gaze, women face sexual harassment on a consistent basis. The acts are not targeted at some or the other ‘particular’ woman, but are the current fate of ‘everywoman.’ As though just by being out there in the public realm women have made themselves available for harassment. It is no wonder that patriarchal solutions to providing safety, security and dignity to women are still linked to accepting conditions of more restrictions. The recent diktats of the Baghpat Khap Panchayat or regular prescriptions for dress codes, time codes, etc. are all evidence of this view. In short, yes, women can get their dignity, only if they agree to accept more restrictions rather than demand more freedom. Otherwise, they themselves are to blame - their dress, their behaviour, their character, or their sheer presence. The extent of violence, insecurity and intimidation that women have to face to maintain themselves in the public domain, i.e., the domain which in patriarchal conception is not meant for them, is mind-blowing.
The entire scenario of sexual relations per se among the youth of our country today is also considerably vitiated by the massive circulation of pornography on the internet. In a country that does not provide freedom to freely interact with the opposite sex or chose one’s life partner, leave alone provide sex education in schools, pornography is becoming a substitute for satisfying curiosity as well as de-facto ‘education’ for the youth (generally men but also women). And this education is the most gendered and violent in content, wherein, domination, subjugation, violence and objectification are being turned into normative components of masculine attitudes towards women. The impact of the massive scale of circulation of pornography in our country is yet to be adequately analyzed or understood. Successive MMS scandals or cases of rape wherein videos are uploaded on the internet are just the tip of the iceberg. In the experience of working in the legal-aid centre of AIDWA, replication of pornographic violence in real life is already emerging as a major area of marital violence and discord.
Proximity of violence against women
A 1999 United Nations report on the ‘Status of Women’ summarized the condition of women across the world as follows - ‘Women comprise fifty percent of the world’s population, perform two-thirds of the world’s work, get one-tenth of the world’s wages and own one-hundredth of the world’s property.’ So how is this massive inequality and injustice sustained? Is it only on the basis of patriarchal ideology or is there something more? Italian communist Antonio Gramsci once wrote – ‘Hegemony always operates through both coercion and consent.’ The consent for sustaining the patriarchal order is generated through its gendered ideology, but the suppression of women through daily violence is the other side of the coin. If we examine the nature of violence against women, it appears to occur in very inter-personal ways – domestic violence, dowry harassment, rape, sexual-harassment, honour killings, etc., and yet this violence also has a general character. The stark reality is that bulk of the violence against women is perpetrated by those in proximity. International reports and records show that among all crimes against women over 90 per cent are committed by known people. The latest NCRB Report on ‘Crime in India 2011’ shows that 94 percent of all rapes in our country are committed by known relatives, friends or persons. The combination of records of all crimes against women in our country also corroborates this alarming international trend. Thus, contrary to popular postulations about guarding against strangers for safety and security of women, the actual fact stands otherwise. While this may not be immediately relevant to the case under discussion, it helps to understand who the perpetrators are – they are our relatives, friends or other known people. And this gruesome incident and the daily violence against women is the coercive manner in which women are kept subjugated and oppressed. Violent crimes are an integral part of sustaining patriarchy and it would be incorrect to assume that this massive worldwide system of oppression is based only on the force of ideology and persuasion alone.
Role of the State
The role of the State stands once again exposed in this case. The Assam Chief Minister and the NCW have both involved themselves in publicizing the identity of the victim. The Assam DGP has immediately ruffled feathers by explaining the inexcusable delays with his insensitive ATM comment. For this he has earned a reprimand from the Home Minister. But the Home Minister himself is hardly the pillar of gender-sensitivity. He presides over an entire law and order machinery of the country that is systemically patriarchal. Crimes against women are consistently on the rise. And more importantly, the conviction rate in crimes against women has fallen from a meager 27.8 percent in 2010 to 26.9 percent in 2011. From initial complaints to conversion into FIRs to chargesheeting to trial-and-conviction, at every stage women continue to face insurmountable challenges. In the entire nationwide Police force in our country the strength of women is a mere 6.5 percent. Inculcating gender-sensitivity is still not part of the training manual of Police personnel (apart from occasional workshops for a handful of officers in the country). Moreover demands for forming or reforming many laws including the molestation law are falling on deaf ears. The Bill on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace is pending despite a Supreme Court directive since 1997. Additionally, fast track courts or judicial reforms are also the need of the hour.
As far as the entire country and its people are concerned, unless patriarchy per se is combated, there is no short cut to reducing crimes against women. In 1965, the then union government agreed to undertake massive gender-sensitive reforms in school education so that a new generation of citizens is trained in more egalitarian and democratic views.
Unfortunately, this task was never undertaken. Today the literacy rate in our country is 74.04 percent. However, in the age group of 18-23 years only about 8-12 percent of youth in India today manage to reach higher education. In the absence of gender sensitive education reforms at the school level, it is only at the higher education stage that some youth get exposed to ideas of gender sensitivity and a handful of them undergo changes in social attitudes. The need of the hour is to undertake massive education reforms at the school level to ensure that a much wider population, both boys and girls, learns to view women differently as modern and equal counterparts, rather than through traditional and stereotypical notions. Ensuring the participation of women in the public realm against age-old notions of confinement within households, that is free of intimidation, threat and violence, is the responsibility of the Indian State. The State cannot abdicate its responsibility and leave women alone to take on this massive task. Worse, it cannot pretend to discharge this responsibility by training a handful of women in judo-karate. It is only with the equal participation of women in the public realm alongside changing domestic equations that other forms of violence can also witness a decline. Otherwise, women in millions are currently facing the brunt and backlash of this historic social transition.
In the short run, this case is another test case. In view of available video-graphic evidence, how soon the culprits are apprehended, prosecuted and convicted will be a reflection of the state’s response to such gruesome crimes. Let us unite to ensure justice to this young victim so that she grows up to gain confidence in our state and polity, and does not have to face either life-long taboo or adversity.