This is an article I wrote about the assault on two women in Mumbai on New Year’s Eve this year. It was written for a national newspaper but never carried. I’d forgotten about it until reminded by the offog.
Actually, on re-reading I can kind of see why it never came out. Blogging has spoiled me; I can no longer produce the kind of well-meaning neutral waffle required by newspapers. Not having an editor over your head often leads you into the error of speaking the truth.
Why Policemen Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Stay Home
Something new is happening in urban India. No, it’s not mobs of men chasing women and trying to rip their clothes off: that’s established celebratory behaviour for the inebriated Indian man-about-town. What’s new is that people are protesting. Not just people who cover news and write op-ed pieces: people on the streets have protested and probably saved the lives of the victims; people in the locality have talked about it afterwards and identified suspects from the photographs.
Not so long ago the consensus would have been that women (only one of them married and accompanied by husband) leaving a hotel, any hotel, at 2am, deserved whatever horrors befell them in the watches of the night. Never mind that the Mumbai Police Commissioner told the media that the assault on two women in Mumbai’s Juhu Beach area on January 1 was a ‘molehill’: the speed at which he was forced to recant defied belief. Yet all this frenetic activity has happened before the victims had even lodged a formal complaint.
Crimes against women are depressingly routine in India. This is the biggest open secret of our so called civil society, except that now it’s becoming more open and less of a secret. The storm of protest that arose within 48 hours was unprecedented by any standard, but if we look closer at the incident and its aftermath, some doubts arise. For one thing, the victims were wealthy US citizens, albeit of Indian origin. They were just tourists enjoying themselves, yet they were unfortunate enough to run into a huge pack of drunken men, who decided that the women were fair game for a spot of festive bullying. Mayhem followed, until the young men’s heroic idyll was rudely interrupted by two photographers who weren’t amused, followed by the cops.
When an Adivasi girl was stripped on the streets by a mob in Assam, the people who cried foul were pretty much the usual intellectuals, activists, lawyers, mediapersons and busybodies who make the statutory fuss about harassment of women. What is it about this case that has people up in arms? Cynically, we would have to say that like many who are harassed on the streets, in public transport, in cinema halls and markets, the Adivasi girl was not an upper class woman protected by a foreign government. However, till recently even crimes against such comparatively privileged women went unpunished. Three years ago when a young NRI was raped in Ghatshila, the protest was nowhere near on this scale.
This is a society where women continue to die because they are unwilling or unable to pay protection money, miscalled dowry, to their marital families. It is a society where mothers agree, or are forced to agree, to kill their unborn daughters. The skewed sex ration thus produced will shortly produce a world where two women on the road will routinely be faced with mobs of men, eighty strong, baying for their bodies. Perhaps women, as a scarce resource the generation of which requires investment beyond the priorities or desires of the ordinary public, will thenceforth belong to the state, like oil and natural gas. Jayalalithaa’s cradle scheme, where parents can ‘donate’ their unwanted daughters to the state, is perhaps a precursor. On the other hand, more and more upper class, wealthy males will be without mates of their own social stratum, and will use their wealth and power to take mates away from men lower in the social scale, who will no doubt have their requirements supplied by the public distribution system. Any family that gets ahead in life will immediately begin to kill its daughters: there are enough sociological studies to show us that this is already happening.
Balanced against that possibility is the fact that people here and now have protested this incident, publicly and with one voice. Perhaps it is pointless to go on about how they wouldn’t have protested, or not so much, if the women attacked had been maidservants, tribals, or single mothers. The men who attacked them didn’t care who they were: all they knew were: these are women, this is what they’re for. Random violence on the streets is one of the most effective ways to control women, precisely because it could happen to anyone, anywhere, so any woman, anywhere learns to fear. If the protest we are seeing can avoid questions of what the antecedents of these women were, why there were there at that hour, and what they might have done to make eighty drunken men attack them on a deserted street, then perhaps it will pave the way for society to grant that women have a right to get from A to B while enjoying reasonable personal security.
Some, especially the Left, have been saying things like ‘we want stronger punishment for the offenders’. Fair enough. But what I think every woman wants, rather than punishment for offenders, is prevention. What good does it do her to know that the man who’s molesting her will get fifty lashes if he’s caught? She will still have been molested. Prevention costs a lot less in terms of social resources than routinely putting large numbers of men in jail for appreciable lengths of time. But clearly it doesn’t make headlines, and you can’t get statistics on the number of molestation incidents prevented by patrols and good lighting. And of course, who knows what it would cost our society to educate its men from birth to behave humanely towards its women?
One wishes to be optimistic about the state of things for women in this country: one wishes to see this outcry as a harbinger of a more sensitive and humanitarian public concern for women’s safety and freedom. But the balance of evidence is so overwhelmingly against such a happy outcome, that one can only hang onto that hope by being very shortsighted. The police, after all, said what they always say: boys will be boys, we cannot guarantee the safety of women everywhere, these things will happen, someone explain why these ladies can’t just stay home and stop giving us headaches. That, after all, is where they belong.
Or is it?