Not your maa-behen: A nation of victims

“Stop resorting to the maa-behen appeal when trying to talk to men. That does not activate the sympathy you are desperate for”

I am clenching my jaw and my fists as I follow realtime coverage of the Delhi gang rape in a weird masochistic frenzy. There are sharp and insightful analyses of sexual violence, structural misogyny and that grand abusive system that fathers them with loving care – patriarchy. At the same time, reading the comments section on news websites can be akin to tying your brain to train tracks – “hayelp! hayelp!” it shouts as your eyes pore over the usual sexist sanctimony.

It is a myth that lack of education is the reason for sexual crime.

An immigrant from a tier-2 city who lives alone, I am part of the first generation of middle-class Indian women that has left home early to seek opportunity in metropolises. In the past few years I have had to rely on my wits but also on innumerable strange men: to help me find accommodation in the least shady neighbourhoods, move into said accommodation, repair my lavatory, fix sockets and bring me home in their rickshaws and taxis at odd hours. The train driver who scared off a drunken beggar hauling himself next to me on the last Churchgate-Virar, the rickshaw driver who asked me if I was sure about going alone down the dark path that led to my room or the tempowala-turned-friend who helped me bring home my refrigerator from the station after midnight for free – all working class, “less educated” men and none of them my father, brother or husband.

I have stopped speaking to an IIM graduate who thinks that if a co-worker is sexually harassed at his workplace in front of him, “it’s something HR needs to sort out”. Clearly, a lack of education is not the problem; it’s the sort of education we’re getting. We’ve ended up with a bunch of feeder programs for Big Business, not incubators of social change.

There is an eagerness to blame parents who raise their sons with a sense of entitlement, perhaps because of our tendency to analyse societal dysfunction in terms of smaller units like immediate family, but more responsible are people from the same generation – siblings, friends, classmates and colleagues – who never challenge blatantly sexist behaviour. At the risk of gross generalisation, I want to add here that engineering schools and consequently business schools, into which most people these days aspire to get admitted, solidify and promote a strange variety of passive misogyny due to skewed sex ratios and a population of males gleaned from parts of the country where inter-gender socialisation is discouraged. The objectification of women at these institutions is alarming. Consider someone like Chetan Bhagat, the patron saint of the Indian male engineer-MBA, who pretends to be enlightened and then states that young India wants jobs and girls. As if young India does not also include girls who want boys (or boys who want boys), as if young Indian girls exist only to be desired by boys. This idea feeds right into rape culture, designed to ‘other’ and then punish women who defy the rules of the patriarchal narrative that doesn’t consider them protagonists, only the background scenery for male lives. Sexist statements and rape lie on the same numberline. The underlying presumption in both cases is that women can and should be humiliated, that male power can be asserted by word or deed whenever the mood strikes.

It is hilarious that Bollywood types are making noises about this rape. Mainstream Hindi films rarely depict women as anything but objects of lust. How do you begin to counter the anti-woman drivel being spouted by Honey Singh and his ilk? Should women start rapping stuff like: kaatke tera l*&% / doongi tujhe dand to get their own back? Hey, if that’s what it takes…What do you do about soap operas that emphasise that a woman is happiest in the kitchen? Do you occupy theatres showing movies with hypermasculine leads dominating landscapes, villains and women? Do you mount campaigns against every item number and macho anthem? A brutal gang rape is made possible by and finds sanction in a complex of interrelated factors that normalises denigration of women, whether subtle or overt. If popular culture is an index of the kind of environment we inhabit, it’s truly a jungle out here.

The only time we glimpse feminism on Indian TV is during the much-maligned Roadies auditions. Those segments pretty much encapsulate the gamut of opinions Indian boys have about girls drinking, smoking and having sex. The display of double standards and orthodoxy by men between the ages of 18 and 25 is chilling. Raghu Ram, one of the judges, is constantly criticised by men who watch the show for being angry and volatile. This is probably because they rarely see a man publicly disagree with them on the topic of women. After the 2009 Mangalore pub attack, Mr. Ram appeared on the news arguing with someone seemingly ‘educated’ yet still under the impression that it is the men of the house who decide what the women do (“would you let your sister go to a pub?” he inquired). Where are the men who openly support the freedom of women? Which role models do our boys have when it comes to treating women well? Movie heroes are lauded for stalking, molesting and what I’m pretty sure counts as date rape in order to ‘win’ women over. Yes, our girls need better role models but so do our boys.

Citizen’s March to India Gate on 27.12.12 (

With the images of the protest faintly echoing those of the Arab Spring, it was easy to get caught up in the moment and imagine a similar tide of righteous frustration flooding the country and transforming it. What is happening, of course, is closer to Iran in 2009 than Egypt in 2011. The kids protesting at India Gate are not poor vegetable vendors. Most of them hold fairly well-paying jobs that help them lead lives of luxury. The focus of the protests appears to be not so much on overthrowing the government but on reforming it. This is fleeting, largely middle-class outrage about the brutalisation of a middle-class couple. In order for there to be real change, it needs to quickly also become a movement that strikes at the heart of a whole phalanx of oppressive energies that systematically deprive men and women in India of the right to live freely. Which is not going to happen.

People have been correctly saying it’s not about this rape, it’s about all of them. It’s not even about rapes, it’s about violence in general, that of caste, class, religion and institution. The same conditions that make it so easy to rape or kill a woman, often in the name of honour, also make it easy to kill men who don’t belong to the right caste or religion. Those same conditions allow multinational corporations to install themselves wherever they want, once they’ve paid off the right people. Or permit manufacturers to violate workers’ rights in manufacturing units once they’ve bribed the local authorities. Or let major scams involving national resources and taxpayers’ money occur annually.

Political parties, feudal oligarchies and industrialists will continue collaborating to breed corruption and conspiring to support genocide, rape culture and chronic poverty. There’s a lot in it for them. Everything boils down to money. To be heard, ideally all we’d need to do is stop paying taxes. Unfortunately, unless you’re a film star or a cricketer, they’ve have already been paid for you – the reason nothing will change in India is that the youth who are in a position to organise and mobilise support for that change are in the pay of aforementioned conglomerates or the government. It’s quite laughable to expect that all the economic and political mechanisms that keep patriarchy hale and hearty be kept intact and misogyny be surgically removed like a malignant tumour. The government survives on our unwillingness to see nexuses: how can rape culture be eradicated through fast-track courts and hangings when panchayats regularly enable foeticide and murder, fundamentalists brutalise minority women and tycoons support both?

As long as we are governed by an army of privileged males, there is never going to be change. The rapes, beatings and dowry deaths won’t stop as long as it’s men being targeted in campaigns and men who remain the source of income for the government. As long as we have men in power who uphold paternal authority and token efforts to throw women a bone now, it won’t make an iota of difference. Teheka’s exposé of the Delhi Police’s horrifying attitudes towards rape earlier this year and the lack of action on the government’s part only proves that rapists will continue to walk free because they are one of the boys. Our police, like boardroom directors and parliamentarians, is a group of men protecting other men. The real ‘us’ versus ‘them’ in our country is not a stand-off based on class, caste or religion but gender. Women are threatened by men from outside and within their communities and domains. Which is why right-wing goons speaking out against this gang rape is a bit like the Taliban advocating gun control.

Even men, who would probably not directly assault a woman, think that it’s for their own good that they are asked to remain invisible because of all the fiends out there. None of these men have ever been asked to limit their physical freedom and it doesn’t even occur to them that if they were asked to, this rhetoric of protection would be summarily rejected by them all.

The fundamental problem, as has been discussed ad nauseum in newspapers, is the complete absence of empathy. Most men just don’t know or care about what it is like to be a woman. As simple as that. There is absolutely no recognition of the sort of minefield most women have to navigate for pleasures that men take for granted or even that women would desire the same pleasures as men. The girl in Guwahati who got lynched by hooligans outside a bar was being ‘punished’ for behaving like men. None of the perpetrators of those incidents could imagine their own mother or sister contravening the age-old customs they live by. And that’s why, for reasons other than that it’s sexist, it’s important to stop resorting to the maa-behen appeal when trying to talk to men. That does not activate the sympathy you are desperate for; it only reminds them of another term in the vocabulary of masculinity they’ve inherited: izzat. What we need to appeal to is the fears that these men live with about their own well-being. Sadly, there seems no analogy to be drawn to explain to them that their idea of protection is equivalent to a suffocation of spirit and central to the problem. My attempts, in conversations, to draw a parallel between violence against women and that directed at minorities has proved fruitless since minorities too draw boundaries around women and people don’t see the replication of power dynamics. The kind of existential dread that most women go through life with will never be known to them.

We need to ask ourselves if and how empathy can be generated. How do we empower the men who are already on our side or are willing to listen, especially those on whom we depend when we step out of our homes, like cabbies and theliwalas? Or sensitise women who are complicit with the order and nourish it by kowtowing to the whims of their fathers, brothers and husbands often at the expense of their daughters and sons? How do we make it harder for those we can’t change to act on their beliefs and affect the way we live? It is not that men don’t live with the threat of violence, it is that men don’t live with it because they are men. Indian men have a shot at leading free lives if they do and say the right things. There is no such guarantee for Indian women, who can be assaulted anytime and anywhere, never mind their belief system, wealth or place in the social hierarchy. This, ultimately, is what being seen only as a body translates to. Unless there is a persistent threat looming over male bodies, until men of all castes and classes are not denied the rights they stop women from exercising and as long as men continue to sit on thrones in the upper echelons of power, stroking their moustaches and panthers like B-grade ’80s villains, it is naive to expect any kind of change. It seems as though only one sex can enjoy positive rights at a given point of time. Even as I write this, women continue to get raped and molested all over the country. As always, our safety is our own responsibility.

This post was originally published in Ultra Violet and has been adapted by the author for Voices Against Violence

Kamayani Sharma is a text editor with ART India, a visual arts quarterly. She studied philosophy and gender studies as an undergraduate at Fergusson College, Pune. She has written on cinema and been published in poetry journals. While trying hard to be a non-violent vigilante feminist, she confesses to wondering whether her monocle makes her look fat. more


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Kamayani Sharma is a text editor with ART India, a visual arts quarterly. She studied philosophy and gender studies as an undergraduate at Fergusson College, Pune. She has written on cinema and been published in poetry journals. While trying hard to be a non-violent vigilante feminist, she confesses to wondering whether her monocle makes her look fat. more

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