While the young journalist’s attitude to not see the assault as the end of her life is exceptional, how do we tackle the patriarchal mindset that still views women as commodities?

As a journalist, a woman and a Mumbaikar, the dastardly rape by five men of a young woman journalist in Mumbai on August 22 was particularly jolting. Of course, every day rapes are reported; of young and old women and of little girls, of women in uniform, of women at work, of women at home, of women on their way to work, of women on their way home.

The day after this ghastly assault, a front-page story reported the gang rape of a policewoman in Jharkhand. And just in the vicinity of Mumbai, in Navi Mumbai, a 13-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly raping his five-year-old neighbour; in Mankhurd, a northeastern suburb of Mumbai, a 22-year-old man was charged with raping a 21-year-old woman; and in Pune, the body of an 11-year-old girl who had been raped and murdered was found.

Rapes are not a creation of the modern world. They have happened before. It is the tool men use to assert their power over women. It is a tool men use to assert their power over other men, by raping “their” women, especially in an arena of war and conflict, but even otherwise.

Today’s rapes are no different. They have increased in number. They are reported. And a media, which has realised that readers have a vicarious interest in reading about crimes, is obliging by amplifying, selectively, a few of these crimes and acts of extreme violence against women. Pages and pages are devoted to detailed reports about one or two of these crimes, such as this recent incident.

What is different today is the way politics is being played out on the wounded bodies of women. One of the most distressing and distasteful aspects of the media’s coverage of the Mumbai gang rape was the way it gave air time to politicians to hold forth, to score points against rivals, to demand resignations and to blame other communities. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray announced his absurd conclusion on prime time television that recent migrants to the city were responsible for the increase in crimes while also joining the chorus demanding the resignation of Maharashtra’s Home Minister R. R. Patil.

The problem with this volume of hot air emanating from the talking heads on television talk shows is that it contributes to the pall of unreality that surrounds many issues in this country. It perpetuates the belief that there is a quick fix solution to every problem. One such quick fix is to insist that the home minister should resign. Of course, Maharashtra’s Home Minister did not help his case by suggesting that every woman journalist on an assignment should take along some security. The suggestion was too absurd to even merit serious debate.

Every time there is a case like this which the media spotlights, we go over the same ground. We did it last December. We are doing it again. After some time, the news slips to the inside pages, and the questions that we should be asking are forgotten. Until the next time.

The question that got asked before and needs to be addressed today is: How do we tackle the patriarchal mindset in this country that still views women as commodities? The men who raped the young journalist in Mumbai apparently called up their friends and used the word “maal” while referring to her.

It is this mindset that makes men pour acid and disfigure for life women who dare refuse their overtures. It is this mindset that compels even women to abort female foetuses rather than raise daughters. It is this mindset that views all women out in the public space as available, as targets, as women who must be taught a lesson.

The second issue is the culture of impunity that has come to prevail in this country. It begins at the top but has now permeated to every level. It is interesting that one of the men arrested for the Mumbai rape admitted that he never expected the survivor to report the rape.

It is this belief, that women will not report because of the shame society associates with their being sexually violated and, second, that even if they do nothing much will happen, that encourages those planning and contemplating such crimes. In this case, the young woman had her wits around her and gave a full statement to the police within hours of reaching the hospital. Also, she and her male colleague were able to describe their assailants in detail. Given the publicity around the crime, the government and the Mumbai police were compelled to move quickly and as a result the five alleged rapists have been arrested.

But we must remember that this is an exception; it is very far from the norm. Until the systemic issues that prevent such crimes from being reported and investigated, and then prosecuted, are addressed, we will always only have exceptions. And if such crimes are only tackled in exceptional cases, then the culture of impunity will become even more embedded.

I write this when the Mumbai rape case is still on the front pages. What stands out in the last few days since that brutal crime was committed is the attitude of the young journalist. It has been exemplary. She has declared that she wants to get back to work. She has not hesitated to recall every painful detail for the police. She has refused to see this as the end of her life. She is in an exception — of a kind that this country badly needs.

sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

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