This is a question more people need to talk about and not be satisfied with clichés or the usual solutions.
Another horror; another rape. This time in a moving bus; at a time of the night when people are still on the roads in Delhi; in a populated area and not some remote jungle. Each time you read news like that of the bestial gang rape of a 23-year-old para-medical student in Delhi earlier this week, your senses are numbed. What is happening to us? What is this brutality we witness all so frequently now? Can it ever stop?
I doubt if we will find a satisfactory answer in the short run. But it is a question that more people need to talk about and debate and not be satisfied with the clichés, the usual solutions or even some unusual ones.
I spent last weekend in my old school, a place where I had five happy years before completing my schooling. It is an all-girls residential school with a substantial proportion of day students. Our memories of our school days, when some of us met again after many decades, were those of the fun times, the carefree years, of a place where we felt safe and were not inhibited from expressing our views. Of course, the very fact of a compulsory school uniform imposed a level of conformism but even within that girls found ways to assert individual personalities — a tuck here, a stitch there. And hair always remained the ultimate expression of rebelliousness — refusing to be neat was the preferred statement of individualism.
All these years later, the girls in that school still wear the same school uniform but they have changed, as has the world around them. They exude the same confidence some of us did. I want to be a Cordon Bleu chef, one girl told me. Another said she wants to be a lawyer — but with the army. Another became really excited when I mentioned I was a journalist. Clearly, for these girls no career is out of reach.
Yet, reading about the Delhi incident, I thought about these young women who are on the verge of stepping out into another world, away from the relatively safe environment of an all-girls school. With modern communication and social networking, they are not as secluded as perhaps we were in our days when even contact with the boys in the school across the boundary wall was frowned upon. Today, girls have Facebook friends and are daring enough to meet them even if all they know about them is what these young men choose to put on their “profile”. I am told that often it is girls from the most conservative homes who take such bold chances and end up in all kinds of trouble.
Yet, whether it was our generation jumping the boundary wall to meet boys or this lot setting up meetings through social networking sites, the compulsions are the same. But is the world a more dangerous place today for young women than it was in our days? If so, how does one prepare them for it?
The predictable formula is to urge them always to be vigilant, to be careful, not to take unnecessary chances. Against the background of the recent spate of sexual crimes against women in Mumbai, the Joint Commissioner of Police (Crime) in Mumbai, Himanshu Roy, had this to say: “The most obvious method of preventing such crimes is that women should be aware of their environment. This does not mean that they should be suspicious of all their male relatives, friends or colleagues, but it would be wrong to assume that none of these will ever harm them.” In effect, he was suggesting that the onus of preventing the crimes is really on women. Roy needs to be reminded that the job of the police and law enforcement is not to tell women what they should do, but to do their own job more effectively.
At the same time, many believe the problem will be tackled if the government, law enforcement and society at large figure out how to “protect” these girls from violence. The courts have suggested more policing, asking for plainclothes women police in malls, cinema halls and public places, with closed circuit cameras. But are women safer in a police state? Can we really “protect” women in a society where they can experience the worst forms of sexual violence inside their homes?
Furthermore, even if there are men who genuinely try and “protect” women and intervene, they do not succeed. In the Delhi incident, the girl’s male companion was mercilessly beaten and thrown out of the bus. In Mumbai, men who tried to intervene were murdered. So who will “protect” the protectors?
A male reader of these columns suggested that we should not focus exclusively on women and instead we needed to make more of an effort to understand men and what drives them to such violence. Without justifying the violence, he felt it was a combination of repression and suppression that drove Indian men to such levels of violence. He might have a point. We have not looked at Indian men, at what is happening to them, what is turning some of them into people who would be better off caged.
These are troubling questions. There are no easy answers. We can begin by debating and discussing this issue much more than we do, in our schools and colleges, in the columns of our newspapers, and in our families.