Women in power should rise above political, caste and religious considerations and come together to form advocacy groups

The Preity Zinta-Ness Wadia episode has understandably evoked tremendous interest, with newspapers, television channels, social media and the film fraternity doing all they can to ensure that it remains in the limelight. There are accusations and counter-accusations, even revelations of alleged underworld involvement, as speculation on whether the actor was indeed abused by Mr. Wadia in public during an IPL match or is out to “seek attention” is rife.

The controversy has reinforced the fact that allegations of abuse of women are not restricted to the lower or middle strata of society. The fact that Ms Zinta is a successful actor and a co-owner of Kings XI Punjab, and the person who allegedly abused her is not only a wealthy businessman but also belongs to an illustrious family, has made the episode, the likes of which are quite common, exceptionally interesting. It has also driven home the point that empowered and educated women are equally vulnerable to abuse, and ugly scenes can unfold in elite cricket stands too.

Media commentators and talk show participants often refer to the “patriarchal mindset” to explain crimes against women — from abuse and harassment at the workplace to gang rape. They argue that the social environment is determined by this mindset and any woman who challenges it has to necessarily “bear the brunt.” Khap panchayats, honour killings and domestic violence thus enjoy social sanction with women passively perpetrating, even if not actively encouraging, them.

So, does the explanation begin and end with the patriarchal mindset? What about women’s thinking? The clamour for women’s reservation in legislatures is increasing by the day. It has been on the nation’s agenda for close to two decades and one hopes it will become a reality soon. But of what use can such reservation be if women continue to be conditioned by patriarchal values and refuse to challenge them?

Mulayam Singh’s infamous “boys will be boys, they make mistakes” comment in the context of rape was widely criticised by the media, the intelligentsia, and even the United Nations. But Dimple Yadav, his daughter-in-law who represents his party in Parliament, did not (or could not) express her outrage openly. Some media reports even quoted her as saying that such remarks were made by a lot of people and were quite common.

Do women really work to change things around them, at home or work? “No” seems to be the answer, looking at the increasing instances of crime against women. Questioning abuse and crimes is left to a few organisations and the National Commission for Women. While the blanket reasoning that most women cannot oppose the system they live in as they are not empowered may explain their behaviour, it cannot become a refuge for continued inaction on their part, certainly not if they want to make an impact on decision-making.

Speaking up

Unfortunately, even educated and empowered women do not speak up when they should because they either conform to the patriarchal system or are indifferent to it as long as it suits them or does not affect them personally. Women who complain of harassment at the workplace, violence at home or abuse in public thus find themselves isolated. Many treat such instances casually because abuse of women in day-to-day life — verbal, physical and emotional — is not seen as something out of the ordinary. Even in extreme cases such as incest, very few women encourage the victim to speak out or support her. By submitting to the so-called patriarchal set-up, are women opting for the easy way out? True, things cannot change overnight but women can make a beginning — take that one small step which can make a difference. We often read of women and young girls who stop child marriages in their villages. While they may not have revolutionised the way society functions, they have surely done their bit to make the world a better place to live in. Ayesha Takia was quick to express her disapproval of her politician father-in-law Abu Azmi’s remark on rape, which sent a strong signal to her family and the nation. Had it not been for women who constitute 50 per cent of the population, programmes like family planning and adult literacy would not have succeeded to the extent they did.

Standing up to a husband or son who opposes a girl for marrying outside her caste, coming to the help of a woman who is harassed in her workplace or publicly humiliated, reporting a case of domestic violence in the neighbourhood or forming a pressure group to say ‘no’ to oppressive instruments like khap panchayats will go a long way in challenging the social order. Remaining passive out of fear or convenience, and blaming it on the man’s world will just not do. As Madeleine Albright said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Women in power should rise above political, caste and religious considerations and come together to form advocacy groups. If they continue to toe or accept their party line blindly, they will add only to the numbers, not quality, in the legislature. The onus is on educated and empowered women to challenge discrimination.

While it may not be the best of examples, it may be worthwhile to recall the case of Akku Yadav, a notorious gangster of Nagpur, who was lynched by a group of women in the district court premises in 2004. Yadav had raped many women and murdered at least three of them in the Kasturba Nagar slum and the police had done virtually nothing to rein him in. On the fateful day, about 200 women attacked him and hacked him to death. Writing on the incident, The Guardian (September 16, 2005) said: “ …Yadav and his gang had terrorised the 300 families of Kasturba Nagar for more than a decade … every woman living in the slum has claimed responsibility for the murder. They have told the police to arrest them all.” The trial in the case is on.

Change begins at home

What can be done to dent the rigid frame of patriarchal values? A change in thinking should begin at home. Girls should be encouraged to speak, ask questions. Schools should include in their curriculum lessons on equal treatment of boys and girls. They should conduct activities encouraging equal participation. Stereotypes should be broken and boys should be sensitised on gender issues. Even if the programmes succeed marginally, the impact will be huge in the long run.

In the dramatic climax of Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, a group of women charge with fury at the subedar waiting outside a masala factory for Sonbai — a village woman he has set his eyes on — and throw heaps of freshly ground chilli powder on his face. The subedar,who threatened the villagers to hand over Sonbai to him or face the consequences, is subdued by the women folk who are shown metamorphosing from the timid weaker sex — who initially implore Sonbai to submit to the subedar so that they are spared — into a determined lot, set to teach their tormentor a lesson. In one stroke, the film reduces the men of the village, including the chief, to a bunch of bystanders with women showing the way. Reel and real life are not too far apart.

mythili.s@thehindu.co.in

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