Writer’s block Society

The bitter truth

What can be done to make our cities safe for women?

In a healthy democracy, the government is usually the whipping boy for aggrieved citizens. If you catch a cold, if roads are bad, if your flight gets delayed — you can always safely blame the government. It is a different matter that, of late, blaming the government is often seen as an anti-national act. But it would be unfair to blame the government for one thing: women being molested in public places.

The government, at the most, can take precautionary measures, but such measures are bound be limited. Every street in every Indian city, every bus, every coach of every train, every corridor in every building, cannot have policemen or plainclothesmen guarding it round the clock — for that, a quarter of the country’s population will need to be in the police force. Or, you can have Philippines-style vigilantes who go around in bikes shooting down just about anyone they suspect to be a drug-peddler, but vigilante violence can be the most dangerous thing to happen to any country — and, in India, women in Western attire are more likely to be its victims.

What, then, can be done to make our cities safe for women? Nothing much — what I feel — going by the mindset we Indians possess, reflected in the remarks of Abu Azmi after the reported mass-molestation in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve. Azmi, who is the Maharashtra head of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, makes news only when he makes misogynist remarks, but this time he tried to get creative. He compared women to petrol (“You have to keep petrol away from fire”) and to sugar (“If there is sugar, ants will come automatically to it”). Basically, he blamed the victims for provoking the culprits. Why just him, even Karnataka home minister G. Parameshwara blamed the mass-molestation on the women’s Western attire.

It may be fashionable to condemn such men at the top of your voice, write angry posts on Facebook, put out indignant tweets — but it is all very futile. These men represent an overwhelming chunk of India’s population (and that includes women as well) which believes women are indeed like petrol and sugar. If you don’t believe me, ask your maid, your driver, your family doctor, the teacher living next door, your colleague — they will all tell you the same thing, “Boys will be boys, why provoke them?”

The real identity of an urban Indian woman, irrespective of all the other identities she may have earned, is just that: yo-yoing between petrol and sugar. That’s the bitter truth, accept it. Until the petrol/sugar identity gets erased, nothing will change, and I don’t see the erasure happening any time soon.

There are colleges in Chennai that teach rocket science, but strictly forbid mingling of male and female students. They don’t want fire to come near petrol. There are separate water coolers for them and separate days in a week when they can withdraw money from the college ATM. And, one college removed all the trees from its sprawling campus so that the boys and girls don’t romance under their shade.

But boys prohibited from — or deprived of — mingling with girls during their formative years, once they are introduced to the real world or to the world of movies, find the girls morphing from petrol to sugar. ‘Glamour’ songs (in the south) and item numbers (in the north) exhort them to see women as a commodity.

In Uttar Pradesh, where I grew up, and in many other Northern parts of the country, ogling at women is an occupation in itself, and men engaged in it refer to women as maal (commodity), cheez (thing), patakha (firecracker) and so forth — while they like to have their own sisters, wives and daughters safely locked up at home.

It, therefore, becomes the woman’s responsibility to protect herself — something not easy at all, considering that a fire can break out and ants can make an appearance just about anywhere, anytime.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 2:45:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/The-bitter-truth/article16998487.ece

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