Gender discrimination (which includes harassment, abuse and violence) was at the top of our list of the most unacceptable things in South Asia. How bad is the situation?
Some time back we had mentioned the introduction of the ‘Ladies Special’ trains in major Indian cities to counteract the harassment of women using public transport. Recently there was an update to that story titled ‘Joy of India’s women-only trains’ mentioning that the service has been a big success.
In reading this update I was particularly struck by the remark of one user of the service: “We can laugh, we can sit where we want, we can do whatever we want, we feel free. We can sing a song, as loud as we want.” The sense of freedom that this conveys is almost beyond belief – women feel they cannot even laugh or sing a song in the presence of men.
There is no reason to doubt this sentiment and it raises a whole host of questions that need to be considered:
First, how did things get to be this way? Have they always been like this in India (not if one reads William Dalrymple’s account of pre-modern Hinduism that we had summarized earlier)? If not, what triggered the change? Dalrymple traces changes to sexual attitudes in India to the Victorian morality of evangelical Christian missionaries who arrived in the mid-nineteenth century, attitudes that were internalized by British-educated Hindu reformers who felt embarrassed by their own culture. If this interpretation is correct, it mirrors the perceptive observation of a Native American Indian about the encounter of his own people with Europeans: “We all know the Indians were colonized by the Europeans but every colonized Indian has been colonized by the Indian reaction to colonization.” And this would raise a further question – where else do we see the consequences of this double colonization?
Second, does anyone have an explanation for why this practice is labeled ‘Eve Teasing’ in a country in which the majority of the population does not subscribe to the story of Eve and Adam? Are there more relevant labels in use in local languages that might provide clues to the origins of the practice? How is this treatment reconciled with the powerful imagery of female goddesses in Hinduism?
Third, how widespread is this male attitude towards women? The news story suggests that men are not supportive of the ‘Ladies Specials’ and that it took a female Minister of Railways to initiate the service. We can explore this question across class and space. Is it largely a middle-class phenomenon triggered by the rapid increase of women in the labor force? And are there significant variations across states in India? If yes, what may be the reason for such variation? As an extension, what is the nature of variations across South Asia?
Fourth, as bad as the situation seems to be, one must commend the fact that a progressive measure has been chosen to enlarge the space for women as they join the workforce in India. This is far better than the retrogressive advice that would be given to women in Pakistan – to stay at home in the protection of Chadar aur Chardeevarii or to make themselves invisible under a burka.
Fifth, does this retrogressive attitude in Pakistan have anything to do with authoritarianism in society? Recall that the German slogan ‘Kinder, Kuche, Kirche’ (children, kitchen, church) is attributed to Kaiser Wilhelm II and is descriptive of the male perception of women’s role in society in the nineteenth century. But this slogan was revived by Hitler in the 1930s when he stated that for the German woman her “world is her husband, her family, her children, and her home.”
Sixth, can we conclude that the democratic space in India offers hope for a progressive decline in gender discrimination? To what extent would Indian women have to replicate the feminist struggle that was needed to overcome the most blatant forms of discriminations in the West? And how long is the struggle going to take? Gail Collins mentions in her new book that even till the early 1960s it was a great time to be an American male – harried executives could expect to return home to wives who existed solely to cook their dinners, raise their children and look stunning at parties!
It is unacceptable that women do not find it possible to be themselves in the company of men. It should be particularly unacceptable to men. Why isn’t it so?