Republic Day Thoughts: For A Gender Just World, Be The Change

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By Kamla Bhasin *

For years women activists and organisations had waged a lonely battle as they came out on to the streets in protest whenever rapes and molestations took place. The horrific gang rape of December 16, 2012, on a Delhi bus, proved to be a watershed. Finally, it was recognised that crimes of this kind were everyone’s issue, everyone’s concern. For someone like me, who has been part of such protests for decades, it was heartening to see people from across the spectrum break their silence and shed their apathy towards the biggest and most pervasive war in the world – violence against women and girls.

According to the United Nations, out of every three women, one experiences violence. This means over one billion women and girls face violence in their daily lives. All times are war times for women. It is this all-pervasive violence that has ensured that equality for women remains confined to the Constitution - just pious, politically correct words. Equality, dignity and respect for women do not mark the public sphere; neither do they inform family relationships.

While the teeming crowds at the recent protests made a glorious sight, the main slogans and demands raised seemed very limited and also very violent, especially during the initial days of the protest. The anger was towards others, towards the outside. “They” need to do something. Of course, “they” - whether they are politicians, police personnel or legal luminaries – need to do something, but what about us? What about the mindset that leads to violence, which considers women as bodies, commodities, targets?

Changing this mindset requires no less than a cultural tsunami. Before we stop violence against women, we would first need to demolish innumerable religious, cultural, and linguistic practices that we consider normal. For example, words like ‘pati’ and ‘swami’ for the man a woman marries, need to go. They all mean ‘master’/‘owner’. In free India, an adult woman cannot or should not have an owner. There are thousands of words, expressions, idioms, slang, that demean and insult women and which need to be purged from our consciousness.

Then take religious and cultural practices related to marriage. Take ‘kanya-daan’. In free India no ‘kanya’ (daughter) can be given as ‘daan’ (donation) Patriarchal ‘saptapadi’ needs to go because of it venerates the man. The sindoor on a woman’s forehead screams out her status, her ‘suhaag’, but what about the ‘suhaag’ of the man, what about his ‘patni-vrata’ (duties towards the wife)? The newly-wed woman who touches the feet of her spouse reinforces the same mindset. The giving of dowry, the behaviour of the bridegroom’s party, the treatment of the bride’s family, they are all patriarchal. They privilege the man and demean the woman; mark her out as inferior, as a burden.

We also need to reflect at the reality (not just the laws) of inheritance. Until some years ago, women owned 1 per cent of the property in the world! Economic disempowerment of women is a major factor for the violence they suffer.

Then, let’s look at the media, especially television and films. We have enough insights and scholarship to indicate how much the media influence the way we think, dress, eat, consume, behave. If the power of persuasion was not there, would corporate bodies be spending billions on advertising in the media? Feminist research has produced volumes to show the patriarchal, anti-women, even misogynist nature of our media. Thirty years ago, some of us in Delhi set up a committee on the portrayal of women in the media to respond and challenge the most harmful aspects of its coverage. We would review films, serials, children’s books, textbooks and write about the patriarchal biases that marked all of them. We protested in front of cinema halls, wrote to Doordarshan, to corporate houses about their anti-women advertisements, to educational authorities, and we were able to make a difference. In that not so free and liberal world of the early 1980s, we were able to influence things. Given today’s globalised media it has become much more difficult to do this. The free market paradigm has made us “free” of decency, responsibility, ethics, and morality.

The media, as well as stars from Bollywood, who have comes out to show their concern after the recent gang rape, also need to ask themselves whether they are part of the problem; whether they too are not responsible for the commodification of women, on the one hand, and for making boys and men violent, on the other.

Bollywood stars promote alcoholism, deception and immorality by participating in ads for alcohol masquerading as soda water. Today, stars like Saif Ali Khan and Salman Khan advertise for liquor companies but the first such immoral ad I saw was done by Shatrughan Sinha many years ago. Alcohol and masculinity both lead to violence.

Film stars Akshay Kumar and Ranbir Kapoor have expressed their pain over the recent gang rape. They should now review some of the ads they have done and realise the links these ads have with aggressive masculinity; with violence in general and violence against women in particular.

Take two recent ads that Kapoor did for Pepsi Cola and IPL, both of which glorify indecency. In one of them, he with another man order a woman (either a friend or sister) to go and buy a Pepsi for them. In the second ad, he walks into a hospital room where a friend (or relation), is lying encased in a plaster. He just picks up the man, shoves him in to a chair, occupies the bed, and watches IPL while enjoying his Pepsi. At the end of both these ads, Kapoor declares, “IPL na tameez se khela jaata hai, na tameez se dekha jaata hai (IPL is neither played decently nor watched decently)”. If this is not a total glorification of masculine ‘badtameezi’ or indecency, what is?

IPL’s mixture of sport, Bollywood and semi-nude cheerleaders has also encouraged indecency and aggression. Just consider the aggressive names given to IPL teams: Delhi Daredevils; Pune Warriors; Kochi Tuskers; Kolkata Knight Riders! As for the other teams, they are all Royals and Kings in democratic India. Is IPL all about the secret desires of reestablishing a feudalistic, masculinist world, with rich boys having ‘fun’ at the expense of ‘nautch girls’?

Cricket icons like Virat Kohli take the formula a step forward. He has two ways to “fool girls” in an ad for a phone: ‘Ladki pataane ke do tareeqe’. Virat is truly ‘virat’, or grand! He now possesses a phone to fool women. Truly the owners and managers of our media may not be part of any khap panchayat, but they seem to have the same mindset!

Look also at the violence, intolerance and indecency that mark Parliament debates. They have become slanging matches without anyone listening to anyone else. They could even pass off for our television talk shows conducted by award-winning anchors. One of the talk shows is actually called ‘The Big Fight’. The idea for this and other shows seem to be to just throw an opinion – like a bone – into the ring and get all the esteemed panelists snapping at it! How can anyone emerge any the wiser amidst this shouting and name-calling?

If we want to stop violence, establish the rule of law, create homes and societies where girls and women are accepted, respected, given dignity and freedom, then all of us have to begin with ‘ourselves’. As feminists have been saying for decades, the ‘personal is political’. We are all part of the problem and all of us can and should be part of the solution.

Without this ‘inner’ change, nothing will change. If we want true equality between men and women, then we need nothing less than a cultural revolution.

* Kamla Bhasin is founder-member, Sangat, a South Asian Network of Gender Activists and Trainers.

Women's Feature Service began in 1978 as an UNESCO-UNFPA initiative. Until 1991, it was a project of Inter Press Service (IPS) Third World News Agency. The only international women's news/features syndicate, Women's Feature Service produces features and opinions on development from a gender perspective.

© Women's Feature Service

JULY 2018

Vol. 12 - No. 12


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