India: In globalised era, growing malevolence against women transcends class, caste & region Print E-mail
 Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 5, February 9, 2008
CURRENT AFFAIRS   gender violence

‘Fair Sex’, Fair Game

Across India, in metros and villages, offices and homes, women are targets of a growing malevolence. S. ANAND examines why
Sudeep Chaudhuri

OUTRAGING THE modesty of a woman: that’s how Section 154 of the Indian Penal Code sees most crimes against women. We run into the phrase quite often: in 2006, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) logged 19,348 cases of rape from across India, up from 15,847 in 2005. And these are just the reported cases ­ 71 percent of these crimes go unreported for fear of stigma and repercussions. According to the 2006 NCRB statistics, 18 women endured sexual violence in one form or another every hour. 2006 was also the year when dowry deaths, the rallying point for the women’s movement in the 1970s, accounted for the lives of 7,618 women, a 12.2 percent increase over 2005.

In urban India, as more and more women take up jobs, drive cars and bikes, work nightshifts at BPOs and opt to live on their own, men seem both unprepared and unwilling to accept this public visibility and independence. These, however, are not necessarily men from small towns or the underclass, as popular perception would sometimes have it. After the New Year’s Eve incident in Mumbai, where a mob of about 70 groped two women in up-market Juhu, media reports emphasised that 12 of the 14 arrested were “school dropouts from the lower middle class”, implying that class envy or a supposed lack of educated sensibility lay behind the offence.

But the insecurity women live with is not the doing of the average auto-rickshaw driver alone, adjusting his rearview mirror to view a passenger’s bosom. As another theory has it, the urban sexual predator is often the nouveau riche male, inebriated on his big bucks, big cars and sometimes on strong beer ­ the murder of Jessica Lall has come to typify the syndrome. Yangskit, a college student in Delhi, recalls a harrowing incident. “A friend was looking to rent a house. The property dealer took her to the top floor and tried to assault her. She cried about it for days afterwards, but could not muster the courage to complain to the police.” After all, the police are often the aggressors. According to the National Commission for Women, of the 5,462 complaints they received in 2003-2004, 213 cases were about police harassment.
Just what is‘eve teasing’?

How have you felt every time you ignored a stranger’s eyes boring through your clothes? How often have you been witness to “eve teasing”? How many times have you whistled, leched at, stalked or made lewd comments at a girl or a woman on the streets “just for fun”? The Blank Noise Project ran an online poll asking respondents what specific acts they thought constituted sexual harassment.

Here are some of the results:

Staring 66%
Whistling 79%
Staring at breasts 81%
Talking to breasts 80%
Rating 50%
Passing lewd comments 82%
Singing suggestive songs 66%
Rubbing 86%
Groping 81%
'Accidentally' touching 76%
Flashing 75%
Blowing kisses 81%
Making kissing sounds 82%
Stalking 73%
Fingering 78%
Masturbating in open view 74%
Adjusting rearview mirror 50%
Unsolicited conversation 55%
Unsolicited photography 77%
Spitting 49%
Winking 75%
Crashing vehicles 70%
Honking to get attention 70%
Following a woman driver 76%


Policemen, judges, parents and society at large tend to concur that a woman who has been subjected to sexual violence is herself to blame, not her assaulters, for offering such “provocations” as her dress, or her being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Blank Noise, a popular blog that seeks to address street harassment, initiated a project to refute the dress theory. Students from Bangalore’s Srishti School of Art and Design Technology asked women for images of clothes they were wearing while being harassed. The results proved that clothes have little to do with molestation. Yet, in July 2007, the Delhi Police issued a booklet entitled “Security Tips for Northeast Students/Visitors in Delhi”, advising girls from the region to avoid wearing any “revealing dress”, ostensibly to help them “feel safe on the streets of India’s capital”.

IN KARNATAKA, acid seems to have emerged as the latest weapon against women. The Campaign and Struggle against Acid Attacks on Women (CSAAAW) lists the cases of 65 women across class and caste attacked with acid in the state since 1999. Nine of these women have died. “There is no specific section in the IPC under which acid attack cases are lodged. Currently, cases are booked under IPC 307 (attempt to murder) or IPC 326 (causing permanent grievous injury),” says Sheela Ramanathan, a CSAAAW member.

The agony is long-lasting, the scars are permanent and justice is rare. Haseena was attacked by her former boss, Joseph Rodrigues, when she was 19 years old. Haseena had wanted a change of job; Rodrigues opposed her decision and, when she went ahead nonetheless, poured two litres of concentrated sulphuric acid on her. Seven years and over 15 operations later, Haseena is blind. Her lips, nose and hair had to be grafted anew. Grappling with extensive deformities, Haseena’s courage and determination ensured that Rodrigues was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Not many acid attack victims are able to persevere till justice is done ­ several die for simple want of medical facilities. “Though women face acid attacks regardless of caste and class background, it is these factors that ultimately determine a woman’s access to medical facilities and support from women’s organisations,” says Sushma from the Bangalore-based Samanatha Mahila Vedike. Burnt Not Defeated, a CSAAAW study, says district hospitals usually lack the facilities to treat victims of normal burns, forget acid attack survivors.

Reflecting on the media’s new, vigilante interest in crimes against women, especially those reported in urban centres, Rekha Pappu, who is associated with Hyderabad’s Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies, wonders if such coverage would unwittingly contribute to “the sense of the ever-present danger that women are constantly warned about and which becomes part of their self-disciplining. Does it once again turn them into an endangered category in need of protection rather than social agents who, at times, may also need support?”

According to Pappu, media depictions tend to freeze our understanding of violence as an act of bodily, and more narrowly, sexual harm. “What of the seemingly banal fact that in a world that caters to male needs, many women have to hold their bladders from 9 to 5 if they are to hold their jobs? Violence is perhaps too strong a word to apply to this latter scenario but the long-term harm done to the woman is probably more here.”

What again goes largely unnoticed is that most educated, middle-to-upper-class men in urban India abuse their partners at home. Domestic violence is perhaps our largest unreported crime. Though India is one of the few countries that legally recognises domestic violence, with the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act passed in 2006, this has had little deterrent effect. In the National Family Health Survey-III, carried out during 2005-06, Bihar recorded the highest rate of marital violence against women ­ 59 percent, offset against a national average of 37 percent.

According to Shruti Singh, an advocate at the Patna High Court, “For women, whether in towns or villages, the home is no more unsafe than the street, but the State is lax about implementing the Domestic Violence Act.” Most lawyers and judicial officers are yet to fully understand the law, and are even averse to taking up the cases of women since they are not very remunerative.”

Coming together A protest in Karnataka against the rise in acid attacks on women

THE STORY is no different in Kerala, despite its famed development and literacy model. According to a five-city survey of domestic violence by the International Centre for Research on Women and International Clinical Epidemiologist Network, Thiruvananthapuram ranked first with a 64 percent prevalence rate in urban non-slum areas, and 71 percent in rural areas.

Another government-initiated study on gender- based violence in the state revealed that 40 percent respondents had experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives. Bina Agarwal, professor of economics at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University, says, “When women own land or a house it dramatically reduces their risk of being subjected to domestic violence. Property ownership, even of a small piece of land, gives them better protection than they would have if they simply worked for low wages or on the family field. But economic independence in itself is an insufficient deterrent to the kind of street violence against women that the media has been reporting.”

All this has an unacknowledged effect on the economy as well. Despite the 10-percent growth rate boasts, women do not seem to contribute much to this high-performance boom. India figures in the bottom ten of an international ranking of women’s participation in the economy, based on labour force participation, wage parity, income, and the relative numbers of legislators, senior officials, managers and professional and technical workers. Compiled annually by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the 2007 Gender Gap Index report named only six other countries as faring worse ­ Iran, Bahrain, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Though statistics seriously under-report female labour participation, the WEF data is something most neo-liberals swear by.

WITH SUCH entrenched patriarchal attitudes, it is not surprising that there are also increased attacks on foreign women tourists. Less than a month into 2008, there have been at least eight reported cases of sexual assaults on foreigners. In response to such attacks, Uttar Pradesh’s Tourist Police Bureau was launched in September last year, days after the rape of two Japanese women in Agra, home to the very symbol of Indian tourism. Currently 10 states have tourist police to deal with this issue.

Anupama Rao, who is researching the interstices of gender and caste at Barnard College, Columbia University, points out that it is often assumed that “violence against women” is trans-historical. “Yet in these globalising times, what might be worth noticing are new formations of anti-women violence and new sites for its enactments. For instance, consumer culture, advertising, and the putative opening up of public spaces to women have produced yet more surreptitious forms of gender violence. These include everything from sexual harassment on the job to new forms of psychic violence that target female bodies through conceptions of beauty, desirability, etc.”

Crimes against women in much of rural India do not have their roots in what is perceived to be the “liberal, permissive, consumerist” culture that pervades “developed, metropolitan India”. Binay Kanth, chairman of the Bihar unit of the People’s Union for Civil Rights, says that, in his state, such crimes are essentially the result of feudal attitudes and caste inequalities. “Women from subaltern castes have traditionally been the targets of rape and murder by upper-caste males, bent on imposing their superiority and suppressing voices of protest.” The 2006 gang-rape and lynching of Dalit women in Kherlanji village in Maharashtra had its cause in the refusal of the woman-headed Bhotmange family to sign away their land to caste Hindus.

Escapes seem to come only in the realm of the imagination, in utopian fiction. In 1905, Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain wrote a short story, Sultana’s Dream, where men are locked away in seclusion and women run everything, where technology enables labourless farming and flying cars, where a workday is just two hours and a religion of love and truth prevails. More than a hundred years later, Sultana continues to dream a world away from everyday nightmares.

With Neha Dixit, Morgan Harrington, Anand ST Das, KA Shaji, Sanjana and Teresa Rehman
From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 5, Dated Feb 09, 2008