I was filled with disgust and repugnance when I heard about the incident of a 16-year old girl in Guwahati being assaulted by a mob, and being molested, beaten and stripped. There was a huge uproar on Facebook and Twitter; people demanded justice, said lots of things which have been said before. This wasn't the first incident where a woman was brutally assaulted by a unruly mob, in an Indian city. And—forgive my cynical disposition—this was certainly not going to be the last.
But this particular issue, of late, has acquired several dimensions, mostly political; the Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, alleged that this incident was a conspiracy against the government. There have been rumours doing rounds - as they always do - of Youth Congress involvement. Most of all, people have been critical, and rightly so, of the so-called journalist for News Live, Gauravjyoti Neyog, for instigating the perpetrators. Many, therefore, have criticized News Live too for broadcasting the incident; while they (News Live), on the other hand, claim that had they not done so, the issue would've remained unnoticed.
What I found staggering - apart from the callousness and brutality of the incident - is the aftermath of it, which is manifest in two ways. One of them is outrage over the representation of the incident in Tehelka's latest cover. People, largely, have accused Tehelka - a magazine with the reputation of being one of India's leading critical publications - of cheap, insensitive gimmicks to garner eyeballs. The other reaction was to the series of gaffes made by the National Commission for Women, wherein Alka Lamba, a member of the fact finding team, revealed the name of the victim. Next, Mamta Sharma, the NCW chief, said "women should dress carefully to avoid crime...and not ape the West."
What I read into these two instances are two things: one, that no matter the seriousness of the crime against women, no matter its severity, its brutality, there is really no one on the side of the victim; not the government, least of all local authorities. And two, that we, as a society, are so indoctrinated into patriarchy and misogyny, will try to subvert the issue in question: which is, a woman being assaulted/hurt/murdered/raped and discuss tangential issues.
I shall tackle the second observation first. Just some time back, I read a piece in LiveMint by Salil Tripathi. While the piece itself was not something particularly profound and engaging, the comments on it, I found, were staggeringly stupid. Yes, stupid.
People seemed to have taken exceptional offense to his reference to Draupadi's disrobing in the Mahabharata, as a metaphor for the attenuated response we have towards these kinds of incidents; of being apathetic bystanders. They, instead of engaging with the issue of the girl being a victim of the assault, decided to tangentially argue against the author's conception of Mahabharata and his reluctance to engage with the political angle (the Youth Congress involvement) of the whole incident.
Similar arguments have been made against the Tehelka cover. I do not condone what Tehelka's done. It's wrong on so many levels. It's distasteful. But so was this incident. And fact is, even then, people are fixated on conspiracy theories and political coups. People took offense, vehemently so, to Mahabharata references - choosing to defend Hinduism instead.
That a girl was assaulted, brutally so, is collectively, forgotten. It's not Tehelka's cover which is distasteful; but the way public discourse is organised. The image is a macabre spectre which will haunt us. For it reflects a deep, rotten part of the way we've come to organize ourselves as a public. For as long as women's rights don't take prominence in discourse, it will remain an utterly marginalized cause.
The NCW chief’s reaction, while being utterly shameful, reflects the power of patriarchal discourse. It shifts the blame on the woman, presuming that safety of women is agentic on their complete removal from the public sphere. What this does is, it ossifies the public as something which is essentially uncontrolled, aggressive, and violent even. However, for most women, the private is also a domain of subjugation and violence—and perhaps of a worse kind. This kind of lopsided analysis fails to take into account that patriarchy is, primarily, a power construct; and, that men are as much the victims of it, as are women, albeit of a different kind of victimization. The difference is, our victimization is hinged on victimizing others—something I find deeply disturbing and shameful.
In this context, Natasha Badhwar’s piece in LiveMint on examining societal and cultural controls on women’s sexuality is an interesting read. What I took from it, is an understanding that patriarchy, as a hegemonic structure is far more complex than just domination of women. It survives by making men into instruments of domination—which is, I believe, a kind of victimization in itself.
Any understanding of patriarchy and gender, therefore, has to factor in the question of sexuality—that the sexuality of one group (both, actually) is something that has to controlled. Sexuality in India is terribly controlled by morality, religion, family, community and a host of other surveillance mechanisms. That sexuality is natural, that it is a part of being human, is completely and violently ousted in our understanding of ourselves. Hence, violence remains the only way in which sexuality can be negotiated by men; it's a crime, but it's a structural problem. And a deeply social one, too.
The refusal to discuss women's victimization as it being perpetrated by men, and therefore patriarchy, reflects the shameful lack of initiative on the part of society as a whole - and that it chooses to further victimize the woman, by assigning blame on her. Violence against women, sexual harassment, then, instead of being a result of this structural imbalance in negotiation sexuality, is ascribed purely on the basis of patriarchal morals.
Can we then really blame patriarchy for everything, thus absolving ourselves of any action, or more so, justifying our inaction? No. I don’t believe so; because that would be stupid.
Patriarchy is a power construct, but it is also multidimensional; it, at once, makes men into violent, uncouth perpetrators of crimes of the most heinous nature, and propagates women’s oppression by having them internalize oppression and perpetrate it on to others; mothers to daughters and so forth. It also attenuates the criticality of our responses in the guise of pragmatism and false consciousness. There has not been any alternative system to patriarchy (arguably, since there have been matrilineal societies and social groups; however, patriarchy's permeation into states and politics tends to obfuscate the relevance of matriarchy as a concept); it has existed since the time humans began settled life. But that should not mean that we bow down to its arbitrary constructs of maleness, femaleness, heteronormativity and so forth. More so, there is an urgent need to critically engage with, respond to and challenge patriarchy—particularly it’s ‘taken-for-granted’ nature. We need to bring the oppression of women, and the violence against them, into the centre of public discourse—and not make tangential and irrelevant arguments.
For, I repeat, as long as women's rights don't take prominence in public discourse, they will remain an utterly marginalized cause.