Being a woman is not easy. Not in India, in fact nowhere in the world. If we Indians have our set of problems, women in other geographical locations have their own as well. Those might be different from what we face here in India, but by no means would they be any less problematic.
To start off with, let me sum up the situation in India. I was born in the early 60s. My life was considerably different from that of women born earlier in this country. Or that is what I thought. May be, being born in a "typical middle class family"(this was something to be proud of till a decade ago, when "middle class" suddenly became a kind of abusive word - one considers them down market today, but let that pass), I was brought up with values associated with that class of people, but had plenty of opportunities to study, to be "equal" to any male member of this society. Although I considered myself blessed when I compared myself to women of previous generations, "equal" always came with some riders - before my times, during my younger days and it continues to be that way even today.
The biggest limitation one faces as a woman is safety and the freedom of movement. Older generations of women never had that freedom. Period. They lived indoors and were always escorted either by male members or other women and their mobility was limited to going to the local temple where they met other women, gossiped and returned home. Mixing socially (other than within the family) with members of the opposite gender was strictly taboo. Dealing with trades people or men who came home was the responsibility of men. Women did not come out if their husbands had any male visitors. Did this ensure that they were safe?
As I grew up, things changed a bit. The segregation was not so stark. However, movement was restricted because of the usual issues. Coming home very late on my own was cause for concern for my parents. Even if they did not define a curfew hour for me, they were certainly worried if I got home too late. Fear of being harassed by men on the road or the unspoken fear of being molested (nothing new - it has been the fear of women down the generations) certainly curtailed where I could go, how long I could stay out ..... Of course, some of these fears were also founded on personal experience. One stayed away from certain areas, modes of travel; one went out to certain places only during certain times of the day. There was a code of dressing – one was brought up to believe that women of a “certain kind” attracted “unwanted” attention. So one was personally responsible for anything that happened to oneself.
Have things changed today? Women work at all hours of day and night, they wear pretty much what they wish to wear, wearing western clothes is “in” or “cool”, wearing traditional gets one the label of being “behenji type”. They are professionally competent and may probably be far more competent than men. They are highly qualified, stay away from home to get more qualified and to work. They might earn 6 figure incomes. But all these changes, if anything, seem to be very superficial. Scratch the surface and it becomes evident that women, if anything, have it worse than women in the past. Today, they seem to be more unsafe than women have ever been in the past. Not a day goes by when we do not hear of women being molested, raped, exploited in the work place by unscrupulous colleagues or bosses or getting acid thrown on their faces for rejecting unwelcome advances from “admirers” and one sided “lovers”. They get molested openly on busy roads teeming with traffic and people, but no one goes to their aid. Look at what happened in Guwahati. The incident is captured by journalists and aired on news channels. (Was it more to get coverage or to try and save the girl)? The police arrive after being tipped off and rescue her. But only 4 of the 15 molesters seen live in action have been arrested.
Or look at the case of a teenage girl who was thrown out of a moving train in Karnataka when she tried to stand up to 4 men who were trying to molest her. Just look at the sheer number of rapes that take place in the capital of the country. The statistics are devastating.
What safety can a woman expect in a country where her husband "protects her chastity" by putting a lock through her genitals? And what hope does have one have for women like her who do not even think of questioning his actions and quietly acquiesce? Women who do not think of complaining about him to the police till its too late?
This is the state of affairs in a country where we worship a Mother Goddess, a Goddess of Wealth and one for Learning. This is the cultural and traditional heritage that we crow about from the rooftops. This is the country we talk about when we indulge in empty jingoism like “Mera Bharat mahaan”, “India shining”, “Saare Jahaan se Accha”. We never tire boasting about the greatness of our country and of our country-fellows.
Having said which, the question arises, “So what are we going to do about it? How do we deal with such crimes”? It is very distressing and demoralising when we hear women in high places commenting on the need for women to dress “decently” or asking “what was she doing in a bar, dressed the way she was at such a late hour”? It sounds no different from saying “she asked for it and got what she wanted”. So the verdict of our “educated” women in high places is out. Men are helpless beings who are seduced by such wayward women and have no control over their instincts. They are not to blame. It is the women who seduce them who are to blame. So much for empowerment of women down the decades. Are we going to wait for men to come and save us from other men and all the atrocities they perpetrate on us? (What has changed since the times when a man who had to fight to get the practice of sati abolished, a man who had to fight to get women the right to education .....)?
We obviously cannot change “society” without defining that word. If it means all around me, except me, forget it. “Society” will never change. If I consider myself part of that “society”, then I have to be the change I wish to see. Well, I have started. For one, I have decided that “fear of what could happen” is not going to stop me from doing what I have to, what I need to for my own progress. It is not going to stop me from “living”. I would not stay at home just because I fear being knocked down by a car, or for fear of being robbed or killed. That could happen to me even when I am alone in the house (robbed or killed I mean - the people who were killed by aircrafts were also INSIDE the WTC towers. Staying indoors does not prevent one from getting killed - be it by aircrafts, earthquakes, fires or any natural calamity. Whatever has to happen, WILL HAPPEN ). So too, there is no guarantee I would not be attacked inside my house by intruders. So I have to treat any crime against women (something that does not only happen only to others, but could potentially happen to me too) just the same as any other crime. I would not be the culprit. I would not be the one to be blamed. I would not be the one stigmatised. Would I be stigmatised if I was robbed? This is nothing different from any other crime that could be perpetrated on me. The day I decided to free myself from fear, that was the day I was free. I would have to learn to ignore what "others" or "society" thought of me, if any such thing were to happen.