‘We have low crime statistics here’ our instructor at Chulalongkorn University told us during the orientation of new students in Bangkok. “Most common thing that can happen to you is someone snatching your bag away or cheating you off your money. And we do not have crime against women,” she said. At that point I wondered if she really meant it or if it was her English. For how can there be no crime against women in a city as big and bad as Bangkok? 3 months of living there later, it turned out that indeed it is a city very safe for women.
A lifetime’s experience of growing up in India and the rising incidents of violence against women makes me think – why is it that just across a few hundred km, there are places, people, countries where it is absolutely safe for me to be a tourist, wear the shortest of shorts and walk back drunk from a night club alone at 2 O’clock in the night. And how is it that my own society, where I am born and where I have grown up and where I continue to live makes me feel unsafe taking a city bus during the day to work?
Of the recent Delhi gang-rape case, the anger that young people demonstrated on the streets of Delhi and the solidarity shown from other parts of the country is inspiring. However, some of the opinions that floated on my facebook page were disturbing. It looked to me like most people thought stricter law and punishment would end violence against women. Not really, I say. For we already have many laws and punishment in place but this has been no deterrent to patriarchal mindsets that perpetrate women’s subordination. Yes, the question is about subordination and discrimination. Not how brutal or how ghastly the crime is. And here lies the answer of culture.
Only a change in cultural practices and attitudes towards women will change the societies which right now are terribly tilted to one side. How women are treated in a society is not only reflected by how terribly they are raped but also how women are restricted in their daily lives. The fact that inherently most people feel women are weak, less informed, needing protection at the best and loose, immoral and should be controlled at the worst show that women are generally considered unequal in our societies and mind. But these ideas about women are not the same in all societies. These considerations about women change from Delhi to Lhasa, from Guwahati to Shillong, from Dimapur to Imphal and from Agartala to Aizawl. This shows it is all in the mind and all in the culture.
The good thing is cultures can be changed. In Thailand’s history of women, it is said in their societies too women occupied a lesser position, were expected to be caring, docile and looking after their husband, children and family. Their popular King Rama IV, who tried to modernize the country somewhere in the middle 1800s, was sure that women’s status in their society needs to change for them to become a modern nation. He took women out of the homes into the economic productivity zones and insisted they lower the length of their traditional skirt. Not that short skirts are a sure sign of modernization but his logic behind this was damn cool. He said that those long skirts limited women’s movement and if they had to go out and participate in the world equally with men, they better be able to move. That I call logic. Thailand’s endeavour for the equality of women continued beyond Rama IV. In 1932 Thailand was one of the first Asian countries to give voting power to women. Today, the Thai women make up for 47% of the workforce including businesses making them the highest percentage of women in the Asia-Pacific. Not that everything is perfect in Thailand, but it is also considered one of the safest countries in the world for women both domestic and tourists.
Therefore by taking measures, personal and official, we too can change things. For this a whole lot of self-questioning is prerequisite. Let us see what frivolous-yet-having-impact kind of myths are there about women in our society. Are women bad in maths and science? Can girls rapture their hymen by riding bicycles and climbing trees? Are they physically incapable of carrying heavy load or doing jobs that require physical strength? Are women cantankerous or nagging by nature? Do women listen to music? Are women mostly emotional that rational? Can women make sensible decisions about money, investment, buying of big things like cars, house, TV? Do they know what latest gadget has entered the market? Are single women cranky? Do all women have the desire to become a mother? Do women have less capacity to drink then men? Is menstruation a dirty thing? Are pregnant women something special? Have you ever told a boy he is acting like a girl if he is whining or crying? Do you find effeminate men funny or repulsive? Do you think you have a say in who your sister is hanging out, seeing, going around with? Do you have a say in what your girlfriend wears? Do you think women are goddesses or exotic creatures? Have you ever wondered what women were doing while history happened? Do you feel uncomfortable when someone says I am a feminist?
An honest answer to these questions will reveal how patriarchy plays out in the minutest of our daily events, thoughts, conversations. Most of the time, we let these things pass our lives without even registering the perpetration of patriarchy and violence against women they cause. Yes, rape is not the only violence against women. Patriarchal thoughts and practices are.
At times I despair thinking it has taken Thailand 200 years to reach where they are now (Thailand is just an example and not even a perfect one). But I am hopeful in knowing that it can be changed. Our commitment and will to change things have to start at the personal and reach out to the political level. The recent report of Justice Verma Committee
(http://www.thehindu.com/multimedia/archive/01340/Justice_Verma_Comm_1340438a.pdf) is a step towards this positive direction. In Arvind Narayan of Alternative Law Forum, Bangalore’s word “What is particularly moving and inspiring about the Report is that it does so by placing the autonomy and indeed the sexual autonomy of women at the very centre of its discourse.” (http://kafila.org/2013/01/25/the-verma-committee-alchemizing-anger-to-hope-arvind-narrain/). And this is precisely what we all need to do.
Put women in the centre. Recognise that every woman is an individual and has her opinion, feelings, circumstances and experiences, physicality, sexuality, aptitude, angels and demons. Let her decide what she wants. By assuming you can decide for your daughter, sister, friend, wife, neighbor and the girl on the street you are automatically putting her in an automatically subordinate position. And in an unequal world, there is bound to be violence.
Although I have found many similarities between South East Asia and North-East India, I feel sad to say that this is one of the aspects where the dissimilarity is stark. The societies of North-East which were supposed to be more equal for women are changing fast to compete with the most gender violent places. Walking about in Guwahati, the similarity is more with Delhi than with Hanoi although our physical distance is the opposite. And only by accepting this and not harping on the myth that North-East is safe for women, can we begin changing. If we have to emulate and adopt other cultures, let us chose the ones that are more respectful to its members. Let us chose the ones that ensure safety for all. Let us resist the ones that drag us down to a violent future. Let this be our neo-colonial resistance.