Nirbhaya revisited – by India’s daughter

 

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

– Gandhi

              No, I haven’t seen the documentary. I did not find any compelling reason to. As one of India’s daughters, I know exactly what the conditions are that drive seemingly ordinary looking men to commit horrendous crimes against women. This is what I had pinpointed at the time of the incident more than 2 years ago: mindset.

              Let’s look at what happened since then.

              – There were massive protests cutting across class, gender, regional barriers.
              – Nirbhaya became a symbol of resistance and bravery (e.g. 2013 International Women of Courage award by the US State Department), but also a symbol of the massive failure of our system and public rage around it.
              – Public outrage forced the then UPA government to appoint Justice Verma Committee appointment. Sexual attack laws were redefined and strengthened.
              – Several apps and services were introduced to strengthen women-safety.
              – The Delhi High Court found all the adult accused guilty and reconfirmed the death-sentences by the fast-track court. The case is pending in Supreme Court.
              – Modi cabinet approved a bill to try juveniles as adults for heinous crimes in August 2014
              – Parliamentary Committee rejected the above proposal in Feb 2015.
              – The minor involved, who was the one to call out to Nirbhaya and her friend to the bus, will walk free in Dec 2015 after spending 3 years in a reform home.

              Let me narrate a true incident here. It is comic and tragic at the same time: The year was 2001. It was my maiden trip to any foreign land and I landed at the JFK airport in NY with a female colleague of mine early in the evening. Due to some misinformation about flight timings, those who were supposed to receive us at the airport were not there. We spent more than 2 hours with our luggage, not venturing out of the airport even once. We tried to call up the rest of the team at various numbers; spent time being skittish at the unfamiliar sights, accents, currencies. But never once did it appeal to two women in our early 20s  to take a cab to the address given. In hindsight, it was a simple thing to do really. But for the 2 of us Indian women that grew up hearing things like ‘Be safe; don’t go out at odd hours; avoid strange places; always remain with the crowd; avoid deserted areas’ – the possibility that any new place could be safe at night simply did not exist!

              Subjugation of women is not endemic to India; it has been done all over the world since time immemorial. But what ails India in particular are these: low conviction rates, justice delayed (and hence, denied), no fear of the law, patriarchal mindset, big social and economical divides.

              What are some of the solutions? Fast-track courts, swift delivery of justice, efficient and gender-sensitized police force, gender equality, bridging the gap between haves and have-nots.  While a lot of these are beyond our purview, we can do a lot as ordinary citizens to transform the mindsets, and even more importantly as parents. The encouraging fact is that many Indians are and have been already doing this:

Respect everyone: What every child in my son’s preschool in the US was taught is this: Respect and treat everyone equally. The first year there was full emphasis on behavior and very little on ABCs or numbers or months-of-the-year. This is what they teach 2-3-4 year olds here like a Mantra: Respect others; Be nice; Follow the rules or be ready to face the consequences; Learn to share with others; Be responsible; Understand and Express your feelings. Initially, I was a bit concerned about the lack of rigorous academic curriculum in the schools here. But now, the way I look at it –  you can live with some crooked handwriting, but not with crooked mentality. You can live with imperfect grammar, but not with improper treatment of others. Your degrees are useless if you don’t have a minimum level of empathy for others.
              Women do not need worship or protection or special status in the society. What they need is respect and equal treatment just like anybody else. Respect for everyone – irrespective of their gender, paycheck, physical appearance, class, language, culture, religion. Respect…not because she’s a woman, but respect – because she’s a human being first and foremost.

Raise equally: Indian PM Narendra Modi nailed it in his maiden Independence speech in 2014, and I quote verbatim: “Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but have any parents ever dared to ask their son as to where he is going, why he is going out, who his friends are. After all, a rapist is also somebody’s son. He also has parents. As parents, have we ever asked our son as to what he is doing and where he is going?” We have to totally do away with the sense of entitlement males are given in a large section of the Indian society. Both boys and girls should be raised to be able to cook a meal, to make their own beds, do the laundry; in short, to be able to take care of their own basic needs. I have had both my son and my daughter help me in the kitchen and at home, right from age 3. They enjoy peeling eggs, sorting out utensils from the dishwasher, cutting vegetables (under my supervision, of course), watering the plants, cleaning up after a meal. The list of chores will increase or decrease with time, but my kids can rest assured that it will not at least be based on their gender.

Name and Shame: There’s a lot of social stigma associated with rape-survivors. Change the equation. Let rape or pre-marital sex not be made into an issue about a tissue. Name and shame the perpetrators of the crimes, not just for rapes but for molestation (euphemized as eve-teasing), female infanticide, dowry, acid attacks, honor killing, domestic violence – all these are symptoms of the same malaise. Take a stand; refuse to give or take dowry. A lot of these social ills is due to the ‘Chalta hai’ attitude we have.  The laws can do only so much, but the real change has to come from within the society.

Redefine customs: If there’s a tradition that you feel is discriminatory, either discard it or redefine it so that it goes with your values. e.g. Karva Chauth (observed in some parts of India) has traditionally required only the wives to fast for the well-being of their husbands. However, I know of several friends that do observe this as a couple and for the well-being of the entire family. I personally celebrate Rakshabandhan in US every year, where each kid ties a Rakhi to the other. This is a way of saying to each other – I’ll be there for you in good times and bad. And who says that brothers do not need the support of their sisters? See further examples here of women as priests and performing last rites, again done traditionally by men.             

Basis of Marriage: Let marriage be a beautiful union of two souls where each connects with the other based on shared values, understanding, love, trust and respect. A lot of times, the decisions about marriage are based wrongly on factors like biological age (as opposed to maturity age or readiness for marriage), physical appearance, social status, parental pressure, astrology, ability to give and command dowry – in short, everything except the will and personalities of the two people that should matter the most. Unless the husband and the wife are on an equal footing in a marriage, the next progeny will grow up seeing the same misogynist attitudes being propagated and will continue the cycle.

Be a Role Model: We do not realize this that often, but each of us influences the other. Especially educated, liberal, upper middle-class, urban elites in India can do a lot for the economically disadvantaged by just being socially aware and responsible. The cooks, drivers, gardeners, delivery guys, repairmen, security guards, maids – they all may be looking upon you and learning from your behavior while you are not looking.

Redefine culture: A lot of discriminatory practices are perpetuated in the name of culture. What we fail to realize is this: Culture can never be stagnant. Culture shapes us, and we shape it – in turns. Culture is what we choose it to be. India, especially, is a land of mind-boggling number of cultures, traditions, customs. What is true in one part at one time, may not hold true for another region at any time. So the argument of not changing for the better just for the sake of saving your culture holds no water at all.

WomenMistreatment

              While change of outlook/mindset takes time or may happen instantly, the one thing that can be seen for sure is the judgement in all these cases. So coming back to the Nirbhaya case, I would have preferred if the juvenile had been tried as an adult, as done in some countries on a case-to-case basis. I definitely hope it ends with the strongest punishment for all the accused adults. I have seen the following arguments against it by various people:

Human-rights activists: They shed tears for the human rights of the accused. What about the human rights of the relatives of the dead? Don’t they have a right to closure, a right to see a just punishment in proportion to this kind of rarest-of-rare crime meted out to their own blood? Let the message go out strong and loud – The moment you violate others’ rights, be ready to lose yours.

Statisticians: They argue that there are not sufficient statistics to show that death-penalty acts as a deterrent. One can argue on the contrary too that there is not sufficient evidence to prove otherwise. We have had the lackadaisical attitude towards convicting and delivering justice for gender-violence crimes for decades. Let’s try the other approach at least for brutal crimes, even if for symbolic value, before dismissing it altogether.

Spiritualists: They are concerned about healing for the accused, who are ‘spiritual beings having human experience‘. This is a dangerous notion camouflaged as compassion. I too believe that we are all spiritual beings and Hinduism considers every being at a conscious soul level, not just human beings. Yet, two of our Itihaasas, the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, deal with atrocities on women – abduction of Sita and disrobing of Draupadi – in very unambiguous terms. And, what is our duty, what is the central message? As Krishna says very clearly in SrimadBhagwadGeeta – Fight Adharma.
             
              A lot of times, we see misogyny and gender-violence being justified in the name of traditions, scriptures, religions. But, in my opinion, our scriptures or our traditions have been absolutely clear on how to deal with the Ravanas and Duhshaasanas of all times. The question we should be asking ourselves is: Are we?