When the Dust Settles

There’s a glut of terminology here. Call it the Damini case.

This was a case that shook us all. At least, all of us relatively privileged urban-ites. Some of us rallied and raised our voices, and lobbied for change. We denounced the horrific attack, on the internet, on television, with friends, on any sounding board we had access to. We hoped and prayed for the victim’s survival. When we heard the news of her death, we hoped and prayed that it wasn’t in vain. Above all, we felt our very souls quake at the sheer horror of the violence that this innocent woman (and her friend) faced.

Two months and ten days to the day of the event, the dust finally seems to have settled. There will be a brief revival when the perpetrators are sentenced, but by and large, ‘Damini’, as she has been called by the media, is no longer at the very forefront of news coverage and public memory. Yet, something did change.

Moving along in the morning traffic, I watch as Delhi hustles and bustles and huffs and puffs as it heads to another grueling day at work. Life as usual. The usual ragged people selling tissue boxes to posh South Delhi commuters at the traffic lights. The same impatient honking. The same continuous, barely audible undercurrent of unprintable language from the youngish fellow driving me to my destination, all directed at fellow commuters. It’s all the same, and yet it’s different.

At the bank, a small TV set suspended off the wall blares out news of yet another gang rape. The agent pauses for a bit. Then she catches my eye, and her mind switches back to my portfolio.

At a dinner party, we laugh about how corrupt our respective workplaces are. I laugh harder than most, not being part of a corporate workplace anymore. Eventually, the laughs dry, and the topic changes to the government’s new ordinance regarding rape. The atmosphere becomes serious, not because of the law, but because of what it took to create it.

Over dinner, I talk with my wife about Nishtha (our daughter), about the weather, about rhododendrons, and about perhaps visiting the National Gallery of Modern Art sometime. The conversation turns to culture, and then to Delhi, and then Delhi’s culture. An odd silence follows. We both know why.

Buried under the overwhelming normalcy, there’s a sense of vague, barely perceptible unease. As the city pulsates and gyrates and dances its dance of folly, there are moments of disquiet that break out when one isn’t quite looking. What do these moments mean? Are they symbolic of a paradigm shift? Is our misogynistic culture finally changing?

Regardless of whether or not there is a significant change in popular culture, I believe it is safe to say that of those who are alive today, few will forget the Damini case over their lifetimes. I am nearing forty, and yet, I do not remember a case in Indian history that resulted in so bold a questioning of the status quo.

And yet, we remember in different ways. To some, Damini will be symbolic of Indian womanhood, a reminder of our ‘sisters and daughters and our mother at home’, an innocent, helpless persona victimized by a group of deviant males.

To others, she will be the one who brought to the forefront a social issue, the issue of gendered violence, an issue that has long been taboo in public discourse, an issue that it was vital to raise.

To other still, Damini was one of many, sacrificed at the altar of a patriarchal culture bent on putting women in their place, a culture that she fought against in as direct a manner as is perhaps possible, for which she paid the ultimate price.

The manner of our remembrance defines not only the incident in our minds, but just as well the very essence of our attitude towards the multifarious structures that continue to oppress women today. Perhaps more precisely than any straight-talk, it describes our view of a society which is mercilessly exploitative to any unfortunate victims of patriarchy, exploitative in ways that are much more subtle, but not much less damaging, than the one this unfortunate young woman was forced to reckon with one evening in the National Capital.

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A Lack of Nuance : Should Men Get To Be More Shades of Grey?

Imagine a woman walking out of a Delhi pub. What do you see? High heels. Lipstick. Perfume. Perhaps a nice dress. Certainly not what you’d call an average woman from Delhi.

Now imagine the men walking out of the same pub at the same time. What do you see now? An altogether fuzzier image. Unshaven Sarkari babus and suburban husbands mingling with students and corporate types. More nuance. Less sharpness. Harder to generalize. Average.

Why that difference? Is it just bias, or is there some truth to the thought experiment?

I say there’s truth there. Fact is, the average woman from Delhi does not frequent pubs. I don’t have statistics to back this up. I don’t have double-blind surveys. But I do have my everyday experience interacting with North Indian women.

Women, you see, are held to wholly different standards from men. Moreover, these standards are not just different, they are altogether fewer. Men, in the perception of Indian society, fall on a finely graded scale which runs from positively cherubic to positively criminal, with most falling somewhere in-between. For women, there are only two basic standards – vamp and angel.

An old friend, who I’ll call Amirah, had an emotionally (and somewhat physically) abusive husband. He would yell at her for trivial reasons, drag her by the hair if she annoyed him, and threaten to divorce her if she protested his actions. This husband also abstained from alcohol, was a great dad, was deeply religious and gave a substantial part of his income regularly to charity – all of which were points important to Amirah. Therefore, in her eyes, he wasn’t all bad. He just had a few flaws. She took a nuanced view, and I’m sure a lot of Indians would agree with her in that. How many times have we heard much worse abuse being excused for reasons such as “at least he’s not having an affair”? There is a continuum here, not a mere good/bad dichotomy.

That continuum does not exist in any meaningful form when it comes to women. In the view of the average North Indian, a good, traditional woman has no overlapping features with the social butterfly persona of the ‘modern’ desi chick who likes to kick back with a few beers at the local bar after work. Many traditional women, especially after marriage, spend their entire lives proving to the world that they are angels, not vamps, not pub-goers, not short-dress-wearers. They will give up their dressing style, their beliefs, their attitudes, their culture… everything, just to create the perception which they have been taught is paramount in their lives.

Why must we continue to live like that?

Let us move beyond the duality.

Between the extremes of good and bad, there is a moral void, a no woman’s land, a place that is frightening and yet exhilarating in equal measure to the conservative among us. But I personally declare, as a woman and as a lifelong campaigner for equality and justice, that that void is indeed our promised land. It is where we must throng. It is where we must find our niche and make ourselves comfortable.

Let society nurse its false dichotomies. We will, in the meantime, accept ourselves as creatures of the void, for with that acceptance will come illumination, and with illumination will come realization that that void is not a void at all. It is the smörgåsbord of the infinite shades of Grey, the shades define, shape us, and portray us as unique and precious individuals in our own regard. What could be more precious than that?

Picking Up The Keyboard Again

This Blog has been in suspension for a fair amount of time now. Certainly, there are many reasons for that, ranging from a simple glut of professional commitments, to major, life-changing personal events which have kept both of us too busy and preoccupied to write anything worthwhile. What started as an experiment ended up being mothballed in rather short order – circumstances simply dictated so.

Having said that, I am happy to report a change in those circumstances. Time is now our friend, life is a bit slower and a bit more wholesome, and the many minutes and hours required for rambling away into cyberspace have now been found.

Stay tuned.

The Prisoner

She’s up at the crack of dawn, and she knows it’s over. There’s too much to be done. Too many people to be satisfied. Too many expectations to be met.

The morning chill lays low upon the house. The drought is bitter, but she is used to bitterness. After all, it is the dominant flavor of her life, the one emotion she knows best. There used to be other emotions. She used to love and hate. Laugh and cry. Experience beauty and disgust. Feel pride and shame.

But that was a long, long time ago. Another universe, another time. She was human then. A person. A girl, with hopes and dreams. But no longer. She is now a Wife and a Daughter-in-Law. Nothing more and nothing less. The girl is gone and the emotions as well, numbed by the bitter winds of her own private winter. He hates the sight of her. They don’t want her back. They just want her to adjust.

The first rays of light hit the house. Weak and cold. The warmth is elusive. A metaphor for her own life. The light is harsh to her eyes. She, the prisoner in the dark.

She, who is her own jailer. A gilded prison it is not, occasioned as it is by drudgery and abuse. These prison bars were forged long ago, by the very people who wished the best for her. Those who brought her in this world. Those who paid for this prison. Those who thought the prison was the best place for her to live her life in.

And now she cries out. The bars are too strong and the prison too bleak. The fatigue is overwhelming. All she wants is that rope… and everything is peaceful. Forever.

———

This “drabble” is inspired from Sweety’s story (IHM did an excellent post on it here ). This story in particular really saddened me and shook me up, but it must be remembered that Sweety is not the only one. There are thousands of Indian women (and men) who are stuck in bad marriages but are unable to leave, thanks to their social conditioning and the stigma of divorce.

It is high time that we stopped looking at divorce as though it is a cardinal sin. When people decide to separate, they USUALLY have a good reason for it. If divorce was a respectable option in Indian society today, Sweety may still have been alive and well. It was the mental block that really killed her; the rope was just an agent. 


The problem with Section 375

This post started out as a comment by PT on IHM’s blog. However, as he only touched on the topic, I’ve decided to convert it into a full length post.

Right. So what is this Section 375 and what’s wrong with it?

In brief, Section 375 is the part of the Indian Penal Code which deals with the definition and classification of rape for legal purposes. The problem with it is that it’s an archaic piece of legislation which, in my opinion and that of many others, denies justice to a significant number of rape victims.  The full text of it is as follows:

Rape.– A man is said to commit” rape” who, except in the case hereinafter excepted, has sexual intercourse with a woman under circumstances falling under any of the six following descriptions:- First.- Against her will. Secondly.- Without her consent. Thirdly.- With her consent, when her consent has been obtained by putting her or any person in whom she is interested in fear of death or of hurt. Fourthly.- With her consent, when the man knows that he is not her husband, and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes herself to be lawfully married. Fifthly.- With her consent, when, at the time of giving such consent, by reason of unsoundness of mind or intoxication or the administration by him personally or through another of any stupefying or unwholesome substance, she is unable to understand the nature and consequences of that to which she gives consent. Sixthly.- With or without her consent, when she is under sixteen years of age. Explanation.- Penetration is sufficient to constitute the sexual intercourse necessary to the offence of rape. Exception.- Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.

If you didn’t quite get that, fear not. The Indian Penal Code is notorious for its complicated phrasing, which is awkward even by legal standards. Here’s what it means, in essence:

If a man has sexual intercourse with a woman either against her will, or without her consent, he is deemed to be a rapist. If either of these are proved, he goes straight to jail, no questions asked. Nothing else needs to be proven.

However, consent is not enough. If the guy used some kind of sneaky trick to gain that consent, he’ll still be in the dock. In particular, if the consent was gained by threatening hurt or death to someone the woman is interested in, or as a result of mental instability or some kind of intoxication which makes her unable to understand what’s going on, then the consent loses it’s meaning and the guy can’t use it as a valid defense anymore. Also, if the woman is under sixteen years of age, and the man is not, then having intercourse with the woman is rape regardless of whether or  not she agreed to it.

The law explains that penetration is the degree of sexual contact necessary to constitute rape.

Finally, it makes an exception in the case of marriage. According to the law, sexual intercourse by a man with his adult wife is not rape under any circumstances.

So what’s wrong with this? I have three major objections to it.

First, the law assumes that the perpetrator must be male, and the victim female.

A lot of people actually don’t see a problem here. I was surprised to see even a few feminist groups stating that rape laws should not be gender neutral.

Now, female-on-male rape may be much rarer than the other way round but it is neither impossible nor unheard of. Even if there is only one case in a million (which is, by the way, very far from the truth), the victims deserve every possible protection under law. Sexual assault of any kind is a traumatic, damaging event for a person and the psychological effect on male victims is no less than the effect on female victims. Moreover, discriminatory laws like these discourage people from reporting the crime and reduce awareness (and therefore, social sensitivity) towards it.

Second, the “exception” in the law  flies in the face of modern notions of morality and ethics.

It is monstrous to suggest that just because you are married to a woman, it’s alright to force her into intercourse. The concept smacks of Victorian-Era views of marriage and has no place in the modern world, where all woman, married and unmarried have full rights over their own bodies. Is sexual assault any less traumatic if the perpetrator is a husband? I sincerely doubt it!

Third, the law fails to recognize forms of rape other than penile/vaginal intercourse.

This is a glaring shortcoming, because the psychological trauma to the victim is NOT lesser if the intercourse is non-penile/vaginal. Then why the difference in punishment? There is no earthly reason for a law on rape to limit itself to a specific kind of assault.  

Happily, there is indeed quite a bit of hue and cry being made about it. The AIFWA has proposed these amendments to Section 375. The Law Commission has also laid down some excellent recommendations, although it still stops short of recognizing marital rape as rape.

Still, the process drags on.

I do hope, with all my heart that we soon get rid of archaic pieces of legislation like Section 375 and thereby move another step closer to a society where everyone is truly and equally protected under the law.

Engineering A Death Brew

A lot has been written about education in this country. Some positive, a lot negative. There are indeed plenty of valid criticisms – it promotes rote learning, prefers form over content in language, fails to deliver content in an engaging and effective manner, and so on.

This post is not about that. 

What I really want to highlight here is an attitude problem.

In an incident reminiscent of a scene from the hit movie Three Idiots, an IIT Madras student hung himself from a ceiling fan minutes after he was informed that he would not graduate that year.
This is nothing very new for the IITs or Indian colleges in general. Between November 2005 and 2010 for example, IIT Kanpur alone has recorded a whopping seven undergraduate suicides. With an undergraduate strength of 2,800 in any given year, this translates to more than 57 suicides per 100,000 every year; five and a half time the national average of 10.5.

Why is the situation so bad?

Academic stress is one reason. The IITs are prestigious, premier institutions. As a result of the ridiculously low acceptance rates, their students are the creme de la creme of the high school student crowd. Naturally then, the competition within the institutions is intense and is bound to result in some amount of stress. Failure is not considered an option in Indian society and the pressure to succeed no matter what can easily break even far more battle-hardened and experienced men and women.

But there’s a second reason too – one of attitude. The attitude of the faculty.

In July 2008, students from IIT Kanpur filed an application under the RTI Act to find out what the institute had determined as the cause for the alarming number of suicides. Their answer?

The IIT stated that modernization, social imbalance, irrational use of Internet and mobile phones are the chief reasons

IIT-Kanpur Dean Partha Chakraborty justified that cryptic response as follows

Parents can keep in touch with their sons and daughters on campus. Maybe there can be pressure from various parts of the society because you’re easily connected

But as the students pointed out, doesn’t that also mean that parents can provide much better moral and mental support? After all, communication is key to reducing suicides and mobile phones help immensely in that direction. With all due respect to the honorable Dean, is this not flawed reasoning?

I have long felt that we do not seem to value life here in India. That may or may not be a correct perception, but  this statement really took my breath away. When asked about what the Institute in general and Guidance and Counselling Unit (GCU) in particular was doing to address the situation and to improve the response against such incidents, IIT Madras dean of students Govardhan M said (emphasis mine),

Why are you always reporting negative news about IIT Madras? We also have the maximum number of patents but you didn’t report that. But you would want to report the death of 3 out of 5000 students which is statistically not important. Why don’t you go to other engineering institutes and find out how many died there. Why only IIT?

Er…what? “Statistically not important”? Since when are reporters only to report on statistically “important” events? Is it not shameful that entirely avoidable deaths of some of our best and brightest students are thought to be offset by the fact that the college has a high number of patents? Can patents be equated to human lives?

Parents aren’t entirely blameless either. Indian parents routinely push their kids too far, and too hard. Here in Delhi, I’ve seen kids from class VII already dreaming of getting into specific engineering colleges! Is a twelve year old kid really old enough to even decide what career s/he wants to pursue? It’s good to be driven and focused, but this is ridiculous! 

So what’s really killing our students?

In my view, it is a deadly combination of parental over-ambition, official insensitivity and immense academic stress that are working like a cancer in our society. These factors form a vicious circle that are wrecking the mental health of our future generations.

This must change, sooner rather than later.