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Saturday, 29 December 2012






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Women BATTLE FOR VALUE CHANGE in Indian society

India is seeing what appear to be the widest protests and demonstrations since independence. The political leadership, whether due to ‘coalition compulsions’ or other reasons were slow to realize the extent of the anger that broke out after the gang rape of a 23 year old para-medical student in a moving public bus in New Delhi. The boy friend she was travelling with was assaulted causing much injury and thrown out of the bus, and she was raped by several causing grave life threatening injuries and medical conditions. On a cabinet decision she has now been removed to a leading hospital in Singapore with special facilities for transplant surgery in the continuing battle to save her life.

Jayalalithaa Jayaram

Involved with the political satyagrahas, fasts and anti-corruption demonstrations launched by Anna Hazare last year, and continued until the Hazare’s ‘Lok Pal’ movement broke up into the politics a of Kejirwal and the unknown tactics of Anna Hazare, Indian society, especially the expanding middle classes, have been at the forefront of street political action, pushed hard by the media, causing major problems for the Congress-led coalition government of Dr. Manmohan Singh, with Sonia Gandhi pulling the strings.

Corruption was in itself a major issue to bring together a range of forces from a very rich and publicity hunting Swami, the retired commander of the Indian Army, and many others to the common platform provided by Anna Hazare. Yet, it did very little to really shake up the endemic structure of corruption that prevails in India, despite its rapid economic growth. But the New Delhi gang rape last week has changed all that. The Indian public led by women from all walks of life - from students to working women, mothers to social workers, professionals and politicians have led to a new groundswell of public anger that has crossed all party lines. It has in fact questioned a major aspect of Indian society that has drawn the attention of social activists, educationists and reformers with limited power and reach, but has hardly turned the political classes in India, that are increasingly becoming dynastic in character –from the state assemblies to the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.

Peaceful protests and demonstrations

What the largely peaceful protests and demonstrations of the past several days have drawn attention to is he dominance of men in Indian society, which has led to Indian women being threatened both within their families and outside, as well as in their homes and on the roads. Many a sociologist interviewed by the Indian media on the rage that had burst out after the gang rape of the medical student, have urged the need to change the attitudes in bringing up Indian men, with the belief in male dominance from childhood, which is far more necessary than the urgent improvement of policing and police attitudes to women complaints, to the protecting women in public places, the guarantee of their right to wear clothes of one’s choice, and the revision and updating of laws and the legal systems give necessary importance to the rights and protection of women.

Sonia Gandhi

Dr. Manmohan Singh

Anna Hazare

It is a vast issue of domestic human rights, especially as it relates to women, and the protests of the past week appears to have challenged all political parties on their apathy to this issue through so many decades since independence, and shows all signs of making major changes in Indian policy on domestic human rights in the coming years. The slogans shouted by the protesters and their posters and banners also showed a certain commonality in the treatment of women and the approach to women’s rights in all of South Asia, not excluding Sri Lanka, and deserves of serious study here, too. We are not strangers to politicians and others preachers of so-called social morality, blaming the clothes of young women when they become the victims of eve-teasing, molesting, and even rape.

The Indian people, and women in particular, are now showing that such thinking has long past its r age of validity, if ever they were valid, and seeks to push all of South Asia to a new age of liberty for women, not just in the right to contest elections, and benefit from a corrupt system, but to be genuine equals in society, equally shouldering the future battles for rights with men.

Human rights

It is regretted that the Chief Minister of Tami Nadu, Jayalalithaa, who is very loud in her condemnations of alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka, especially about Sri Lankan Tamils, has not shown much concern about the battle for equal rights, justice and protection in the fight by Indian women on the streets of New Delhi and other cities of India. Her reaction to the gang-rape in New Delhi and the resulting protests was a mild call for to admit the rape was: ‘shocking’ and call for ‘deterrent laws’ being put in place and the trial period being shortened for swift justice in rape cases. It is strange that a woman political leader with much experience had only this to state about what is obviously a major issue of political and social change in her home country. As stated in his column in the past, it would appear that the alleged threats to human rights of Sri Lankan Tamils is much more important to Jayalalithaa, and her AIADMK, that the human rights, and particularly women’s rights, in other parts of India, no doubt very distant from Chennai due to the size of the sub-continent.

I will reproduce here some relevant extracts from what this column wrote in October 12 this year on “The plight of Indian women that evades Jayalalithaa”.

“If distance within one’s own country is what makes Jayalalithaa ignore the plight of the fellow Indian Kashmiri’s in their struggle for human rights and dignity in their own homeland, and geographic proximity and belief in ‘common blood’ bonds makes her feel so much for Sri Lankan Tamils, as she claims to feel, there is another question that must be raised. What does she feel for the Indian women, those of her own sex, in her own motherland, who are perpetually harassed, threatened, battered, exploited, murdered and harmed in every way possible making India the shame of the world for the treatment of women today? Does this female political animal, with such deep feelings for the Tamils of Sri Lanka have even an iota of such feeling for the oppression of her own sex in her own land? If so where and how has she shown such feelings? What has this woman done to alleviate the condition of women in Tamil Nadu, yes the Tamil women of Tamil Nadu, who are as oppressed as women in other parts of India, when the country is emerging as a new economic giant of Asia and has even begun talking of exploring the planet Mars?

I write this on the first ever UN declared International Day of the Girl Child, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa met with a group of rehabilitated former female combatants of the terrorist LTTE at Temple Trees. This is the recognition given to the cause of women in Sri Lanka, particularly those women, mainly Tamils, who had to undergo so much brutality under their own so-called liberators through nearly 30 years of terror.

Guwahati episode

An Indian demonstrator holds a placard during a protest calling for better safety for women following the rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi. The woman has been flown to Singapore where doctors are fighting to save her life. Picture courtesy: news.com.au

In a recent ugly episode in Guwahati in North-East India, a young female student who had just left a bar was set upon by a gang of at least 18 men, who dragged her into the road by her hair, tried to rip off her clothes and smiled at the cameras that filmed it all. It was a scene where many of those having phones were using them to film it and not call the police, as the men pulled up her vest and tugged at her bra, and groped her breasts as she pleaded for help that took so long to come. It was 45 minutes before the police came. The attackers were arrested only six days late, after the story went viral on TV and social media and a banner was put up by the people that clearly showed the faces of the brutal attackers.

This incident spurred journalist Helen Pidd of The Observer (UK) to write a deeply probing piece on the condition of women in India, which was published headlined “A bad place to be a woman” (Guardian Weekly - 10.08.12).

“In an ashram on a hill above the Guwahat where Mahatma Gandhi once slept, and the city where the above attack on a young woman that shocked many in India took place, Helen Pidd found a quotation from India’s great teacher of tolerance and non-violence in recent times, written in 1921. It said: “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity: the female sex (not the weaker sex).”

“Ironically, when the Guwahat police eventually turned up, as reported by the Guardian and the Indian Media, they took away the woman for questioning and medical examination. No attempt was made to arrest the men whose faces could clearly be seen laughing and jeering on camera.

There was even an editor of a news service who remarked on Twitter that: “prostitutes form a major chunk of girls who visit bars and night clubs”.

“Six days after the attack, the chief minister of Assam, ordered the police to arrest a dozen key suspects. He met the victim and promised her 50,000 rupees ($895) in compensation. It was not surprising for the Guardian writer to conclude that, “such attacks are part of a culture of discrimination.”

“As he commented further, “The damage was already irreversible. Most Indians know full well how tough life as a woman can be in the world’s biggest democracy, even 46 years after Indira Gandhi made history as the country’s first female prime minister in 1966. But here, caught on camera, was proof; and in Assam – a state long romanticized as the most female-friendly corner of the country, largely thanks to the matrilineal Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. The nation was outraged.”

Crimes against women

“We have a woman President (at the time), we’ve had a woman Prime Minister. (A women Speaker and Leader of the Opposition, to, I might add) Yet in 2012, one of the greatest tragedies in our country is that women are on their own when it comes to their own safety,” said a female newsreader on NDTV. She went on to describe another incident in India: a group of village elders in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, central India, who banned women from carrying mobile phones, choosing their own husbands or leaving the house unaccompanied or with their heads uncovered. “The story is the same,” said the news anchor. “No respect for women. No respect for our culture. And as far as the law is concerned: who cares?” I may add there are women Chief Ministers in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, but do they care?

“The Guardian writer then quoted Samar Harlankar, a columnist in the national Hindustan Times who said of the Guwahati attack: “This is a story of a dangerous decline in Indians and India itself, of not just failing morality but disintegrating public governance when it comes to women…Men abuse women in every society, but few males do it with as much impunity, violence and regularity as the Indian male.”

“Halarnkar then offered as proof a survey that caused indignation in India: a poll of 370 gender specialists around the world that voted India the worst place to be a woman out of all the G20 countries. It stung – especially as Saudi Arabia was at the second-worst. But the experts were resolute in their choice.

“In India, women and girls continue to be sold as chattels, married off as young as 10, burned alive as a result of dowry-related disputes, and young girls exploited and abused as domestic slave labour,” the Guardian quoted Gulshun Rehman, health programme development adviser at Save the Children UK, who was one of those polled in this survey.

“Here are some of the statistics about the condition of women in India in a study done by the Lancet in 2011, quoted by Helen Pidd, establishing the veracity of the earlier survey: “45 percent of Indian girls are married before the age of 18, according to the International Centre for Research on Women (2010); 56,000 maternal deaths were recorded in 2010 (UN Population Fund); and research from UNICEF in 2012 found that 52 percent of adolescent girls (and 57 percent of adolescent boys) think it is justifiable for a man to beat his wife. According to the National Crime Records Bureau in India, there was a 7.1 percent hike in recorded crimes against women between 2010 and 2011 (when there were 228,650 in total). The biggest leap was in cases under the ‘dowry prohibition act’ (up 27.7 percent), of kidnapping and abduction (up 19.4 percent year on year) and rape (up 9.2 percent). A preference for sons and fear of having to pay a dowry has resulted in 12 million girls being aborted over the past three decades.”

“It is not that the Indian media has been silent about this abuse suffered by India women, although it does not impress or impact on Jayalalithaa and the likes of her in politics. As Helen Pidd states (and others who follow the Indian media know): “A glance at the Indian media reveals the range of abuse suffered by the nation’s women on a daily basis. It was reported that a woman had been stripped and had her head shaved by villagers near Udaipur as punishment for an extramarital affair. Villagers stoned the police when they came to her rescue.

“In Uttar Pradesh, a woman alleged she was gang raped at a police station – she claimed she was set on by officers after being lured to the Kushinagar station with the promise of a job…A man in Indore was arrested for keeping his wife’s genitals locked. Sohanlal Chouhan, 38, “drilled holes” on her body and, before he went to work each day, would insert a small lock, tucking the keys under his socks… In June, a father beheaded his 20-year-old daughter with a sword in a village in Rajasthan, Western India, parading her bleeding head around as a warning to other young women who might fall in love with a lower-caste boy.”

Dress code

“Not surprisingly, there are those in India similar to our own clownish politicians and overzealous moralists who try to blame the clothes of women for the dangers they are exposed to. Mamta Sharma, chairwoman of the National Commission of Women (NCW), a government body tasked with protecting and promoting the interests of Indian women, when asked by a reporter about the safety of women and suggestions for a dress code to ensure their safety had said: “After 64 years of freedom, it is not right to give blanket directions … and say don’t wear this or don’t wear that. Be comfortable, but at the same time, be careful about how you dress ... Aping the West blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen.”

“This comment about aping the west, may sound good to some in our society, especially politicians seeking popularity at any cost and social minders obsessed with Greek-Judeo-Christian values that allegedly destroy our own social values, and have said that some of the recent cases of abuse of women in Sri Lanka is due to the type of “revealing” dress worn by our young women today.

“These remarks about women’s clothes caused a storm among activists for the rights and safety or girls and women in India. As Sagarika Ghose, commented in the online magazine First Post: “It’s not just about blindly aping the west, Ms Sharma. It’s also about the vacuum in the law, lack of security at leisure spots, lack of gender justice, lack of fear of the law, police and judicial apathy, and the complete lack of awareness that men and women have the right to enjoy exactly the same kind of leisure activities.”

“The verdict is out on that (Gawahati) case, Helen Pidd states, but one thing is clear: 91 years after Gandhi urged Indian men to treat their women with respect, the lesson has yet to be learned.

Here are some more shocking facts about the plight of India’s women:

• Percentage of Indian girls who are married before the age of 18 – 45 percent.
• Estimate of number of girls aborted in India in the past three decades - 12 million
• Increase in crimes against women between 2010 and 2011 – 7.1 percent.
• Number of Indian women murdered in 2011 for not providing a sufficient dowry – 8,618

(Source: International Centre for Research on Women (2010); The Lancet (2011); National Crime Records Bureau in India, as reported in The Guardian Weekly)

These statistics appear to have no relevance to Jayalalithaa, lacking any of the feeling she claims to have for Sri Lankan Tamils, for those of her own sex in her own motherland. These are the shocking realities that Indian society has to grapple with, concerning human and women’s rights within one’s own country.”

The women of India who have taken to the streets today are carrying out a much needed and long awaited struggle for the freedom of all women in this part of the word and need a great salute and all support.


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