This month, a teenager was molested in Guwahati in India, her clothes ripped off while the mob of men who picked on her smiled triumphantly into a news-camera that was capturing it all. Thankfully, the incident sparked outrage across the country, even being covered in the international media.
I watched the video of the Guwahati molestation. I saw the teenager looking for help, and finding none. It happened in the centre of the town I still call home. Statistics and research have consistently identified India as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, among the major economies. This assault has finally convinced us all.
Much of the discussion, especially following incidents of rape and molestation, have veered around how social norms are changing and whether women need to respect social constraints and new tensions. But the relevant question is actually entirely different: what is wrong with the Indian male? The perverted Indian male worldview and actions are apparent across different contexts.
From the comfort of our living rooms, we easily condemn the rural Indian male. We read about his role in episodes of molestation and brutalisation, these incidents often overlapping with caste or communal violence. Village elders meet and impose their patriarchal views on their communities, such as the ridiculous restriction on the use of mobile phones by women under 40, declared by a khap panchayat, a traditional community organisation, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
But the Indian male in the city is no better, even the educated and wealthy. One might expect economic enrichment to change him. The Indian male is living the good life on the most expensive real-estate in our cities. He flaunts his imported cars and degrees. But he also uses his wealth to take advantage of illegal ultrasound and female-foeticide clinics. The disparity is painfully clear in Indian Census figures from 2001 where some of the richest districts and neighbourhoods rank among the lowest with regard to the gender gap. Further, several high-profile rape cases have featured sons of the elite, their fathers (usually) ensconced in positions of power.
Surely, we believe, immersion in foreign cultures must help. But the levels of domestic violence inflicted by Indian and South Asian men have attracted attention even in the west (this, of course, does not exonerate men of any other ethnicity given that domestic violence is far more prevalent and across more cultures than we would imagine). In the UK, it is estimated that there are 10 to 12 honour killings in the Asian community every year. Thus, quaint medieval and patriarchal practices are even exported by the men of our communities.
Maybe when we place a man in a position of responsibility, in fact as the protector of the public, we expect him to respect women’s rights. This is a laughable idea. Ask any of the countless women who have faced violence at the hands of our men in uniform, including the teenager who was reportedly molested in Assam by army jawans just days after the Guwahati incident.
Perhaps the answer lies in women’s economic empowerment. That is definitely a priority. Microfinance has enhanced the economic independence of women across rural India, enabling them to increase both incomes and assets. But surveys of microfinance clients conducted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2009 found surprising developments within the families. As women participated more actively in decision-making, they faced even greater domestic abuse from their now-insecure husbands. This violent reaction (to a perceived loss of power) was not observed in similar studies done in other regions.
We are not all the same. But we are all to blame. Even a large number of women are to blame, for ignoring or abetting the alleged superiority of the men in our society. There are other issues involved in the Guwahati incident: the role of the media being a particularly disturbing element given the fact that a reporter has been arrested for allegedly inciting the mob, in the hope of capturing sensational video footage
But for far too long, the debate has focused solely on women in public spaces and all aspects of their behaviour. Even the chairperson of the National Commission for Women suggested that women should be careful about the way they dress. This is the same mind-set that prompted the moral-policing molesters. Across the country, men worship women as goddesses and abuse them with no regard for their rights or respect. A lot of the abuse that is heaped on women is based on the expectation that women should be like their goddesses: pious, covered and restrained in their choices (actually, the goddesses rarely are restrained).
Enough farcical questions have been asked of women’s actions and choices. The right kind of questions are: How were these men brought up? Why did they have this sense of impunity? It should be obvious by now that the fault lies entirely with the men: inflicting violence in the womb, on the body and on the image of women across the country and across different social milieus.
The outrage and civil activism in naming and shaming the Guwahati perpetrators is a ray of hope. Giant posters were erected across the city, asking people to identify the men. Facebook was abuzz with people sharing the men’s photos to finally heap humiliation where it belongs: on the molesters. It is time we stopped discussing how to control women’s actions. And started thinking about how to fix the Indian male.