|HER WORLD||Sunday, November 9, 2003, Chandigarh, India|
Retrieving lost laughter
The myth and reality of
A staff nurse in a Mumbai hospital is raped by a peon. The dog chain used to bind her causes spinal injuries and brain paralysis. Two sisters, aged 11 and 13, are raped by their maternal uncle in Madhya Pradesh. A woman and her daughter, admitted to a hospital in Bihar, are raped by the doctor. The traumatised daughter commits suicide. A few months ago, a trial court in Delhi acquitted two persons accused of rape since the complainant was unable to present herself for cross-examination. The accused were let off because it was unlikely that the complainant would ever appear before the court to substantiate her charges. The victim, the court was informed, had died. And the dead tell no tales.
In India, where a rape occurs every 30 minutes, psychological and mental trauma coupled with physical abuse and societal pressures lead many rape victims to end their lives rather than relive their humiliation in court. NGOs that work on the issue of sexual violence say that the incidence of suicide is high among rape victims. There are innumerable cases in which a victim of rape is unable to appear before a trial judge to prove her allegations. Although the reasons for their non-appearance are manifold, the root cause can be traced to the trauma associated with rape. At the same time, there are some victims who stand up for their rights and fight for justice. But the low rate of success in bringing rapists to book and the prolonged and, more often than not, embarrassing and crude court proceedings act as a major deterrent. However, while many victims of rape shy away from legal battles, the need to live with dignity is paramount.
While the struggle to make the streets, the home and the general social environment safe - from sexual abuse, assault and rape - for women and girls must continue at all levels, including legal proceedings, there is also a need for a specific response to the traumatised victims of rape. In this context, could an adequately and sensitively structured organisation set up with representatives from women's groups, civil society organisations and the government, provide the much-needed succour, hope and financial support for women and girls who have survived the trauma of rape? With the psychological support that is urgently required for rape victims, could such an organisation step in to prevent and minimise the possibility of suicide? Could it provide critical financial support during the period the woman or girl is unable to decide her course of action even after having filed a complaint with the police? Also, could it help her in fighting for justice and in ensuring that she is able to continue to live with dignity?
The agonising case of a young woman, who was ostracised by her parents after she was raped and put in a home for the mentally ill, underlines the need for such psychological and financial support. Often, such support could make the difference between life and death, particularly if the family of the victim is not supportive. In this case, when the girl returned home after a brief stay in a home for the mentally ill, her parents were keen to get rid of her and so they married her off. But later, when her husband learned of her trauma, he severed relations with her and barred her from meeting their one-year-old son. Left to fend for herself since her parents had already washed their hands off her, the young woman made an attempt to put her life together by working at a beauty parlour. She also wanted to save some money so she could fight for the custody of her son. However, she was sacked a few months later, when her employer got to know about her past. Now, at the end of her tether, the girl has said that she will make herself available as a sex worker since she has already been treated like one. "Yes, there is a need to have a body which can provide financial help along with other services," says Jyotsna Chatterjee of the Joint Women's Programme (JWP) in Delhi. "Our organisation has found that to convince the girl that she is not guilty and to persuade the family to accept her as a victim of violence, is a long and continuous process. This is primarily because it takes a long time to overcome the trauma. So, to prevent the girl from being victimised by her relatives, measures like this could be helpful. The government must be an active participant and provide the requisite funds."
Sayeeda Hamid of the Muslim Women's Forum - and a former member of the National Commission for Women (NCW) - echoes similar sentiments. "The government cannot shirk its responsibilities. This body can only work if it has teeth and funds. I think that giving financial support can be an interim measure to help the victim tide over the difficult period. It can empower women to break their silence if they have some financial cushion to fall back on. I think NCW should float a proposal like this because its mandate is to help women in distress." In the past, although NCW has intervened in some rape cases and provided succour to the victim, this has been sporadic. As far back as 1994, it was hoped that rape victims would get speedier justice after the Supreme Court gave NCW the responsibility of evolving parameters to assist rape victims. These parameters were to take into account the pain, suffering, shock as well as loss of earnings due to pregnancy and the expenses of childbirth if this occurred as a result of rape. The parameters, however, have yet to be evolved.
Constituting a new body -
and one that is centralised - to help victims of rape is not the most
effective way of looking at the issue, according to Kalpana Viswanath of
Jagori, a Delhi-based resource centre for women. Viswanath thinks that
while financial assistance for victims of rape would be useful, their
needs have to be addressed in a holistic way. Deciding on how much money
should be given, how it is disbursed and to whom, would throw up several
complex issues. "If some of the existing women's groups got
together and took it upon themselves to help victims of sexual violence
for their counselling, legal and financial needs, and in accessing
financial assistance, it could be more useful. This group could tie up
with banks for micro-credit loans, and persuade corporate bodies to help
out with employment." Past experience has shown that the time taken
between police investigations and the case being produced before the
trial court is dependent on many factors. These include the identity of
the perpetrator, his social and political connections, the sincerity of
the police and most important of all, the perseverance and patience of
the victim. If the victim has no family support, who can she turn to
during this period of crisis? Even if she wants to seek legal
assistance, how can she expect to pay the cost involved? And what if she
just wants to start afresh, move to a new city? How and where does she
access monetary assistance? Financial assistance during the period of
crisis is clearly crucial. However, it cannot work in isolation of a
sensitively devised strategy that includes counselling, psychological
support over a considerable length of time, and legal aid. WFS
Retrieving lost laughter
THE nature of most political and social movements is such that they leave no room for laughing at one's own cadres. Well, that has to be for how else would volunteers be ready to stake their all and many times even risk their lives if they did not believe in dead earnest. Movements need the marching song of a Faiz Ahmed Faiz kind— badhte bhi chalo, katate bhi chalo. The laughter comes but it comes later when the battle has been lost or won. I recall an anecdote an ex-Naxalite friend shared with me. When he was underground, in dire straits, along with another comrade in the rural areas of Punjab they heard on the radio, those were radio days in the late Sixties, of the approach and retreat of the Red Army. The comrade asked, "Which is this Red Army?" His companion replied, "We are the Red Army!"
Laughter was also a casualty in the women's movement of the Seventies and more so the ability to laugh at oneself. But it is only natural not to be laughing when one is protesting against issues like the sati, rape, bride-burning, dowry and such more. Of course, the activists were rarely victims but for a few exceptions like Flavia Agnes who was a victim of domestic violence turned activist. So the feminist jokes did circulate but at a time when the movement was waning. A classic one related by prominent Indian feminist Kamla Bhasin at the women's conference in the Jadavpur University at Calcutta went thus: How many feminists will it take to change a bulb? The reply was "Four." "But why four?" The explanation followed, "One feminist to change the bulb and three to document the process."
Ha-ha! The gains and losses of the feminist movement have been assessed all too often. But the obvious advantages have been department of women's studies, yes the documentation freaks, a new vocabulary for assessing art and literature in the feminist paradigm and gender pages in newspapers for freelancers like me to write in. Not bad! But now I put laughter aside for a moment because I do not wish to be termed a renegade for all times. The failures are often obvious and the gains subtle. A new debate has found its way into the society even though the road is long ad hard paved with every possible disaster and foeticide being the starting point. Look where do we start?
Not that the feminist movement was totally devoid of laughter but the laughter was targeted at the other sex. Two of my favourite wisecracks of the good old days imported straight from America point at men—'God mad man and wasn't she pissed,' and 'Women have to work twice as much as men to prove themselves half as good but luckily it is not difficult.' Another very funny one totally homegrown and told by our very own Jaspal Bhatti of the Nonsense Club fame years ago in the Sector 17 plaza in Chandigarh went thus:"This stove is very clever. It recognises the daughter-in-law and not the mother-in-law!"
Let this building a case for laughing at oneself be taken as a latest whimsy of mine. I have quite an argument to support it. Undoubtedly, it is a good thing to fight oppression. But is quite sad to assume a victim identity and this is what the movement did to many. One just has to glance at the literature and art that passes off as feminist to know the sad state of the dukhiyari nari. I hope my female friends will not mind this but many women writers invented horrendous tales about what was done to them from birth onwards because this was something that sold and could get a quick enough branding. Similarly in painting women were mauled and even kicked around in a case of art imitating life.
On the other hand survival
strategies can be laced with laughter and an instance of this is to be found in
the vast repertoire of folk songs. Here anonymous women have used satire,
sometimes gentle and sometimes vicious, to tell the stories of their lives. And
much is accomplished in these songs right from drowning the other woman in the
holy Ganga, to reminding the mother-in-law of some fling she had in her youth;
from blackening the sister-in-law's face to tossing a slipper at the formidable
father-in-law. It is protest yes but sans the assumption of the victim identity.
Hurt and laughter go together in life. Sometimes one laughs till it hurts and
other times one is hurt till one laughs. So I tell my feminist friends laughing
is indeed the best medicine and this includes laughing at oneself too.
The myth and reality of
I recently read a prominent female writer’s assertion that it is indeed celebration time because the Indian woman has finally arrived. I find the assertion pathetic!
It is claimed that all the major issues concerning women seem to have been nicely tackled and almost overcome. It is also the fervent hope of optimists amongst us that any remaining tight spots will be smoothed out at the earliest.
Right now the attention focused on ‘female foeticide’ which is simply downright primitive especially in the light of the times we live in. Most of us shudder with disgust and horror at the sheer gruesomeness of a female child being killed. Don’t we realise that the act of killing a female foetus is the same, especially when it reflects the wilful choice and preference of one sex over the other?
Even though the law has come down heavily on the doctors and nursing homes, conducting pre-natal diagnostic tests (pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 which came into existence in 1996), the practice of the determination of the sex of the foetus is continuing. The criminal act is not restricted to just urban areas, it has spread to even to the villages, where more and more women are coming in for sex determination tests. In their case, the abortion is performed by village dais at a great risk to their lives. Despite all efforts, female foeticide is on the rise.
It has been discovered that it is mostly women who decide against having a female child. Whereas a majority of them have confessed to having done so at their husband’s insistence, there are many who frankly admit to having a son preference. Women feel having a son will enhance their status in the society.
I look at the face of ten-year-old Sonia, the daughter of my cleaning woman. Sonia accompanies her mother to my house. Sometimes, her mother sends her alone as she is herself unable to come. I see Sonia, struggling to cope with the work and the severe chill of the winter. "Do you have a doll to play with or do you ever play?" I ask her. Sonia raises her large eyes in an uncomprehending manner. "Angeethi jalati hun. Roti pakati hun. Ma ke liye chai banati hun." "Did you yourself eat?" I ask her. "Ja kar khaoongi", She tells me. The only dolls Sonia has is a string of her younger sisters. I have seen her mother shouting whenever Sonia sits to eat something peacefully at my place, "Behen ko sambhal!"
Then there is the mother herself who remains eternally unwell because she is most of the time pregnant in a continuous and tenacious effort to present her husband (who does no work) with a male child.
Then there is the story of Punam (name changed) doing the rounds of the jhuggi colony. Punam was physically abused by her own father. She is presently carrying the burden of her own shame. When this heinous task was being committed her own mother chose to remain quiet because she was herself unable to fulfill her lord and master’s physical needs because of her ill health. And, she did not want her husband to stray.
Then there is sixteen-year-old Suresho, who works as a domestic help. After finishing her work she goes back home and cooks and cleans. She earns at least Rs 3,000 a month, yet is considered inferior to her brother who does nothing. Whatever Suresho earns is spent on buying clothes for her school drop out brother who either roams the streets or wastes time and money playing cards. Suresho is not the only one. There are many like her. Usually, the girl child is made the beast of the burden and is not allowed to have a normal life while her stupid, unintelligent, lazy and good-for-nothing brother is sent to school.
When she becomes a little older, the girl child is either bartered, exchanged, sold or married off usually against her wishes. In fact, her own body, life, desires, wishes and dreams hardly matter.
Another news story said:"What is common between a minor girl and a buffalo? Both are on sale in Haryana and both are transported in trucks. What is the difference? The buffalo costs Rs 18,000 to 20,000, the girl costs about Rs 4,000". There is another headline "Don’t have a son? Buy a new wife," screaming out at you. The news goes on to say "In a land where a sheep costs Rs 1,000 and a cow almost Rs 14,000, a girl is available for anything between Rs 2,000 and Rs 10,000. The price depends on the physical condition of the girl and the paying capacity of the buyer." It is not something which had taken place in the Dark Ages or in the remote past. It is happening today, in broad daylight, in our so-called civilised world.
Women remain like a Third
World nation for whose benefit a lot of welfare schemes have been
formulated but she ends up a hapless victim, always at the mercy of the
oppressor. Naturally, why would any woman in her right senses, wish to
bring a daughter into this kind of world? Since society has failed to
provide a healthy, safe and secure world for the female child, it should
stop raising a hue and cry against ‘female foeticide’. The present
world should be made a better, fitter and healthier place for our
daughters to be raised in. Let all Sonias have dolls to play with.
Empower the Punams to raise a voice against injustice and to let all
Sureshos have social equality. Automatically ‘female foeticide’ will
decline. Until then let obsessive ‘son preference’ continue.
THEY call them the freedom years. They're the years when today's high-earning 20- and 30-something women jet-set around the world, run their own businesses and snap up pent-house apartments and fast cars, while their predecessors changed nappies and washed the dishes.
Volumes of research carried out in the United States and Europe have testified to the changing profile of women and their struggle to have it all. "Women's lives have changed beyond measure over the last 50 years," says Christian Jenner of the National Family and Parenting Institute (NFPI), a charity set up to enhance family life. "They are achieving more financial independence...and that can only be a good thing."
Market analysts Datamonitor analysed the demographics, income and spending of women in eight leading markets: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United States.
The findings confirmed that more women than ever have gone into tertiary education, entered high-earning careers, and delayed marriage and having children or stayed single. "Women are staying single for longer, with the result that for many women the 20s and early 30s have become the Freedom Years offering independence and self-sufficiency," the researchers concluded.
The implication is that women, increasingly, are a major consumer sector in their own right. "While marketers have always acknowledged women to be a powerful consumer force, this has been mainly due to their role as purchaser for the entire household. In recent years, however, women have become independent and confident consumers," summed up Datamonitor analyst, Andrew Russell.
In a separate report, Datamonitor found that Britain has more wealthy women than men, with almost 300,000 women owning at least `A3200,000 ($320,000) in cash, shares and bonds, compared with just 271,000 men. The NFPI's Jenner endorsed the view that women have always controlled the family purse strings and today, to a greater extent than in the past, they provide the contents of the purse. Much of the spending of the new superwomen is on themselves, not on families, as they invest in designer clothes, fast cars, foreign holidays and luxury homes.
Increasingly, Britain's inflated property market— an important barometer of spending power—is dominated by independent women in pursuit of glamorous bachelor-girl pads that are easy to maintain and easy to lock up and leave as they head off to check out another of the world's capitals.
In general, there has been a huge increase in the number of single homes in Britain, many of which belong to women. "There has been a colossal shift in the make-up of new housing to reflect the fact that more people are living alone," says Pierre Williams of the House Builders' Federation, a trade body. "There has been massive growth in building of flats."
A worrying aspect is the fact the modern woman's designer lifestyle leads her into some serious drinking. Eurocare, an alliance of agencies to tackle alcohol-related harm in Europe, estimates that 20 per cent of British women aged 16-24 are drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week, compared to 11 per cent in the late 1980s. Could it be that their high-earning careers are driving them to drink?
Professional burnout and 'aspiration deficit'—or a feeling of being short-changed by hard-won careers, has been identified. It probably kicks in during the 30s.
Academics have pointed to high stress levels from an early age in girls compared with boys, who are protected by laddish culture and traditionally a more devil-may-care approach to life. Researchers found levels of 'psychological distress' among young women, especially from the middle-classes, had increased while those of the males surveyed in 1999 were about the same compared with those surveyed in 1987.
Factors responsible are the mounting pressure on girls to succeed academically, to be beautiful and to be thin. In 1999, a quarter of the females surveyed worried a lot about their looks, more than a third worried a lot about their weight and at the same time nearly half worried a lot about doing well at school.
The ambition to be both clever and attractive was particularly great among middle-class females, although women of other classes and also young men, bombarded by media images and peer-group pressure, could be catching up. Perhaps in the way of many trends, all this could be just a phase as women react against impossible expectations, count the price of their freedom years and a reaction sets in.
To quote Datamonitor again: "While younger women are highly 'aspirational' and believe they can have it all, women in their 30s and 40s find that they'd only be too happy to give some of it back. The perceived pressure on women to be not only a wife and a mother but also a successful professional, one of the girls, and a fulfilled individual is becoming too great."
The National Family and Parenting Institute wants to ensure flexible working hours and increase the amount of good-quality childcare. "We campaign on the whole work-life balance platform. People should be given flexible working hours as a right," says Jenner. "We (in Britain) work the longest hours in Europe."
Taking a different angle on the dilemma, Datamonitor predicted that in future, women might be happy not to meet every demand 100 per cent and to settle perhaps for 70 per cent.
In any case, all those
women who spend their 20s and 30s enjoying their independence and
delaying having a baby until the last possible moment, could be aged in
their 50s before they find their freedom again.