Conform or be damned
Medieval mindsets still govern attitudes towards women in private and public spheres. The media glare following Geetika’s suicide and Fiza’s death shows how women can be pushed to the edge by social pressure
Ratna Raman

(Left to right) Girls in a ‘slut walk’ protest against sexual harassment of women; A TV grab showing the culprits allegedly molesting a girl in Guwahati; India’s first mahakhap-mahapanchayat over female foeticide in Bibipur village in Jind
(Left to right) Girls in a ‘slut walk’ protest against sexual harassment of women; A TV grab showing the culprits allegedly molesting a girl in Guwahati; India’s first mahakhap-mahapanchayat over female foeticide in Bibipur village in Jind Photos by Mukesh Aggarwal, Manoj Dhaka and PTI


october 2008

Women should not be adventurous and venture out alone at night

Sheila Dikshit, CM of Delhi, responding to the news of a young woman journalist shot dead while driving home from work

january 2012

Provocative dresses lead to an increase in rape cases — Andhra Pradesh DGP

march 2012

Women should not be out in public after 8 pm — Gurgaon Police

july 2012

Women should be careful about how they dress and not blindly ape the West

Mamta Sharma, Chair, National Commission for Women

When Marissa Mayer took over as CEO of Yahoo, the man who had been at the helm when darkness reigned over Yahoo-sphere stepped down. Marissa’s baby, scheduled to arrive in the next couple of months, has drawn attention to the conflict of interests that Marissa will grapple with, namely, bonding with a new-born baby versus heading a corporate entity seeking a turnaround. However, Baby Mayer has nanny care in triplicate and doting daddy, apart from material mom so all should bode well for the Mayer future.

The news of a visibly pregnant Marissa getting the job, grabbed eyeballs despite the fact that the first world and the second world enacted laws a long time ago to ensure that women were not discriminated against on account of their gender. Notably, Marissa is only essaying the role of Wonder Woman, which women have now been juggling for close to a century, when their right to work was statutorily sanctioned. Melissa’s work profile, that of an expectant working mother in her mid-thirties is very representative of our times, although possibly new in female CEO history. Women in this brave new century, spend as much time as men do, learning and training in their chosen field of interest to gain expertise. They respond much later to the ticking biological clock.

So have women who outsmart both nature and culture and become top honchos and fecund mothers finally arrived in the public sphere? Marissa is fulfilling both societal expectations and following her own aspirations. Yet, the less informed rumour of the management’s ignorance of her condition when they hired her, is an important marker of how women continue to be viewed in the public sphere. Patriarchal sensibility continues to be wary of women whojuggle prescribed roles and professional lives successfully. Women have a tough time because everything they achieve comes with strenuous effort. Finding their own comfort zone as empowered adults has been an uphill journey since women have been second-class citizens and sexualised subjects for a very long time. They continue to be treated as second-class citizens and with suspicion, despite several laws and constitutional safeguards. These checks and balances notwithstanding, resistance to women’s mobility has remained.

Prescriptive identities

The prescriptive and controlled identities that frame and define women even in today’s changed circumstances are yet to be expunged from the imagination. The unvarnished truth is that changes in legislation have not been paralleled by a corresponding metamorphosis of medieval mindsets. Accepting women in the public sphere continues to be fraught. A large percentage of men are unable to accept the presence of women in the public sphere. Nor can they envisage women’s empowerment as enabling them to lead a life outside well-worn traditional roles. Ironically, a majority of women continue to lead oppressed lives while living out traditional hierarchical roles. Women who step out of hide-bound roles and assert their own individuality become soft targets for attack.

Although sections of our country have embraced a skin-deep cosmopolitanism, the inherent schisms become apparent in public platforms where dress codes are regularly prescribed for a cross-section of women. In fact, women are accused of dressing provocatively and "asking for it". The "it" implies a spectrum of generic harassment and violence which one must hasten to add is systemically perpetuated on women and has very little to do with what women have worn , are wearing or will continue to wear. Women are subject to harassment by men they know and men they do not know, both within supposedly familiar domestic spaces and in the outside world, wherein they venture, breaching ossified boundaries.

Unleashing violence

Recently, a mother of two in Calcutta was raped by a group of men who befriended her when she went to a pub. A young girl visiting a nightclub in Guwahati was stripped and assaulted by a group of men and this ghastly event was telecast all over the country through a television channel.

A lot of violence that women encounter on the streets, at the workplace and within homes remains unknown as many of these women are faceless and rarely number among those who are counted. Oddly, the solutions to counter harassment requires that women stay at home, return home early, do not go out to pubs or heterosexual parties and clothe themselves appropriately. All of us know that such restrictions only increase the monitoring of women and end up hampering them and cramping possibilities of self-assertion. The apathy and insensitivity of the upholders of the public domain in such instances is shameful.

Break the code and pay

Ours is essentially a world which will not allow women to be comfortable in their own skin. Last month’s Mahakhap witnessed the participation of representatives from over 200 khaps in Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan registering a mild seismic shift on the cultural barometer. Decades after complacent doctors at the AIIMS unleashed the ultrasound on the Indian populace, the genocide of females in foetal stage has remained a recent finding. Implementation of laws and punitive deterrents are not in place.

The mahakhap’s belated declaration of foeticide as a crime may clear the air in areas under khap jurisdiction, but will have little impact on the stereotypic nuclear urban families outside. Khaps have only forbidden love marriages and supervised the killing of grown women and men who dare to love. Women who break the prescribed code for a dominant male usually come to grief. Young Geetika Sharma was pushed into the extreme step of ending her life due to persistent harassment from Gopal Kanda, an older married man and elected legislative member. An older Fiza nee Anuradha Bali’s maggot- infested body was discovered recently. Earlier, newspapers headlined her liaison with Haryana heavyweight, Chander Mohan with a previous marriage and children to boot. After a song and dance with all the filmy ingredients of conversion, marriage, repentance and telephonic talaaq, Fiza was dumped.

Geetika and Fiza have been held culpable, by themselves and the society in which they live. The men, equally complicit, if not more, have slid back into their comfortably pivotal everyday lives, thereby highlighting the double standard in society. Men whom women err with have nothing to lose, neither their reputations nor their lives!

The attempts to understand women outside of their biological identities have been far and few. The continued sexualisation of women’s bodies is yet to be replaced by an egalitarian vision. This cannot come about until existing rules are enforced and punishments are quickly meted out to all offenders. Extensive programmes on gender sensitising need to become the order of the day. Such remedial action alone can alter mindsets. Until that happens, sniggers, innuendoes, double standards and aggression will continue to dog gritty women stepping outside of lakshmanrekhas to chalk out new destinies or shatter glass-ceilings. Until such time, all women will continue to be hounded and harassed for simply being female. You cannot be born a woman and expect to be free. Not now, not yet.