Resisting the Patriarchal ‘Lines of Control’

(A version of this article appeared in the February issue of Hard News.)

“Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it.” – V I Lenin

‘Middle class selective outrage’; ‘lynch mob mentality’; ‘macho protectiveness’; ‘coexistence of placards demanding women’s autonomy with those demanding castration for rapists’ – these are the ways in which some sceptics have described the ongoing movement against sexual violence. Activists of women’s movements and students’ movement who have chosen to identify with this movement have been accused of romanticising what is actually a dangerous mob phenomenon.

Why should the prospect of contradictory consciousness in a mass movement worry us so much? Thinking about this question brought me, inevitably, to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who wrote of this inevitable contradictory consciousness: “The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed.”

This contradiction, this conflict, is the stuff out of which political transformation and radicalization is made. On the streets, I saw it in action many a time. Let me recount one occasion. On 29 December, the day the young fighter finally succumbed to her injuries, we gathered at Jantar Mantar in condolence. To begin with, our appeals to desist from shrill sloganeering were snubbed rudely by a small group that was seeking to control the Jantar Mantar space. We moved away a small distance, and joined some young women sitting quietly on the ground with tears in their eyes. Gradually, the circle of people sitting in silence and grief swelled, as people spontaneously gravitated to that space of gravity and reflection. And gradually, from among them, rose the songs and slogans of freedom, and towards afternoon, the voices of young women speaking their minds. A young man at that gathering came up to me, wanting to talk. “I have been at the protest every day,” he said, “and I fully support the struggle for women to be safe from violence. But I’m disturbed by the slogans of ‘freedom’ being raised. If my sister is free to dress or go out with anyone, won’t it put her at risk? I just can’t help feeling disturbed by the idea of her freedom.” His admission of his discomfort was disarming in its honesty, and we talked for a time about why this idea of women’s freedom was disconcerting. On my asking, he admitted that before his participation in the movement, he could not recall having felt similarly disturbed before: the different rules for women and men in our society had seemed quite natural and right. “Embrace that feeling of disturbance,” I urged, “and see where it takes you.” After all, that disturbance was a crack in the edifice of patriarchal commonsense: a moment when patriarchal certainties turned shaky and doubts were born.

There were many other occasions, of course. My favourite is the one documented by Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Kafila, where a man with a Yamraj mask listened to speeches disagreeing with the death penalty demand, took off his mask, tore up his own placard, and took up a placard saying ‘Death penalty is not the solution.’

When Slogans of ‘Freedom’ Annotated the Slogans for ‘Justice’

The slogan of ‘We Want Justice,’ initially, was taken to mean only punishment – even hanging – for rapists. At that point, it seemed that the rulers and MPs – from Congress, BJP, and other parties too - were quite happy to be seen endorsing it. As long as ‘justice’ meant ‘death penalty,’ as long as women wanted ‘safety’ and ‘protection,’ few in Government or Parliament seemed to have any problems with it.

But then, almost immediately, the slogans of ‘We Want Freedom’ began to expand the boundaries of ‘justice’, with women raising placards saying ‘Woh kare to stud, main karun to slut? (If he does it he’s a stud, if I do it I’m a slut?)’ and ‘Don’t teach me how to dress, teach men not to rape.’ And the men responded too. We saw one young man carrying a placard saying, ‘When we men wear muscle shirts, women do not rape us.’ And we watched as the slogan of ‘freedom’ was taken up with enthusiastic variations, demanding the freedom to be born, to be fed, to study, to work, to have control over property and money, to dress according to one’s choice, to love, to choose a partner irrespective of caste or gender, to give birth to a girl-child, to control one’s own reproduction and sexuality, to free oneself from abusive or unsatisfactory marriages, to be free of the fear of violence at home and in public spaces, to protest without the fear of state repression and custodial violence.

And as soon as the slogans of ‘freedom’ began to make themselves heard, the polite pretence of the rulers and reactionaries came apart at the seams, giving way to sheer raw misogynistic reaction. Also, these statements had a calculated political intent: to reach out to and organize the constituency of patriarchal backlash to the movement for women’s equality and freedom. The slogan of women’s freedom touches a raw nerve precisely because there is an intimate relationship between power and patriarchy. Patriarchy and women’s unfreedom makes it possible to exploit women’s unpaid labour in the household and even in jobs like the National Rural Health Mission; and to pay women less for the same work. In India, neoliberal policies have made life worse for women, not because they have imposed too much modernity on women – but rather, because they have failed to usher in a healthy and thoroughgoing modernity, choosing instead to strengthen, exploit, and profit from existing structures of gender oppression.

There is a very deliberate effort now to contain the impulse for freedom; to re-impose patriarchal strictures on women in the name of ‘safety.’ From all over the country, there is disturbing news of bans on mobiles, dress codes, bans on schoolgirls speaking to schoolboys; women’s hostel curfews being tightened; and so on. But this is not happening uncontested. This time, thanks to the movement, these things are being debated spiritedly and resisted. At a meeting in a prominent Delhi University women’s college recently, women residents of the hostel spiritedly and openly rebelled against the move to advance their hostel curfew timings by an hour. ‘Men rape; why, then, are women locked up?’ was the outcry.

And this impulse for freedom is by no means an exclusively urban phenomenon. In rural Haryana and Bihar, after dalit schoolgirls were gang-raped by dominant castes some months ago, our activists found that schoolgirls had participated in protests in huge numbers. And one anxiety foremost among these young girls was that the threat of sexual violence would result in curbs on their right to attend school and coaching classes.

The ideological assault on women’s freedom is also deliberate. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s ‘Bharat/India’ remarks were defended by BJP leaders who said he only wanted to say that Indian culture respected women, and it was Western culture that led to rape. But the double standards are rather glaring: Bhagwat and his brigade, wearing khaki shorts (very much ‘Western’ in origin), while telling women not to embrace modernity, which they brand as ‘Western’. We may recall the RSS founder Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts; in the chapter ‘Call to the Motherhood’, Golwalkar deplores ‘modernity’ in Indian women. According to Golwalkar, women who enjoy the freedom and equality of modernity, lack in virtue and think that ‘modernism lies in exposing their body more and more to the public gaze’!

Bhagwat also held forth about women being contractually bound to do housework for their husbands. Later, he clarified that he meant this as a criticism of ‘Western’ marriages, not as a prescription for all marriages. Well, what is the RSS model for an ideal Indian marriage? Krishna Sharma, leader of the VHP Women’s Wing, elaborated in an interview, “It is the man who must earn and support his family (while the women manages the household), his education is more important. This division of labour is natural.” (Quoted in Women and the Hindu Right: a collection of essays, Ed. Tanika Sarkar and Urvashi Butalia. New Delhi, Kali for Women, 1995, pp: 331-335) In the same interview, Sharma had defended wife-beating, saying, “Don’t parents admonish their children for misbehaviour? Just as a child must adjust to his/her parents, so must a wife act keeping in mind her husband’s moods and must avoid irritating him.” And Sharma’s words have been echoed verbatim by Sharda, a Rashtriya Sevika Sangh activist when a reporter of Outlook recently asked her about wife beating (‘Holier Than Cow,’ Outlook, January 28, 2013).

The ongoing movement began, for many, with a moment of empathy: with the thought, “It could have been me on that bus.” Day by day, that embrace of empathy grew wider. On the streets, among scores of protesters we were meeting for the first time, we spoke of Soni Sori, of Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange, of Kunan Poshpora, of Neelofer and Aasiya, of Thangjam Manorama, of the Muslim women raped in Gujarat 2002; of the rapes of dalit women in Haryana; of the rapes of LGBTI people in police custody. We spoke of the many contexts of power in which rape occurs. Rape happens to remind you that you’re a woman; sometimes it happens to remind you you’re a dalit woman; a Muslim woman; a ‘deviant’ person; a woman from the ‘enemy’ community while the rapist in uniform represents the Indian state.

What this movement has done is to make visible the many ‘Laxman rekhas’ (or ‘Lines of Control’) in our country. The Laxman rekha (LOC) for women; but also the Laxman rekha (LOC) for protest and dissent, which, if you cross, you’re met with tear gas, batons – and, anywhere outside the national capital, bullets and outright bloodshed. What’s happened is that these ‘Laxman rekhas’ and LOCs can no longer appear ‘natural’ – each of them is being met with defiance and resistance.

Box matter

Struggle Against Sexual Harassment in BHU

Ironically, at a time when there is a nationwide movement against sexual violence and gender bias, the Administration remains a mute spectator to sexual crimes against women students within the campus of BHU, a reputed Central University.

The latest case in point is the incident of molestation on January 24 when some women students passing near the Birla Hostel were subjected to molestation and abuse by a group of boys belonging to that hostel. The girls complained to the Proctorial Board but shockingly the culprits abused and threatened the girls in the very presence of the Chief Proctor. The authorities cross-questioned the girls as if they were the culprits and not the victims. Even after the intervention of some teachers the culprits, said to be close to a Minister in the State government, went scot-free although the victim women have lodged a complaint naming the culprits. Incensed by this injustice, around 100-125 students gherao-ed the Vice-Chancellor and after about 4 hours of protest the VC assured the students that a Women’s Cell would be constituted and the guilty would be punished.

The question is, when will these promises be fulfilled? It is shocking that in spite of Supreme Court’s Visakha directives, a premier institute like BHU does not have a Women’s Cell till now. In spite of the assurances, no action has been taken against the culprits till date. The women students of BHU face many obstacles in their struggle for the right to study in an atmosphere of freedom without fear. In the name of security, what they get is instructions to be back in their hostels by 7 PM! BHU is not only a reputed national institution, it is also a Central University. Therefore, if the University does not act to punish the culprits due to local pressures, it is the duty of the Central government and the HRD ministry to intervene and ensure proper action against the culprits.

On 29 January, the women students met the SSP of Varanasi to demand action against the culprits, but he responded by asking, “Why did the women students have to walk on that particular road? Why are women becoming political leaders? No sexual harassment has occurred.” He also threatened action against a Hindi daily that has been reporting on the incident and its aftermath.

On February 1st, AISA held a protest meeting at Lanka (the gate of BHU), which was addressed by JNUSU VP Meenakshi Gohain, AISA National President Sandeep Singh, AISA’s UP Secretary Ramayan Ram, and AISA leader Sarita Patel, as well as women students of BHU.

On 9th February, the ‘Bekhauf Azadi Aur Adhikar Manch’ (Platform for Fearless Freedom and Rights) held a public meeting against gender violence, the Delhi gang-rape, and the Justice Verma recommendations. Addressing the meeting, Dr. Madhu Kushwaha of the Education Faculty, BHU, challenged the notion that ‘provocation’ by women led men to rape. Kumud Ranjan, of the Sociology Department of BHU talked about the revolutionary spirit of the movement sparked off in Delhi. Shahina Rizvi, former head of the Urdu department, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth University scoffed at the idea of clothes being liked to rape, pointing that when she was young and went to university in a burqa, she and her friends still faced harassment and violence. Prashant Shukla, of the Mechanical Engineering Department, IIT, BHU, explained the path-breaking features of the Justice Verma report. The meeting was also addressed by research scholars Mitali and Pragya, post graduates Soni, Ali Ayaz, and Vibha who recited a poem on rape culture, Law student Nitesh, and Hindi department students Astha and Shweta who recounted their recent experiences of facing sexual harassment and intimidation. The meeting was conducted by Kusum Verma of AIPWA.

In Lucknow University, AISA conducted a poetry reading session with the theme of ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ (Fearless Freedom).

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