Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Take MeToo to the masses

LOOKING at the challenges women face at their place of work in India or Pakistan, among other venues, I wondered how Prof Kailash Nath Kaul would have analyzed the phenomenon. The late raconteur believed that our ancient cultures, including language, harbored an ugly past, samples of which may still be lodged in our DNA waiting to pop out at a tiny provocation.

Being a Lucknow-based brother of Nehru’s wife, Kamala, Kaul Saahab was a permanent invitee at family gatherings with the city elite. He was also a botanist by training and set up the city’s fabled botanical gardens where as a child I first saw Nehru.

According to Prof Kaul, certain phrases in our language are commonly used in a quarrel or even in jest, and they reveal a cannibal past. People threaten to drink each other’s blood, chew each other raw or eat one alive, or make mincemeat of the other at the drop of a hat. Even a staunch vegetarian doesn’t have trouble in drinking someone’s blood in a rage. These are all signs of our cannibal past. Talking of vegetarianism, where did we recently see a fetus plucked from the womb of a slaughtered woman and hoisted on a sword to a mob’s glee? Likewise, mothers, sisters, and daughters are at the receiving end of widely used idioms replete with sexual violence ingrained in our daily conversation.

I believe the cause of women’s liberation and equality in our region will continue to be challenged by a deep-seated culture of male violence, of which they were victims then and remain so today.

In the realm of popular culture, it has been argued that the Mahabharata was fought to the bitter end between warring men, but it is less recognized that the war was waged over the winning and losing of a helpless woman in a game of dice between two powerful groups.

In more contemporary times, women are stoned to death in so-called honor killings in Pakistan. The phenomenon is a South Asia-wide malaise. Can the starkly urban MeToo movement exchange notes between the two traumas that have a shared trigger? Does the movement against the harassment of women at work have the sinews to become a mass movement? I believe without a groundswell of informed and angry women and their male sympathizers the movement risks falling short of triggering the required massive social change. Already we can see educated urban women taking a hostile view of the MeToo surge, which is not a good omen.

As a journalist, I have met the kangaroo court of men but which was encouraged by local women who ordered the torture and murder of a boy and a girl from different castes in Barsana near Mathura, the legendary Radha’s village. They were caught and murdered after they had apparently eloped. The upper caste chiefs of the girl’s village disapproved of their love and the police looked the other way.
The victims were first hanged low by a banyan tree, and their bodies tortured before they were thrown on a pyre amid bizarre public rejoicing.

At one level, the pervasive abuse of women might seem like a particularly tribal or rural phenomenon from the past, but Tehmina Durrani revealed a different view: how gender violence and its inbuilt injustice against women has been woven into our modern power structures.

It is thus that in cosmopolitan Mumbai women have publicly spoken of their experiences of rape and harassment in the movie world, while in Delhi, senior and respected journalists are in the dock for alleged abuse of their women colleagues.

The accused men are not unconnected with their social origins, nor for that matter are the women. Part of the problem lies in not respecting the facts of history from where we have all come.

A well-regarded but an apparently parochial historian has argued, for example, that Hindus have had a social renaissance, which Indian Muslims lacked.
That’s gibberish and an exaggeration given the fact that there were liberalizing elements in both communities and both were bludgeoned by a surge of right reaction from within their folds.

It was the seemingly urbane men at the helm of India’s national movement who subverted social reforms that were pushed by a more enlightened group of compatriots. The result has been a painful one, including the challenges faced by MeToo issues today. But the paramount problem inherited from the educated elite of the national movement pertains to child marriages, among major social evils, that are pervasive in India today.

It’s a direct legacy of the interventions that men like Tilak and W.C. Bonnerjee, the first head of the Indian National Congress, made against increasing the age of consent for women/girls. Could MeToo succeed in a culture where children are married off for social or economic exigencies?

While there has been a decline in child marriage across the country, research has revealed that Rajasthan has reported the highest incidence of the scourge. It is another matter that the state chief minister is a woman. It was her mother, an icon of Hindutva, who had wanted to revive the anti-women tradition of ‘sati’.

A study, based on the 2011 census, states that 2.5 percent of marriages of minor girls were reported in Rajasthan, which is followed by 15 states, including Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Sikkim, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Nagaland, Assam, Maharashtra, Tripura, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, and Karnataka. Where is the Renaissance? And child marriage is equally a Muslim problem.

“In terms of numbers, we find that 69.5 lakh boys and 51.6 lakh girls have been married before their respective legal age according to census 2011,” says the report.

Justice A.K. Sikri of the Supreme Court, who cited the report, observed that marrying children is an offense under the secular laws, but it is only ‘voidable’ at the girl’s instance after she attains majority.
Well, when she does attain majority after dodging the early marriage trap, she meets the predator at work, home and at the shopping mall.

Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2018
Copy Edited: Adam Rizvi

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The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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