India’s Western problem*

*Originally published on The F-Word

The BBC’s recent India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman documentary follows a familiar pattern when it comes to Western reporting on violence against women in India says Asiya Islam

Content note: Contains non-graphic references to acts of violence against women, with some links containing further details.

When a young student was raped and murdered in New Delhi, India, in December 2012, a wave of protests gripped the country. Simultaneously, perhaps for the first time, the international community sat up and started talking about sexual violence in India. The discussion quickly veered towards India’s ‘woman problem’ – blame was placed on Indian culture, tradition and values for horrific (and ‘non-horrific’) crimes against women in the country. At that point, I found myself facing the dilemma of either siding with or refusing to participate in the problematic culture-specific criticism of violence against women in India.

I was faced with that choice again when I recently watched India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman, a BBC Three documentary on violence against women in India, made in the wake of the uproar following the rape and murder of the Delhi student. Presenter, Radha Bedi says, “As a young British Indian and journalist, I wanted to go to India to uncover the reality of life for women there, six months after a young medical student was brutally gang-raped on board a bus in the Indian capital Delhi.” I am not convinced that a brief stint making a documentary in a country, even one you are familiar with, could “uncover the reality of life for women there”.

Though Radha has spoken to many people, including her own friends and family in India, as well as women who have been victims of gendered violence, the radius of the documentary is limited to Delhi and Punjab, except for one case of a woman who was molested and stripped in Guwahati in north-east India. This is not to say that Radha should have gone all over India but it would have helped if the documentary was then not sensationally titled India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman.

There is also an element of writing and speaking for a particular audience. BBC is not available to watch in India, so the main audience of the documentary is British residents. Some situations portrayed seem to be not exactly invented, but definitely exaggerated. When Radha goes to a market in Delhi, she is warned by her friend to keep her arms folded over her chest because men are walking around groping women. While I don’t want to deny experiences of women being sexually harassed on the streets of India, I have to say that I have been to those markets and I haven’t felt the need to cover or protect my breasts.

Risking being called a cynic, I think there is an element here of “This is what our audience would want to hear, so this is what we’re going to say.” There seems to be a growing appetite in the West for stories of horrific violence and tragedies from the ‘developing world’ but little demand to see what people within those countries are doing, as a collective, to counter social injustice and inequality.

This is evident in Radha’s documentary too. Though she talks to a few individuals who are fighting back, I am very surprised by her lack of interaction with the protesters of January 2013. There is an interview with a woman from the UN, who vaguely suggests that Indian culture needs to change, without indicating how, but none with, say, Kavitha Krishnan, who has been involved in working on the ground level in India against violence against women.

There is, however, some good journalism, particularly in the story Radha covers on acid attacks in India, and I wish there could be a more in-depth account of that. Acid attacks are a very particular form of violence against women in India and are facilitated by the lack of regulation on the sale of acid. I think we all need to hear about it more, with a view to campaigning to regulate the sale of acid as well as to recognise acid attack as a gendered crime and punish it accordingly.

One particularly disappointing aspect of this programme is the unnecessarily long air time given to the lawyer defending two of the accused in the Delhi student rape and murder case. This lawyer has been known to say unacceptable things (including that no respectable woman would ever be raped) but has been widely criticised (and ridiculed) in India. It is therefore surprising that his view is portrayed in the documentary as the general opinion in India!

The other point that has stuck with me is Radha’s repeated assertion of her good fortune for having been brought up in the UK. Not only is expression of such a sentiment insensitive, but it also glosses over the harassment and violence women face in the UK. Such minimisation has already been highlighted in the discussion following the Delhi rape case of December 2012.

India: A Dangerous Place to Be a Woman certainly seems to have been made with the good intention of highlighting violence against women in India. I don’t want to undermine the work and effort that must have gone into it (especially because it’s not very often that mainstream TV channels screen documentaries on gender issues), but I would say it is a case of more of the same. Violence against women in India is not a new issue; nor, sadly, was the rape and murder of the Delhi student. What is new is the international attention it’s getting.

However, such international attention comes with its own set of problems. The global community’s judgement that India has a ‘woman problem’ not only ‘others’ sexual violence but also undermines resistance within the country. As a feminist, I’m uncomfortable with criticising those who are highlighting the issue, but I’m also uncomfortable with the dynamics of the Western world passing judgement without challenging gendered violence on an international level.


Is there a ‘right thing to wear’ and what does it have to do with women’s safety?

Comments making a connection between the way women dress and their ‘safety’ are not uncommon. And they come from all quarters – ministers, police personnel, family, friends, relatives, passersby, ‘street Romeos’. This time it happens to be Karnataka’s Women and Child Welfare Minister CC Patil who recently said, “I don’t favour women wearing provocative clothes and always feel they need to be dignified in whatever they wear.”

What’s uncommon is a unanimous condemnation of such comments. This lack of unanimity seems to stem from murkiness around an understanding of what the implications of such remarks are. Some of my friends, who would consider themselves to be ‘progressive’, often respond to my absolute opposition to such remarks by saying that there is a right time and place for everything or asking me if I would wear party clothes to work.
A similar sentiment has been expressed by Anant Rangaswami in his opinion article on First Post on the debate stirred in India by Karnataka’s Women and Child Welfare Minister.

Anant Rangaswami is careful enough, as are my friends, to assert that it is never acceptable to assault a woman because of what she wears. However, they are all missing an important point here – comments like the one made by CC Patil are not merely remarks, they are part of a wider discourse that blame women for violence against them. Anything less than absolute condemnation of such comments is too less.

By promoting the idea that there is actually something as ‘the right thing to wear’, Anant is only adding to the ideology that informs most men who don’t hesitate even for a minute before commenting on the propriety of a woman’s dress. Drawing parallels between smoking and drinking and dressing/clothes is too simplistic. It is almost as shallow as the ‘If you leave your house unlocked, it’s going to be robbed’ argument. It does not differentiate between the assertion of control over a woman’s body and sexuality (in case of clothing) and restriction over consuming certain things (smoking/drinking).

One of the biggest points being missed by those who believe there is a ‘right thing to wear’ and those who talk about ‘dignity of women’ as very easily measurable is that there has been no research to suggest any link whatsoever between a woman’s dress and her ape/assault/molestation.

There are plenty of cases of rape of women in salwar kameez, in sarees, in burkhas, rape of girl children not even aware of their bodies, marital rape within the four walls of the house and so on. To then suggest that women should take responsibility for their own safety by dressing ‘appropriately’ is foolishness.

To go back to my friends’ question – would I wear party clothes to work – the correct answer is not a simple ‘no’. The correct answer is that this question is not relevant in this context. Sure, a mini skirt could cause outrage in Purani Dilli or Virar East but have you heard the story about two men being chased by a tiger?

One of the men sits down to put on his jogging shoes. The other man asks him if he thinks those shoes are going to help him outrun a tiger. He replies, “No, but I don’t have to outrun the tiger, I just have to outrun you.” The moral of the story is there is always going to be a saree pallu too short, a skirt hem too high, a kurta too tight and a salwar too transparent and that the only actual problem is the ‘tiger’.

So let’s hope any further conversation about women’s safety is concerning the criminals and the failure of the state and police to deter crime, not the woman’s clothes, behaviour or presence in a certain place at a certain time.

Women second class students at AMU*

One would think that the focal point of any university and the experience of being at university is the institution’s library. Not for students of Women’s College at Aligarh Muslim University, it seems. Denied access to the central university library – the famous Maulana Azad Library – most girl students of AMU Women’s College graduate without knowing what it is like to walk down aisles of bookshelves, to browse through journals and chance upon that one-very-interesting-article, to explore and discover the wealth of knowledge beyond the realms of textbooks.

Confined within the walls of the Women’s College campus with all halls of residences within those boundaries, undergraduate female students are relegated to the position of second class students at AMU. While the rest of the university students enjoy the wealth of the famous Maulana Azad Library, these female students can borrow books only from the College library. The College library is not only poorly equipped but is also a closed access library – students cannot browse through bookshelves, they can only look up the reference number of the book in the catalogue and ask one of the staff to fetch it for them.

When Sir Syed Ahmed Khan founded Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College in 1875 to provide elite Western education to Indian Muslims, the issue of educating women was hardly considered worthy to be deliberated upon. It was common understanding that the institution would cater to the provision of education for Muslim men, initially at least. It wasn’t until Sheikh Abdullah and his wife Waheed Jahan Begum started rooting for women’s education in the early 1900s that this issue gained some prominence in Aligarh.

In 1906, the couple established, not without facing any resistance, a small school with ten female students enrolled on the opening day. This humble beginning was a major breakthrough for the early 20th century when Indian women, especially Muslim Indian women, were still very much confined to the home and domestic duties. This school went on to become a degree college and got associated with the Aligarh Muslim University in 1937.

It is very unfortunate that what was once a progressive, almost a radical idea and institution has today become riddled with apathy towards and ignorance of social and political issues that affect women. The institution that by promising safe space for women started a new wave for women’s education has become a stifling detriment for women reaching their full potential on par with their male peers.

The issue of granting access to the central library to students of Women’s College is primarily that of mobility. Undergraduate girl students of AMU don’t have access to the same resources as their male counterparts do. This restriction, however, is only a ripple effect of the restraint on women students’ mobility in the university. Allowed to step out of the intimidating gates of Women’s College only once a week at the most, these students are excluded not only from the library but also from the literary and cultural activities and programmes at the university, most of which take place in the magnificent Kennedy auditorium on the main campus.

Regressive elements in the university often cite the need to ‘protect’ women to justify restrictions on their mobility. In the age of Facebook and 3G internet, it is impossible to restrict mobility of those who don’t want to be restricted. But wait, maybe the university can try banning use of internet on Women’s College campus as well? Who these women are supposed to be protected from is not entirely clear because if it’s their fellow male students, then surely the university needs to be concerned about the behaviour of its male students rather than its female students?

Another oft-cited reason for these restrictions is the fear of girls ‘misusing’ their ‘privileges’. How does one ensure that these girls will go only to the library and back? The fear that allowing these students to go to the library will result in them proliferating other university spaces is indicative of the insecurity of the farcical patriarchal structure of the university. Others have gone as far as to say that the main library is already crowded, allowing female students will only put more pressure on its services. Sure, how about disallowing half of undergraduate male students from using the main library?

Besides being blatantly discriminatory, this exclusion is also illogical. Often passed in the name of Muslim and Aligarian ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, these restrictions are not applied uniformly to all girl students at the university. Girl students enrolled in professional courses like MBBS and B Tech (and hence lodged outside the precincts of Women’s College) can step out of their hostels every day and can access the main university campus and the Maulana Azad Library. Are these students not the same age as students at Women’s College? Or is there any reason, elusive to me, that they do not have to subscribe to the same traditions and culture?

There are more, equally unreasonable, and quite predictable, excuses that one can come up with to perpetuate the status quo, the bottom line being that they are exactly that – unreasonable and regressive.

I am an alumnus of the College. The first time I stepped into the Maulana Azad Library, I was awed by its grandeur but more than that, I felt frustration at not being able to reach out to those shelves, browse through books and borrow a tiny bit of that wealth. It is time that the university stops infantilising and discriminating against its female students and starts treating them with equal dignity and respect.

*Originally published on CNN IBN

Why I’ll be joining the London SlutWalk (in the Guardian)

(c) Flickr user creatrixtiara

Back home in a small conservative town in India, it would be considered perfectly acceptable to “Eve-tease” me if I went out in “western” attire (aka fitted jeans and T-shirt). In the capital city of the UK, things are surprisingly not very different – I run the risk of being called a slut if I “dare” to go out alone in the night wearing a short dress. The two scenes might not be exactly the same, but there’s a common thread running through them – you are a slut provoking sexual attention if you don’t conform to male definitions of modesty. And that is exactly what SlutWalk is protesting against.

Read the full article in the Guardian.