2013 will go down in the modern history of India as one of the most eventful years for women in this country. In the aftermath of the 16 December gang rape in the national capital, women’s rights to safety, freedom and dignity are being discussed at a pace never experienced before. In the national print and electronic media the ‘cause of women’ is being championed like never before. Amidst this hullabaloo, however, the glaring irony of our times raises its head.
Women, unfortunately, are still being used as pawns, or at least their cause is. Take for example the case of the Delhi assembly elections. While it is heart-warming to see women’s issues being incorporated into the campaigns of the AAP and the BJP, the manner in which it is being done is enough to make one cringe in revulsion. The AAP seems to be threatening that if we don’t elect them to power, women will keep getting raped. The BJP’s refrain is similar. Unsurprisingly, none of these parties have pitched a substantial number of women candidates, and that is where the bubble bursts. Women’s issues are being considered ‘fashionable’ to woo first-time voters and also to make the men in the party appear in a better light. Women are being used as a Machiavellian prop to aid the masculinist design of society.
Worse than this insincerity is the trend of using women as front-line defences for the errors, cognisable or otherwise, of men. It all started with the December protests. When ministers and police officials were being questioned on the lapses and apathy, they promptly began to display the “daughter” badge as the shield of Achilles. Manmohan Singh, Sushil Kumar Shinde, RPN Singh and many senior police and civil officials used the daughter card to assuage the exponentially rising anger on the roads.
The trend takes a more appalling form when women are made to bear the brunt of the blunders and crimes of men. The biggest example is that of Shoma Chaudhury, who has been on the receiving end for the misdoings of her boss. With Tarun Tejpal’s alleged sexual assault dominating the headlines, Chaudhury has metamorphosed into an apologist, willingly or by force. And this seems to be the most unfortunate fallout of the entire episode. The crusader of justice that Chaudhury was once seen to be now appears silenced by corporate loyalty. Oddly, her alleged attempts to trivialise the matter have deflected the anger and disgust that should have met Tejpal in face. One can’t help but feel sorry for a situation wherein the woman’s job is to make the erring man appear better.
Something similar was done by Pranab Mukherjee’s daughter Sharmistha when her brother Abhijit infamously insulted and dismissed women protesting after the Delhi gang rape as ‘dented and painted’. While the man remained brazen and insensitive, the woman apologised on his behalf. She tried to convince the public that her brother was not the crude misogynist he was construed to be. Powerful women, free thinking women, turning into apologists for the crimes of men against other women is the biggest travesty of women's empowerment.
The issues of women’s privacy, security, and empowerment are all up for grabs nowadays. Whether it is the Gujarat stalking case or the numerous assaults on women happening everyday across the nation, every incident is being milked to gain maximum political mileage. Platitudes and false promises are offered aplenty on live debates, and yet little translates into legislation. Women seem to exist only for the self-serving narratives of men: men as saviours, men as tragic heroes and men that care. Where is the real engagement with the issues?
It is appalling to see the Ministry of Women and Child Development almost on the verge of being defunct under the current minister Ms Krishna Tirath. Last month, her French counterpart Najat Vallaud-Belkacem demonstrated during her very short trip to Delhi how legislators must engage with the issues they are responsible for. Neither putting Tirath, a woman, in charge of the ministry, nor merely attacking her inefficiency necessarily translates into engagement. The plight of this ministry is an outcome of political tokenism as well as the tendency to use women's appointments as a diversionary tactic aimed at providing men with the veneer of fair play and justice.
The irony is that today women’s issues are being discussed on every imaginable platform and yet the status quo is unaffected. The insincerity and opportunism have done yet more damage to the already weak movement for women’s rights. It is interesting to note that the cases receiving media attention become a hot pie for political parties, and everyone wants a slice of it. Nobody wants to talk about the less reported and even lesser discussed Dalit rapes of Haryana as there is no political gain in terms of votes in that. Whether it be the tears of the SP's Jaya Bachchan or the crude remarks of the TMC's Mamta Bannerjee, women's issues have met with nothing but insincerity at best and disdain at worst. Specifically talking, these two regional parties seem to have the worst track record for public misogyny. Mulayam Singh is known for his stance against women's political empowerment.
It is evident from recent events that misogyny and patriarchal attitudes cut across party lines, ideologies, sexes and classes. Worse still is the fact that whatever is being won by the serious and concerted efforts of those who really ‘care’ is being squandered by those who do not. Men, and many women, must realise that being a foil to men is not the raison d’etre of women. They don’t exist merely to make men look grand.
Nishtha Gautam is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation where she looks at gender issues. She also teaches English Literature in a Delhi University college. A committed equal rights activist, she expresses her concerns through articles, stories and poetry on her blog compulsivescribbles.blogspot.in. Her twitter handle is @tedhilakeer.