“Is there no more to the experience of being a woman than the ever-present threat of violence?” In the last eighteen months, this question has been troubling me a great deal.
At Prajnya, while we do other things, most of our time and energy has always been taken up by gender violence awareness work. This spills over into my academic and other writing, where everything seems to default to the fear and reality of violence. Since December 2012, all things gender equal violence in public discourse, and especially the media. Reflecting this, the newly released Womanifesto for the upcoming elections (which I have endorsed too) devotes a great deal of attention to this issue. This Women’s Day, to do something meaningful meant to talk about solutions to this reality and to showcase achievement meant to talk to survivors.
This is all terribly important, but as someone who has lobbied for such a change, I am wondering how much is too much. Is there nothing more to my life experience than growing up with cautions about going here or there, and being groped on a bus or having family worry about my dowry?
I know for a fact that in my life, there is a great deal more. The fear and anticipation of violence are a thread that runs through my life, but it is like noisy water pipes or a loose plug point – always risky, always there – but that you get so used to, you live with it. If you survive electric shock, you find a way to move on. The rest of your waking hours are spent doing other things – mundane, creative, essential, indulgent. Most women I know have a wide range of interests.
Even women you call “just housewives” have areas of policy interest. These women who “don’t work” have to contend with the vagaries of power and water supply. Many are financial alchemists, taking a fixed wage and turning it into an elastic resource. They are savings and investment experts, using a range of methods to put away a little money and multiply a small amount through informal schemes and make strategic investments in ways they can.
“Just housewives” who “don’t work” have a natural interest in infrastructure policy and in financial policy issues. Their interests could go well beyond “lights make a road safe” and “price onions affordably”. But we don’t give them the chance we are willing to afford their brothers and husbands. Our gendered assumptions – and in the “our,” I include women – deprive women of voice on these issues and all of us of the benefit of their insights.
Women are self-employed, run small and large businesses, work as professionals and in the informal sector. Their interest in workplace issues goes well beyond workplace sexual harassment and diversity. We are concerned about tax – income, service, professional, property and inheritance, and we have an interest in all of this being rationalised and transparent. Women care about credit, interest rates, and investment incentives, including infrastructural incentives. Industry and sectoral issues are critical to women – whether that takes the form of a decision to clear pavement stalls or the development of an industrial estate.
The freedom movement and the other social movements of the time offer documentary evidence that women are concerned about political and social issues. For some, this has been a class obligation – “persons with privilege must do charity works” – and for some, this is a professional choice. But if you look closely at the majority of women who walk in those marches and sit in the rallies of our time, political activity is a political choice.
And interest in politics is not confined to the Women’s Representation Bill and its predecessors and successors. Some women enjoy discussing the machinations and manoeuvres of our political class as much as anyone else. Some women have particular areas – environment or accountability – they practically monitor. As this current election season shows, women will enter politics when there is an opening. And when they can’t, they find ways to work in the social and educational sectors on the same issues. But are women political animals as much as men are? Certainly!
Women are not just interested in the areas of politics and policy labelled “home affairs” and “domestic politics”. They are also interested in military history and military doctrine. They are interested in foreign policy – in our most important bilateral memberships, in our multilateral commitments and in the debates surrounding how we should relate to the world. As international conventions and UN resolutions express a global consensus on women’s rights and participation, as well as a host of other everyday issues from immunization to labour conditions, they are stakeholders in these normative regimes and affected by India’s ratification and implementation of them.
Cultural policy has always been a realm for “ladies”, but only in the sense that rustling silks and traditional hospitality rituals constitute how India plays culture. Women are also however interested in cultural policy in the way that it expresses national identity and in the consequences of that effort for citizenship. Cultural policy is also about inclusion and exclusion, about livelihoods and about lived heritage. Debates about conservation versus development, and the political deployment of rhetoric about culture, religion and civilization have an effect on women too.
I don’t ask whether the male bank clerk understands ecology, heritage or engineering before entertaining his views on Sethusamudram. I don’t ask whether the chartered accountant understands nuclear physics or international relations when he talks about the importance of a nuclear deterrent. The male newspaper editor is an expert on cultural policy on the first cup of tea and budget writing on the second; I do not challenge his superior knowledge. The retired general is the best judge of classroom practices, based on drill experience. But when it comes to their female counterparts, I raise the bar and shut the sluice-gates. The fact of their interest and the fact that they are citizens and stake-holders is not enough for me; I want them to be “qualified”. And the only qualification I will grant them is on the narrow subject of violence against women.
We have moved from denial that sexual and gender-based violence happen to essentialising the lives of women to this one reality. What has been gained by dumping denial may be in danger of being cancelled out as a result. If the status of women (anywhere) can be defined in terms purely of the fact of violence, then it can be fixed simply by protecting women from violence. Once women are protected, their status will automatically improve and their lives will be perfect.
Now that just sounds wrong. It is wrong.
We make the case that it will take more than a paternalistic, protectionist culture to create a society free of gender-based violence. What is that “more”? It is the idea of equal citizenship and equal rights for everyone. But that applies to every kind of inclusion, and requires an openness that admits that there could be more to all of us than patriarchal or other norms dictate.
We use the word “inclusion”, which sometimes evokes the image of someone opening a door and saying, it’s alright, you can come in. But the world we want to walk towards is not one run by right-thinking, benevolent gate-keepers but one that is already there if we would only adopt the right lens and expect to see it. This is a world in which we are equal and live in an interdependent, mutually supportive way. And in this world, there is more to men than temperaments that need to be mentored into non-violence and more to women than the experience of violence.
I agree that today’s suspension of denial about violence is a good thing, and I hope it will not be temporary. My concern is that while we are fretting and fuming about sexual and gender-based violence, we will reduce women to nothing more than humans who are especially more vulnerable to violence – an act of violence in itself. What we really want is a full acknowledgment of the humanity of women (and other human beings), and as a corollary, recognition that they are and should be qualified to and engaged with all parts of public life.
And how does this matter this election season? Quite simply, when a party wants to prove to me that it cares about gender equality, I don’t just want to hear a few paternalistic measures and see a few schemes for protection and support services for violence survivors. It is not even enough to have a more significant number of women candidates than before; after all, the baseline is hardly formidable here.
What I want is to see women in that party speak up on substantive issues and with the backing of the party. I would like to hear domain experts like Meera Sanyal speak about banking policy and I would like to hear career politicians like Supriya Sule address a range of policy questions. I would like to read that they are a part of policy think-tanks on all matters and not just on women, children, the price of onions and the safety of public spaces.
Women care about society and all kinds of policy, and I want to see the words, deeds and style of political parties and media coverage reflect and respect that.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and the founder of Prajnya.