This appeared in The Week...
National joke: Safety for women
I am putting myself in my mother’s chappals right now. She raised three ambitious daughters and one equally ambitious son in a city called Bombay. Let’s stick to the daughters for now. We went to school and college using public transport. Later, when I joined the city’s formidable female work force, I walked back from the office to my home a good kilometer and a half away. Most times I was alone, often, the hour was late, and I didn’t carry pepper spray in my handbag. Nor did I practice Karate. Did I feel safe? Yes, I did. Did my mother suffer daily anxiety attacks till I got home? No, she didn’t. And remember, we are talking about pre-cell phone days. Let’s go back a few more years. As an athlete through school and college, my training started at dawn. I would leave home when it was still dark outside and walk half a kilometer to the maidan at Dhobi Talao. Not once did I feel unsafe or scared as I rushed to my coaching lessons through semi-deserted back lanes of Churchgate. Neither did my mother.
Same city. Last week. Wait a minute. Did I state ‘Same city’ ? I guess that is the essential difference. Mumbai is unequivocally NOT the same city anymore. It’s not even Bombay! Something snapped somewhere and we are still trying to come to terms with what that ‘something’ could be. Today, my daughters are a part of the female work force here. And I am on tenterhooks till they get home every evening. Which is why, I can totally empathise with the mother of the gangrape survivor when she pleads with the media to leave her and her daughter alone. I can only say how incredibly proud we feel to read her daughter’s courageous statement - “ Rape is not the end of life…” coupled with her desire to get back to work as soon as possible. That will certainly reassure the countless women professionals in our city. But will it make life any safer for them?
One of the reasons why rape is not looked at as a ‘serious’ crime in our society is because women themselves are not taken seriously. Our attitude to sex itself is hopelessly warped, since we see it in isolation – we ‘have’ sex. Like we ‘have’ daal-chaval. It is to satisfy hunger, not enjoy the meal. Our men grow up believing women are created specifically to cater to their sexual urges. The thought that women have an equal amount of sovereignty over their body, their desires, their emotions, does not occur to a vast majority of men, raised as they are with an exaggerated sense of entitlement in a patriarchal society.
Do women in today’s India have the luxury of time ? Can we afford to wait for that all important ‘mindset change’ ( how I loathe that cliché!). For how long? Another fifty years? Hundred? Platitudes have piled up on more platitudes as we discuss gender senstisation programmes for our children. And talk about real change starting at home. Getting to the root of the problem…blah blah blah. But where is this mysterious root?Shall we give it a name, please? Can anyone identify what the real problem is? Even as we debate on this issue, a female is being violated somewhere in our country. Regardless of age or social status.There were one lakh pending rape cases in 2012. And we are talking about reported assaults. One can multiply that number by 100, and it will still be low.
There is a rape epidemic raging across India. It has already claimed a record number of victims. The world sees us as a seriously sick society, with sexual deviants attacking women every minute of the day. And yet, our government has not woken up. Violence against women is treated in the same casual way as violence against animals. Both are condemnable and shameful. But so long as we continue to tolerate the presence of men facing rape charges in Parliament , nothing is likely to change.Will we have the guts to debar such criminals from contesting the next election? Do we have the will to make gender equality our main election issue? If we don’t, we shall be condemning ourselves to another century of escalating violence against our women. And rape will be reduced to just another four letter word. As easily thrown around as the other one that starts with an ‘F’….revolting, but inescapable .God help the women of Bharat Mahan.
This appeared in Sunday Times...
A tale of two Mumbais…
The survivor of the gangrape in Mumbai, walked out of the hospital at midnight on Wednesday , face uncovered, and with her head held high. That much we know. And our respect for her, only grew. We also know she wasn’t crushed after enduring the worst form of violence, when she declared, “Rape is not the end of life….” In fact, she boldly stated her intention to get back to work as soon as possible. And we applauded her extraordinary courage. Not many survivors of such a vicious sexual attack would have had the strength to take this position. Our girl is obviously made of sterner stuff. She is someone with pricy platinum, not lowly steel in her spine. And that’s what makes her an epic hero. Unfortunately, not every woman has her formidable shakti. And that is the real tragedy we have to confront today. For every such survivor, there are thousands of nameless/ faceless others who remain silent…who take the horror and humiliation of rape to the grave with them. But this survivor was different from the very start of her trauma. Twice, when her anxious mother phoned to check on her, she managed to calmly reassure mom that all was well. She had the presence of mind to keep panic out of their voice while rapists armed with broken beer bottles towered over her. Even after the ghastly assault, she kept her cool , said nothing to her male colleague in the presence of the rapists, and sensibly went to a hospital, before approaching the cops. Had she not sought immediate medical help, and reported the rape, not only would she have harmed her own recovery, but the sexual predators would still be at large in search of new victims.
Getting back to work is perhaps the strongest message sent out by the survivor. She is our very own Malala. She is the never-say-die Mumbaikar. Hopefully, the damaged spirits of Mumbai’s working women ( millions of them), will seek inspiration from her decision to resume her normal life. Despite the best counseling, the trauma of what she endured is inescapable, and it may take years for the scars to heal. But heal they will. Because she is determined to erase them. The city’s scars are likely to take longer to fade, and this is essentially the problem which has no clear cut answers or solutions. Tougher laws and fast track courts can take care of one aspect of the countless crimes against women. But who can tell us why these crimes are on the rise? Why are women being targeted? Why has India become a nation of women baiters and haters? When, where and how will this rape epidemic end?
Unfortunately, Mumbai’s cops are a demoralized lot right now, even though the rapists were nabbed in record time .The aftermath of the crime that rocked Mumbai is interesting - finally, the city has woken up to its own vulnerability, the fragility of its future… its survival… even, its imminent death. People say there are many Mumbais within Mumbai. I’d say there are precisely two – the super moneyed Mumbai and the abjectly poor Mumbai. Both co-exist uneasily, side by side. Soon , Mumbai will become another Sao Paolo, with vast and violent inner cities that are out of bound to ‘outsiders’. Lawlessness and anarchy rule in several sensitive areas as it is. Already, there are hubs which discourage strangers from entering or ‘snooping’. Even the cops stay away. There exists an immeasurable socio-economic divide we are in complete denial about. We have blinkers on and dare not identify the problem. We refuse to recognize the existence of these two cities within a city. A case of two radically different mindsets. There is Ratan Tata’s refined, posh Bombay. And there is R.R.Patil’s rough and rustic Mumbai. These two polar opposites don’t speak to each other. They can’t ! They have absolutely nothing in common. Yes, it’s a class war. Let’s stop pretending it isn’t. Because we don’t know what to do about either version of Mumbai. It is this disturbing phenomenon that is resulting in an escalation of crime… especially crimes against women, since women remain society’s softest targets. The gutsy survivor of the recent gangrape belonged to the ‘other’ Mumbai. She was educated, confident, assertive and unafraid. Her rapists were jobless, illiterate and desperately poor. She had a lot to lose. They had nothing. She was a stake holder in the city. They weren’t. She had a future. They had none. She was seen as the enemy – first strike against her being her gender. Second, her social status. Both were effortlessly attacked during the assault.
In such a grim scenario, is it any wonder that the real loser is Mumbai?