For the umpteenth time now, a survey conducted recently has “revealed” India to be a country hostile to females. To those of us who set store by listings and rankings, the result of the survey by the Thomas Reuter Foundation might hold more sombre significance since it ranks India at the top of its list of World’s Most Dangerous Countries for Women. Personally, I wasn’t too surprised. In 2011, the same poll had ranked India fourth in the world and the three-point upward jump is not unfathomable for anyone who has lived in the country for any considerable stretch of time. Nor was I too impressed.
Despite the heavy fire that the results of the survey have come under – what with the incumbent Ministry of Women and Child Development rejecting, outright, the results of the survey, and respectable columnists declaring it “nonsense,” it goes without saying that the report makes a significant contribution to the discourse on the feminine condition prevalent in India. Yet, it is precisely to the potential of its influence that the report fails to do justice. My criticism does not stem from some nationalistic or patriotic (it is hard to tell the difference these days) need to defend my country against a label as shameful as the one with which the Thomas Reuters Foundation has bestowed it. Primarily, I take issue with the conceptual framework within which the presentation of the results of the survey is couched.
The report approaches the issues of sexual violence, forced labour, and sexual slavery with a nonchalance ill-suited to their complex severity. Neutrality might be the hallmark of reportage, but to employ the gravest issues a nation faces as elements of shock, far from being interested in finding out “whether more was being done to address the overall risks faced by women,” smacks of dubious attempts at sensationalization.
Statistics are of barely any importance to the millions of women who experience first hand the rampant culture of sexual violence, harassment, gendered discrimination, and general insecurity that pervades Indian society. Perchance an awareness that only 27% of Indian women work due to the poor treatment they receive at the workplace creates a semblance of solidarity among the other 63% who saved themselves the grief either by resigning or maintaining their distance from the workforce. Maybe there is a perverted sense of comforting normalcy that comes from the knowledge that one is not the singular target of casual catcalling, lingering hugs, and unsolicited flirtation. Perhaps it gives one some solace to know that one is not alone in having experienced a hard, foreign object pressing against one’s thigh, or a hand making itself at home on one’s derriere in a public transport. Beyond that, however, I fail to fathom what positive outcome could come of highlighting the pitiable state of political gender affairs in India.
Simply put, the question is this: Is the Reuters report capable of augmenting, in any significant measure, the collective public consciousness that drives political change? Unfortunately, I feel compelled, for two reasons, to answer in the negative.
First, the strategy of shock employed in the proclamation of what is frankly a ghastly result is, in my opinion, tedious. Recent history would have us believe that as a people, we can only be roused out of our complacency on matters of gender equality and security by the most gruesome horrors; the only way we are instigated to act is being shocked into action. It happened with the gangrape of a medical student in December of 2012. And it happened again, although with less severity, with the rape of a Kashmiri minor in January of 2108. But the interim period was marked by curious inactivity. Crime against women had clearly not disappeared. In the five years between January 2013 and December 2017, over 10,200 instances of rape were reported in Delhi alone. In addition, there were over 63,000 instances of crimes ranging from kidnapping and abduction to domestic violence and dowry death, and everything in between. Again, this was in the national capital alone. Even the controversy regarding the legal status of marital rape did not generate a comparable public movement.
The absence of public outrage in the hundreds of thousands such incidents is explained simply by their quotidianness. It is a classic case of habituation – the occurrences are so routine that we have lost our ability to be shocked at them. Sure, the top ranking on this new list finally makes official what millions of Indian men and women have known in their gut for years, but the stamp does nothing to spur change.
And that – the subject of change – leads me to my second reason for being unimpressed by the Foundation’s carefully compiled proclamation. More specifically, it is the oversimplification of the issue apparent in the report’s implicit attempt to assign blame for the deplorable state of affairs. Before I am accused of defending the incumbent government, let me clarify that I agree wholeheartedly with the assertion that legislators and administrators have failed miserably in upholding the constitutional tenets of equality, safety, dignity, and justice for all. My only contention is that the kinds of changes necessary in order that the aforementioned list is one that we can elude cannot be implemented top-down alone. To imply that conditions are what they are because political parties are incompetent may not be factually inaccurate, but it is an incomplete assertion. All too conveniently, it allows the private individual to ignore the role they play in propagating the culture of misogyny. By extension, it takes away the need to ponder over what they could do to curb it.
I wish there were a simple conclusion to the foregoing train of thought. Try as I might, I cannot help but feel intense shame and anger at the public announcement that the country I call home hates me and my kind. But equally, the rational part of my brain keeps telling me that if it doesn’t contribute toward finding a solution to the problem, it isn’t important. Whether or not it exists in print does not change the reality of the fact – that is what I tell myself when pronouncements such as the one by Thomas Reuters Foundation shake my faith in the feminist cause. I certainly hope that those more powerful than me – more capable of effecting immediate change – too, choose to focus on the reality instead of spending their energies battling its declaration.
By Suvanshkriti Singh
Suvanshkriti is a nerd and a geek, and a dork enough to educate you on the
difference between the two. She alternates between despairing for the fate
of the world and debating solutions to all its problems; she’s part
pessimist, part romantic, and all goof.