By Sagarika Ghose
Images of the Guwahati molestation shocked every television viewer. Fury erupted on the safety of women, the role of the police and the role of journalists. Then the National Commission of Women (NCW) woke up. An NCW representative, the glamorous Congress member Alka Lamba, arrived in Guwahati with superbly blow-dried hair. She swept into a press conference. She posed for the cameras. She then announced the name of the victim. And took a flight the next day back to Delhi. The Commission then said it had submitted its report. It said the role of journalists should be probed and the police came late.
Now hang on a minute, gentle ladies of the NCW. How about the safety and protection of the victim? Counselling? Words of advice and reassurance of care? A detailed fact-finding effort? Reaching out to other women's groups in Assam? Interacting with the police to ask for concrete steps that such action will not take place in future? Taking steps to ensure leisure spots, particularly those where liquor is served, are appropriately policed, as they are in all cities of the world? What about sending out the message that men and women have the same rights to enjoy the leisure activities of their choice? Oh no, none of that. The NCW disappeared from Guwahati faster than you could say National Commission of Women.
A rapidly changing society is leading to newer forms of violence against women. Laws on crimes against women remain horrendously weak. For the crimes of molestation, assault and humiliation, all we have is the laughable, totally-outdated Section 354 on Outraging The Modesty Of A Woman, a bailable offence in many states punishable with a mere two years and a fine.
Entertainment and Bollywood cults are projecting women as sex symbols and are screaming that “liberated women” are those who appear in item numbers and have hot bikini bodies. Top heroines vie with one another to perform item numbers. Sexiness is now seen as an apparent leitmotif of female achievement.
With female sexuality becoming the dominant perception of women, professional women, students, businesswomen, and working women find themselves at the receiving end of vicious assaults and crimes on the street and in public leisure spots. A woman in a miniskirt is seen to be "asking" to be eve-teased. A woman at a pub is seen as "asking" for molestation.
Morality brigades are on the rampage. Women must cover their heads. Women must not wear jeans. Women must not use cellphones. Women who enter love marriages will be killed. The sex symbol and morality cop are shadow-boxing in a fantasy ring while millions of women suffer. The sex symbol and morality cop are both symptoms of the total lack of gender equality in our society today. They are, in fact, symptoms of the same disease, a feudal patriarchal culture where women are either “virgins" or "whores", a society where crimes against women are entering a new era of brazen brutality.
Amidst the serious challenges faced by the modern Indian woman today sits the National Commission of Women, like a slothful octopus chained to the ruling party, feeding off political and government largesse. It sends out a dangling tentacle here, another lazy tentacle there, issues garbled statements about the need to appreciate words like “sexy”, to avoid NRI marriages and to wear proper clothes. Every day the NCW demonstrates that it simply does not take itself seriously. Every day it sends out reminders about its largely ornamental role.
Note the following statements by NCW chairperson Mamta Sharma lately, a Congress politician from Rajasthan:
“Nowadays boys are very enthusiastic. If a group of boys teases you by calling you sexy, you should not get provoked and instead you should take it positively.”
Should the NCW chairperson be concerning herself with the etymology and dictionary meanings of the word "sexy"? Or should she be working to create awareness in police, government departments, universities and schools to promote gender justice in society?
Here’s another priceless statement from the NCW chairperson: “Don’t get fooled if some NRI tries to sell you a dream of taking you to beautiful places like Switzerland, France or England.” Oh really? Superbly put. The serious problem of NRI brides, the desperation levels of abandoned wives, the crimes endured by women in many of these marriages, all of these issues are so sweetly captured in a folksy parable from Sharma.
And the latest gem? “ Women should dress carefully because such incidents (Guwahati molestation) are a result of blindly aping the West.”
It's not just about blindly aping the West, Ms Sharma. It’s also about the vacuum in the law, lack of security at leisure spots, lack of gender justice, lack of fear of the law, police and judicial apathy and the complete lack of awareness that men and women have the right to enjoy exactly the same kind of leisure activities. Ms Sharma must watch a Jodie Foster starrer, The Accused. Based on a true story, the film shows that even a drunk, scantily dressed woman at a bar can be the victim of rape. That whatever the “morality” of a woman, however she is dressed, rape and sexual assault are crimes and must be prosecuted as such. Just as the argument - she- was-asking-for-it - does not apply to a murder, it also does not apply to rape.
The existence of the NCW is now becoming a disservice to the many women who are seeking justice, compensation and a fair hearing from courts and government. The fight for justice and equality is no longer about the shrieking of a zenana dabba. It’s about campaigning for a just society and changed mindsets among men as well as women. But the NCW is a collection of politicians, bent on trivialising women's issues. Women politicians in India have never taken women's issues seriously.
Fighting bitterly in competitive politics with men, in a highly patriarchal political environment, women netas have always had to play down their identities as women. Neither Mayawati nor Jayalalithaa nor Mamata Banerjee identify strongly with women's issues, they can’t afford to for fear of being written off as women. Mulayam Singh Yadav's campaign promise of government jobs for rape victims shows just how disconnected politicians are from understanding how justice needs to be delivered to women. Precisely why the NCW has to be urgently freed from political control and liberated from politicians.
Athlete Pinki Pramanik faced public humiliation recently when she was charged with rape and leered at and groped in public by the police. Where was the NCW? A government minister faced public outrage over statements about a rape in Kolkata recently. Where was the NCW? Sonali Mukherjee, a helpless, horribly disfigured victim of an acid attack, is running from pillar to post trying to get funding for her treatment. Where is the NCW? Why does the NCW not set up a fund- collecting mechanism for acid attack victims? Why is the NCW not asking for a separate law on acid attacks?
Why is the NCW not campaigning for a sexual assault bill, which is the demand of women's groups? In campaigns against female foeticide and battering of baby girls, where is the NCW? When Rumi Nath, an Assam MLA, was beaten up because of matters relating to her personal life, where was the NCW?
The lesson is clear: The NCW is not there for Pinki. It is not there for Sonali. It is not there for Rumi. The NCW exists for politicians, by politicians, and of politicians, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the dilemmas and crimes faced by women.
The chairperson of the NCW divests herself of totally frivolous statements. The NCW itself reveals the identity of a molestation victim. At a time when the leadership of the NCW must be with strong rational women working towards justice and equity in society as a whole , the NCW is dragging women back to girlie banter about what constitutes “sexy” and “NRI boys” and “wearing proper clothes". If the NCW cannot be overhauled because there are too many vested political interests trying to keep it alive as a resort for out-of-work netas, then the NCW should simply be scrapped.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN