by Priya Chetty Rajagopal
On the 29th December, a nation awoke at sunrise and surprised itself with the force of its own grief. With throats choked, and a sense of growing loss, people looked into their hearts, each other, and whispered, this must stop. And then they spoke louder. It has to stop. THIS MUST STOP.
I cannot talk about what happened without sounding illogical, confused. I mourn for a young woman I never met, saw or heard before, because of the brutality she underwent, and the courage she showed. If she could talk, and survive what she did, we desperately needed to stand up for her, and let her fight count for something. Was she really Everywoman? Perhaps. And perhaps she's also the Everywoman none of the nation wants us women to be. And should never have to be.
No woman should ever have to be that brave again.
I too have wept and railed, have ranted and have hated. I too have stood in a candlelit vigil, with my heart breaking for an India that we now need to protect from itself. Good Men bowed their heads, angry, ashamed and helpless at our side. I stood in shame, even as I refused to take just ownership through my votes for the sheep like politicians who blathered and blustered through an extraordinary uprising, that nothing, nothing had prepared them for. We were being ‘managed’, like recalcitrant children, but for once the open blaze in our eyes and the steel in our spine made the wolves step back. And be the sheep that they have always clothed themselves as. Complete with platitudes, promises and a purpose to cunningly procrastinate. Until, like obedient, wailing babes, lulled and exhausted into false security by the rice water fed to us as milk, we fall asleep, hiccupping in our helpless hunger.
And that's where it could go.
There is a whiplash, there is change sweeping through this country, and let these winds of change sweep clean. While there is still a lump in our throats, and a thousand prickling unshed tears behind our eyes, it makes us emotional, illogical perhaps, but let’s hold on to that, keep our brains alive, and think. Please let us also look at what this could mean for the future of Indian women.
While equal rights are promised to women, as are safety, security and social and economic freedom, we all know now, if we didn't before, what it really means. While all that is true, the onus of protection will now fall on women and their protectors. Yes, we will now have to revive that paternalistic term, ‘protector’. Women have been told, as have men, that the woman stands solely responsible for her body, her life. Women will have to stand responsible by dressing carefully, speaking cautiously, by being out only in daylight hours, and being respectful and careful of their potential aggressors, the men. Looking constantly over her shoulder. And even then, there are no guarantees. So once again we subjugate our women by presenting Men to them in only two guises. Potential Aggressor. Or Possible Protector. She must choose, and then honour her choice. If she decides to not choose, refuses to be afraid, and not align with a Protector, whomever that might be, she walks that grey space which establishes her as one of those who were 'asking for it' . And accepting, internalising any blame. Can you see where this is going?
Women are being pushed to choose being potential victims.
It seems that laws cannot be made tougher, convictions and condemnations faster and more visible. The streets cannot be made safer, and the overworked station cop need not be told to handle a trembling, vulnerable rape victim as a victim, and not an irritating notation on his station chalk board. No we cannot do all that. Moreover, our Netas have speeches to make, opposition parties to bring down, and complicated political machinations to focus on. They need an army to support them while they pick on saffron rice, and remove terribly heavy garlands around their neck. They need to figure out their best profile for the cameras, and nod graciously to the disabled widow who has walked 2 days from her village to beg for justice for her 13-year-old daughter who was eventually killed by her rapists; that she and her children are still starving and fearful for their life.
This happens. Is it that we choose to blame the Netas because they are a visible symbol of all that’s evil in the system? Shall we just masochistically blame ourselves, because God knows we have been doing enough of that? People say it’s become fashionable to blame our politicians. Aren’t there other factors? Of course there are. However, while we make our individual changes, those in power must do what they were voted in to do, i.e. public good, collective change and its just execution. Or resign.
It's too much hard work for our rulers, because like in the old monarchies, their thrones are far too comfortable, and their citizens too far away. Why would you raise your voice, they yell, with their hired uniform waving a painful lathi, a water cannon at the ready, and why is 'all this' that I've so kindly given to you, not enough, you ungrateful little ants? We do so much for you people, and yet you complain, they say. And they shake their heads at each other, and then they say the same thing in a nicer way, because people are watching. And all of us, hurting, caned, benumbed, look up at their flaccid faces, and drop our heads, beaten. We know resignation, accept our failure. With our hands folded, we shuffle out of their presence backwards, hot tears in our eyes, wretchedness in our hearts, knowing karmically , that aisa hota hai.
Not any more, not after Dec 29th. For the first time, we looked at the face of the brutal rapists, and we looked at the faces of our rulers, and we could not tell the difference. Rise, my India rise, make them accountable and let them not take away any more of India's daughters. When they prevaricate and equivocate, hold them down, and ask them with increasing insistence: when, how, when, when, and then tell them there's no time, it's NOW.
Parents and guardians will be afraid. Women they love, their mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, daughters, nieces make them fearful for their safety, their lives. No one wants their child to suffer. If there is a potential electric shock that could hurt, harm, or even kill my beloved little girl, I'm not going to let her go there, am I? And society will nod and laud those parents for looking after their own. I'm not just talking about the urban or middle class. Who would you blame here? And women will slip back a hundred, hundred years, and all that has been done in the name of progress will be gone in a flash.
And what about all those women who must step out of their safety zones to work , to earn, to put bread on the table for themselves and their families? The marginalised, unprivileged. Do we shrug and tell their helpless 'Protectors', that rape and brutality is a risk they must run every day? Are we as a society, secretly mocking at them, for the lack of privilege and protection that forces them to go out to this snarling jungle every day? This is a woman who holds up half the sky. Are we? Think about it. We are creating a helplessness zone, and the woman has no choice but to accept her rightful place as a victim. The exploitation of that victim is just a matter of luck. Or time.
For a nation with perhaps one of the highest global GDP growths, and one with a shrinking half of its young population being women, where is this taking us? Women's advancement has happened slowly. Social development has come grudgingly with political and civil will, with pressure on education, and it has come on the back of a solid foundation - the economic advancement of women.
And now, with the fear and worry for its women, and therefore their joining the same economic force as partners and rightful leaders, these numbers will drop. The father, mother, uncle who so proudly announced the young girl's high 10th Standard marks and her desire to become a doctor, will now shush the child, and whisper that while all that is fine, she must remember that she must also marry soon and focus on her family . That is her eventual role. And they will teach her fear by wanting to protect her. As long a time as the good, the social and economic independence took to happen, this could happen too, never forget that. Insidiously, unknowingly, the girl child's attempt at independence, personhood and economic freedom will die. And with that possibly, the story of a great nation.
So the next time, our men and our women want to protect our India's daughters, please don't hide them in your homes. In the stronger laws of the nation we must bring about, in the security we have to promise we will secure for them, let them flourish as independent economic beings, with your support on her side, money in her bank, and no fear in her heart. You owe it to Mother India, and you owe it to yourself. If you must have someone wear a chastity belt for protection, let it be the men.
Let this not be about any more despair. Please let this now be about hope.
Priya Chetty Rajagopal, partner, and member, Business Excellence Committee, Stanton Chase. Views expressed are her own.