Sexual assault - banana leaves and thorns
With the media being cacophonous over the recent gang rape of a young photojournalist in Mumbai it is hard to not just beg for numbness just to escape their empty indignation. Every time such an incident occurs there are debates on fast-track courts, police conduct and consequences in the form of castration or even the death penalty. There are candle light vigils, a few silent protests and then we all go back to our lives making sure the women we know text us the taxi number they get into late night or stay on the phone till our friend reaches back home from the airport.
While it easier to fix the externalities and pretend to solve issues, it seems to be much harder to get people to acknowledge the deep seating misogyny and inequity that lies embedded in our psyche. Of course when one is talking to the press or the media at large or for the sake of an ideological debate the question of “why was that woman in that place after dark anyway?” or “when we know such things happen, the women should just try and keep themselves safe?” would be blasphemous. But walk into a home with daughters and you will hear “Do not go to that place by yourself, its better to be safe than sorry” or “you wear a skirt like that you are asking for trouble” or worse “If someone is staring at you or says something lewd, look away and walk fast to a crowded place. Do not engage in a fight. You do not need to prove anything to a stranger. We all know you are a strong woman.” When I hit puberty, my grandmother told me a pretty graphic story of how if a banana leaf fell over a thorn or a thorn fell over a banana leaf, it is the banana leaf which would tear. Her basic point was to tell me to stay away from boys because whatever happens I am the banana leaf and I would be damaged goods either way.
Yes, I know parents are only trying to protect their daughters and wish for a life without the pain and fear of being molested or assaulted. But what is the message that we are sending out to our children at large. The answers lie below.
The Quality Education Study was commissioned by Wipro Foundation and Education Initiatives first in 2006 and then again in 2011. It was conducted in urban schools considered to be good quality education institutions. In terms of values on equity, diversity and sensitivity, it was observed that there is a deep rooted bias against the girl child even in students from families which probably belong to the educated and higher socio economic strata of the society. This was exhibited by nearly 43% of children in elementary school expressing that if there was a choice to be made, then it is better to educate the boy over the girl because educating the girl in the long run could only be a waste of resources. Also, 15% of girls in 8th standard felt that ‘girls are burdensome to their parents’. Though 15% may seem like a small number, what we need to remember is that this survey was conducted in the better quality urban schools identified for better and sensitive learning environments. This can only lend a perspective on how deeply this bias is ingrained in our social structure itself.
And this, is in urban metropolises like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and not a smallgaon in the northern part of India as stereotypically assumed when discussing steep gaps in gender equity. If we go a step before schooling, right at conception and birth of a child we all know the trend of euphemistically “missing girls of India”.
So where are we heading. We are soon going to have a population of 250 million young adults (as per UN population division prediction for 2025) who will be unemployable. One can only understate the kind of social unrest and issues it would be bring. There is a statistic which says in 90% of the cases of sexual assault the perpetrator is known to the victim. I believe in the coming years that will change simply because I believe that sexual assault is an assertion of power and dominance. I am not glossing over child sexual abuse or women assaulted in their homes or even assaults that happen to women at work places. But I definitely do see an impending social crisis of “educated” (with enrollment being high and dropouts declining over a period of time, there will be more people who complete the so called schooling experience and believe themselves to be educated and entitled to a job) men who grow up believing and seeing women being treated as second-class citizens, not being employed and feeling the need to compensate their sense of masculine power. This I believe will result in assaults on any woman who is seen to be “overstepping her boundaries” – known or unknown.