September 16, 2013

We Shall Overcome


THE RAPE OF THE 23-year old medical student, Ms. Jyoti Singh Pandey, in New Delhi in December 2012 outraged many around the world. Sadly, for those of us with ties to India, this crime, as horrific and shocking as it was, did not come as a complete surprise. More recently, the same act was perpetrated on a young woman doing her job in Mumbai—in the daytime and accompanied by a male colleague. We did not even have time to recover from the shock waves when news of an infant being sexually abused elsewhere in the country filtered through. Babies, young girls, older women, nobody has been spared.

Hardly a day passes when the nation’s dailies do not carry stories of domestic violence, the rape, stripping, and parading naked of mostly lower caste women, dowry deaths, acid attacks on unsuspecting housewives, and the harassment of women everywhere. Ignorant politicians, village leaders, police officials, even magistrates are quick to assign blame to the victim. If only the woman had stayed home that night instead of accessing the public space as an equal citizen, if only her skirt had been a few inches longer, or her dowry a little fatter.

Such misguided palliatives only obfuscate the real issue – there has been a gender war unfolding in India for millennia now. This war is deeply rooted in patriarchy, culture, religion, and reinforced by globalization. Long, long before the sun never set on the British Empire, men constructed elaborate societal norms that colonized one half of the subcontinent’s citizens. This “original” colonization would have been the envy of any of the European empires. And, like any oppressive power system, this brutal war of colonization disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable – women, lower castes, sexual, ethnic and religious minorities, refugees and migrants, and still others from economically depressed classes.

Men have succeeded in colonizing the imagination of the “second sex”. For too long, women have been force-fed narratives of their own inferiority. The process begins even before they are born, as the alarmingly high rate of female foeticide in India – about 11-12 million a year, a systematic and unrecorded femicide – testifies. After birth, men create barriers for women’s self-realization – they keep women away from education, gainful employment, objectify and infantilize them, confine them to homes, dictate their dress, morals, marriage, and life choices, and code of conduct, especially their sexual behavior. As if this weren’t enough, men repeatedly, and proudly, violate the most inviolable – women’s bodies. Just like the British did to the Indians during the bad old days of the Raj, men have succeeded in doing to women – relegating them to second-class citizens in their own homeland.

Sadly, sexual violence and gender discrimination is not new, nor is it confined only to India or South Asia. It turns out that the war against women is also globalized and it has already come home to many of us. 1 in 3 women on this planet will be raped or beaten. That’s 1 billion women.

This war transcends class, caste, language, and geography and, like the harmful pesticides sprayed in our foods, it has invaded our internal ecosystem, leading to a cancer of the mind. The bruises, pain, intolerance, and humiliation are a part of everyday life for women worldwide, both in poorer countries and in the so-called developed western world. While there will always be men who advocate the feminist cause, just like there were Britons who opposed the horrid excesses of Empire, the one cardinal rule of progressive social change is that the people who suffer injustice are crucial to overcoming it.

But where there is injustice, there is also courage, resistance, hope, and resilience. And women resist every day in quiet ways, in personal ways, in public ways. They show their resistance by going to school and learning to read, by daring to not marry, or by not having children, by coming “out” and loving whom they want to love, by showing up in clubs, restaurants, or other public places from which they are excluded, by showing their faces without veils, by playing sports and being stronger than men in some cases, by speaking in public, managing natural resources, becoming leaders, and demanding public services from authorities.

For most men, carrying out these acts may seem “natural,” but to women, these are acts of defiance. In fact, had a woman written this article she may have been attacked with pejoratives and gender stereotypes; she may even have been punished, fired from her job, physically harmed even. I am fortunate, and humbled, by the privilege that allows me to reflect on gender violence. The medical student in New Delhi did not have this choice. The photojournalist in Mumbai did not have it either.  Theirs was an existential struggle, which one ultimately lost and the other fights to get past.

Fortunately, a new, young generation of Indian women, standing on the shoulders of the activist-sisters who fought long and hard before them, is strengthening women’s rights and opportunities every day. They are assuming positions of authority and making decisions that give women access to choices, resources, autonomy and power. More importantly, these avant-garde leaders are becoming role models for the next generation of girls, increasing their self-worth and choices.

The time is overdue for meeting the aspirations of women for their empowerment. History has taught us that self-determination movements have overpowered even great empires. Ask the British. And the moment has never been better. There is a groundswell of support that is making our Earth reverberate.

I invite our fathers, brothers, husbands, employers, male leaders, boyfriends, and uncles to welcome women in their full power as equals, to create an axis of affirmation, not discrimination. At stake is our humanity, our dignity, freedom, and justice. I dare my brothers to speak up, to not stand by while women fight this war alone, so that when our daughters ask us, “Daddy, what did you do when the revolution came?” we can say, “I did the right thing.”


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