An acid test of women’s safety, literally

Despite the best attempts of Government, legislature, judiciary, and some parts of the citizenry, in many cases the sheer ugliness of patriarchy rears its head and puts paid to all that has been achieved.

Harini CalamurUpdated: Saturday, December 17, 2022, 08:32 AM IST
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Acid Attack | Representative Image

This week, a 17-year-old schoolgirl in New Delhi was attacked by a youth who wanted to have a relationship with her but whom she had said no to. The young man in question acquired acid and flung it on her face in retaliation for her temerity in exerting her agency. This is not an isolated case. India sees at least 200+ acid attacks on women, usually by men who can’t cope with women speaking for themselves and resisting pressure.

If you look around and observe India, at first glance you might be fooled into believing that it is an equal space for women. There are, of course, women who rule the roost in many spaces. We are comfortable with women as the President, as Finance Minister, as leaders of parties, as CEOs, as top cops, as Army officers — and no one can deny that in the last 75 years there has been tremendous progress made in creating space for women to succeed.

Compared to even developed nations, our laws that guarantee rights of half of India’s population are extremely progressive. And yet, despite the best attempts of Government, legislature, judiciary, and some parts of the citizenry, in many cases the sheer ugliness of patriarchy rears its head and puts paid to all that has been achieved. India’s problem is the entitled whiney male and his supporting ecosystem.

We the women of India have the same rights as men. Butin the confines of the home, or even the workplace, that changes. Boys in India are still brought up to be the centre of the universe by their doting mothers, and that ‘laadla beta’ syndrome carries on to adulthood. The act of not being denied anything leads to a situation where, as grownups dealing with a world that says no, they lash out. Be it men (and some deluded women) fighting for the right not to criminalise rape within a marriage; or men who believe it is their birthright to “acquire” the woman of their choice; or indeed guardians of morality who believe that women are “fragile” and need protection — we seem to be progressing onto the slippery slope of questioning a woman’s right to choose. And then, to protect her from her choices.

The latest amongst this is an initiative by the Maharashtra Government to form panel to monitor intercaste and interfaith marriages. The panel is supposed to meet regularly and get information about registered and unregistered intercaste and interfaith marriages.This is inlight of the Shraddha Walkar case, where she was seemingly estranged from her parents and could not find a way out to safety from an abusive relationship. Her boyfriend and live-in partner Aftab Poonawalla is accused of having murdered her, chopped her into pieces and disposed of her body across the length and breadth of Delhi.

While the state government’s intentions might be noble, Shraddha and Aftab were not married. And, evenif a panellike this existed,itis unlikely that their relationship wouldhave beenonthe radar. Also, it isn’t as if men of the same caste or same community — or, for that matter, their parents and other relatives — do not inflict harm on their wives. With the furore that followed, the Government has dropped the idea of monitoring intercaste relationships, and decided to focus their energies on interfaith marriages.

However, a more sensible use of their time — and taxpayers’ money — would have been to set up shelters where women in abusive relationships can find refuge till they get back on their feet. But it is likely that such a suggestion would be met with accusations of attempting to destroy the great institution of Indian marriage.

One of the key things that prevents women from breaking out of this viciousness of ugly patriarchy is economics. Women in general are not economically empowered. Most of us do not earn a wage. The work that our sisters do, be it on the farm, or in caregiving, or in running the household, is not seen as work. It is not appreciated as work, and it does not pay.

In her book The Sisterhood Economy, Shaili Chopra talks about the tendency to bring up girls with the aim of marrying them off. And as such, neither education nor the pursuit of a career is a priority. Women are expected to provide free labour in the house. And, while the household and society would collapse without this labour, it is yet not deemed worthy of having monetary value placed on it.

Moreover, even when we do get to work, there is a major disparity in the wages earned. Women in India account for just 18% of the total wages. In the rare cases that women do get paid work, we get paid 65% of what men with comparable skills, doing a comparable job, are paid. To ensure that crimes against women reduce, it is not just the state that needs to come up with laws.

A large part of the onus is on families and how they bring up their sons. If young boys are brought up to be entitled whiney brats, then they are going to grow up to be obnoxious human beings who think nothing of torturing women, or murdering them, or pouring acid on them, or raping them.

There also needs to be a move towards enabling women to become economically independent — whether it is in the form of recognisingher labour within the household and paying for it, or in recognising her skills outside the household and paying an equitable wage for it.

We can only be equal when we are seen as equals, respected as equals, and paid as equals. Successive governments of India have done their bitinchampioning equality. Now it is time for the rest to pick up their share.

The writer works at the intersecton of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur

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