ByÂ Rhea Kumar:
Every other day we hear of MahilaÂ parks, separate ladies buses and pink autos for women. While these measures may help to ensure safety of women in the short-term, these are not going to promote gender equality in the long term. These measures of ‘positive discrimination’ only create unnatural barriers between men and women. Their whole point seems to be to protect and isolate women from men, thereby preventing crimes and structural violence against women.
All women should ask themselves this: do they want to live in a society where women travel in separate buses, walk in separate parks, do not walk out of their houses after 10 at night, and are armed with a pepper spray, always on their guard, when they step out of their house? These measures may keep us safe, but will we ever feel secure and independent? Will we be able to follow our dreams fearlessly and bring them to fruition? And ultimately, will we be happy to live in a society like this, where our freedom is constrained, not by laws, but by our own vulnerability?
“Taali kabhi ek haath se nahin bajti (you cannot clap with one hand).” A long term and sustainable effort towards gender equality requires close co-operation and efforts from both women and men. To solve the problem, we need to address it at its very roots: the patriarchal attitude of men. Patriarchy, the belief that women are inferior and subordinate to men, has been the source of all gender inequality in the world. Patriarchal attitudes establish male authority over women in every sphere of life. This may take the form of restrictions on attire, education, work choices, property inheritance and at a very deep and `base’ level, it translates to the bizarre belief that men, being ‘superior’ to women have every right over their bodies. Thus, the gap between men and women is everywhere; it starts at home and extends to every aspect of the woman’s life.
Boys have always been given more freedom than girls in Indian society. They are not subject to many of the stigmas that girls have to face. They can stay out late, move around with friends and do a lot more compared to their sisters. The discrimination starts very early! If a teenage girl has several male friends, she is called a slut, while a boy who flirts with multiple girls is called a stud! Our iconic male movie stars are shown brazenly chasing and harassing the heroine, in the name of `romance’. With an attitude like this, it is not surprising that men brazenly stare at or pass lewd comments at every woman who crosses their path. Yes, an attitude change is definitely in need. Girls are taught about ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ from the age of nine or ten, how come we don’t have moral education on similar lines for boys? How come boys are not taught about ‘good stare’ and ‘bad stare’?
But let us not accuse the male species blindly without looking at the deeper cause. Nobody is born a misogynist; men have problems of their own. Living up to the male image of being tough and strong all the time cannot be easy. Research has shown that men have a lower life expectancy than women, simply because they do not release their pent up emotions. Society will condone anger and tough behaviour in men but softer emotions are often scoffed at. Men vent out their frustration and anger by attacking the easiest target they find, often their wives or other innocent women. Hence, any serious effort to achieve gender equality must involve men as serious stakeholders.
Here are some ways in which this can be done:
1) Integrating Gender Equality in the School Curriculum: Young children, impressionable and open-minded, must be taught lessons and subjects that promote gender equality. School curriculum has to be designed and selected with great care to portray women being equal to men and commanding respect at home and outside it. Lessons that portray women as weak-willed and subservient to male authority must be replaced by those that promote women empowerment, for instance, stories about women who have been successful in various fields of life and women who battled discrimination to come out winners. School curriculum should attack and dispel the traditional behaviour stereotypes such as `girls cook and raise children’ while `boys are sporty and earn money’. This will not only improve the outlook of boys towards women, but also inspire girls to be independent and strong-minded.
2) Paternity Leave: A large number of countries, especially in Europe and the USA, have provisions for paid paternity leave. Many of these countries such as the Scandinavian countries are shining examples of gender equality. In these countries, paternity leave has helped bring men closer to their families, reduced the incidence of domestic violence and helped in equitable distribution of household chores. A similar approach should be adopted in India. After all, if women can work outside home and supplement the family income, then men should be obliged to help women at home. Every now and then, we do hear of stray instances where husbands have chosen to be homemakers and caregivers and wives have chosen to be the breadwinners. While all families might not choose to follow the same model, these cases should be seen as examples of a gender neutral division of responsibility.
3) Reform Centres and Campaigns for Men: These have been a huge success in Norway. REFORM, a Norway based NGO, is part of the Men Engage Network, a global movement dedicated to involving men in promoting gender equality. REFORM helps men in difficult situations through anger management circles, personal counselling as well as a men’s helpline. Reform centres on similar lines must be set up in India and must make an active effort to involve men, especially in urban areas. They can be instrumental in understanding the factors prompting men to engage in violent behaviour against women, as well as in effectively dealing with the same.
I realize that all these measures are extremely difficult to implement. After all, changing the mindset of an entire nation is a daunting task, especially in the Indian context where deeply entrenched male arrogance will act as an obstacle every step of the way. I am not suggesting that we abandon short-term measures to promote safety for women, only that we look beyond these. Identifying the problems faced by men, especially those who engage in violence and finding solutions to these will improve the lives of both women and men. Hopefully, 25 years from now, our daughters will be able to walk freely at night!