Opinion: The Self-Defence Narrative Surrounding Women Is Hugely Problematic

The Indian Government has been promoting self-defence training for women under the erstwhile centrally sponsored scheme of Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA).

A total of 170,426 schools receive approval for self-defence training for girl students (Classes IX to XII) during the last three years.

The Delhi Police over a period of time has been doing an advertisement campaign on self-defence which also
includes organising self-defence training for women.

Self-defence in the context of the Indian woman has been showcased as a necessity. There are thousands of articles on the internet talking about why self-defence is so necessary for women in today’s world and why it is the ultimate solution to all potential assaults women may be confronted with through their life.

I find this narrative problematic and will aim to counter this by pointing out the problem in propagating such a narrative and its implications on men, women, and society as a whole.

The idea of self-defence is to tell women that “their safety is in their own hands.” This is also the argument which is used to stop women from wearing clothes of their own choice because apparently, this could lead to unsafe circumstances.

The problem in doing so is that we are not empowering women but actually validating men’s behaviour towards women. When we blame a woman and her choice of clothes for the harassment she has to go through, we are not criticising the way that men have behaved with women, but we are actually blaming the women and their choices.

We are not holding men accountable for their behaviour, we’re putting this onus on women to change to defend themselves. We are hence, making no changes in the social conditioning of the perpetrator or questioning this behaviour of theirs particularly directed towards women. Which is why they still continue to misuse the social privilege they were born with.

This shift of burden from the oppressor to the oppressed, to now fight, is problematic. Because, for any social change to take place, it is important for the oppressor to know that their actions are violating the rights of a human being, hence they need to stop and/or reform.

In this case, it becomes important to put the burden on men to change and give up on their privileges, because this is a concrete way women will be able to make space in the societal structures. It is not just the fight of women against assault and harassment, but also against the social structures which make men feel that they have the right to exploit women.

Another thing about self-defence is that the very idea of it is elitist, which means that it is not a tool available to women across different class and caste structures. This is due to the fact that women belonging to minorities or from economically disadvantaged backgrounds may not have access to such training or have time for it, owing to their schedules.

Moreover, despite this, the inability to speak up about assault/harassment is blamed on a traumatic experience. An
additional burden is then put on women.

Just like how housewives and their work is often looked down upon by other women as well as men. Should a housewife speak up, it is highly likely that her situation will be blamed on her and not on the man who is exploiting his wife. This then, becomes the fault of women who were not able to fight during the exploitation they were facing.

The above example can be better explained through the imagery of an ’empowered woman’ that we have in our minds: a woman who is working, earning, and is, thus, economically independent. However, this way, the idea of empowerment itself is flawed in the minds of the majority of people.

But, what does an empowered woman look like? Can a housewife be an empowered woman as well?

Why is the image of an empowered woman always showcased as a woman dressed up in formal business-like clothes? All these questions make us rethink our idea of empowerment as a whole.

Similarly, self-defence does not necessarily ’empower’ women, but it, in a way, dis-empowers them; it doesn’t value the struggle of women, but values some exceptional cases who were able to claim this a tool to protect themselves, when they shouldn’t have had to protect themselves in the first place.

Adding on to the above, it also does not hold men accountable for their behaviour, it does not question their social privilege but, in a way, asks women to adopt this social structure as it is and change themselves and not the social structure.

On the whole, the pressure seems to be only on the women while the society and institutions that exist to protect them, have no responsibility.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.
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