Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Way She Shouldn't Move

For the benefit of those with better things to do than read the news: A much-publicized incident took place in Mumbai in the early hours of January 1 when two women partying in Juhu were gang-molested by a large group of men. A couple of Hindustan Times lensmen who happened to be present there captured the incident on camera, thus giving it the national recognition that it subsequently got.

The incident itself and the events that followed offer a treasure trove of reference material for the students of society on a host of topics; to name a few - the power of India's new activist media, the workings of legal-political institutions, and many gender-related questions. Let me air my two paise about the last of these issues; more specifically, the role of gender in the delineation of individual freedom.

For my frame of reference, I use a paper foxily titled The Way She Moves [pdf link] by Shilpa Ranade that appeared in the Economic and Polital Weekly (EPW) last year. The paper, written in super-pedantic style worthy of EPW (just one of the many pieces of work that I fantasize of someday translating into a "for dummies" version, for the masses to enjoy), deals with the idea that the perception of public spaces is not secular but is dictated by the "bodies we inhabit" - who we are, and in the specific case, the gender we wear. Between layers of sociological jargon, the paper carries some great, simple ideas that I found particularly relevant in the Juhu context.

"Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Keep your wives at home if you want them safe."

This is D N Jadhav, the Mumbai Police Commissioner, speaking. Serious. Now hear what Ranade and her colleagues found from one of their participatory surveys:

..participants are asked to locate in (a) drawing a group of young boys and a group of young girls of the same age. The girls are (always) marked as playing in the smaller, more defined and enclosed corner of the open compound while the boys occupy the larger central section of the ground.
The paper observes how men have better access to public spaces at all times of the day, while a woman has to "manufacture an appearance of purpose" to be present legitimately in the same space/time. There are other interesting findings on, literally, how women navigate themselves (hence the name of the paper?) through public spaces that are almost always male-dominated.

After all, the "control of women's movement has been central to the maintenance of a gender regime informed by patriarchy...(and)...in many countries this restriction on women's movement is written into the law." Fortunately, there are no laws restricting women's movements in India or Mumbai, which is what Commissioner Jadhav seems to forget. When law enforcers themselves forget the laws, the job of interpreting them falls on citizens. If so, the men must have felt like vigilantes doing their social responsibilities when they reached for the women. And that is what it seems like if you listen to the suspects talking to the media after their release on bail:

"While the newspaper splashed ‘molestation’ pictures, they did not write a word about how the girls in question were drunk. The couples were in an inebriated state. They were smooching on the road. What were they expecting?”
LOL! What were they expecting?! I, male, have been noticeably inebriated in public in various cities, towns, and villages in various parts of the country at various times of the day. I, male, have been noticeably inebriated on trains, buses, cars, motorcycles, on foot, and even on a bicycle. What was I, male, expecting? Censure from law enforcement for violating written laws, yes. But censure and "disciplining" from my fellow citizens for violation of unwritten laws, NO! Why should those women have expected anything different?

Let me wrap up with the following, again from the EPW paper:

For women, the production of respectability is closely connected to manufacturing safety for themselves. Any transgression of boundaries spatially is deemed as a challenge to the status-quo and liable to be punished...smoking in public, going out to night-clubs, travelling alone at night, and so on are various degrees of contradiction of the dominant map of gender-space.
I suppose those girls in Juhu weren't aware of the trade that they, but not their brothers, are expected to make: respectability for safety.

Endnote: The Juhu episode has sufficient qualities to qualify for being a "Prince Media Event". Remember Prince, the 5-year old kid who was rescued from the bottom of a deep borewell in Punjab, while the country watching with bated breath on 24-hour news channels? The prime characteristic of a Prince Media Event is that the episode being gaga-ed over is a pretty everyplace, everytime happening. Kids fall down, fatally, in unprotected wells all the time, and incidents of sexual harassment much serious than the Juhu one happen all the time. But only what you see, not what you know, can hurt you, right?

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