Originally published in Libertas European Institut Blog
Controversy rakes up a lot of noise, especially when its cause threatens gender equality. India’s new establishment cannot afford to ignore the challenge a recent such controversy has created, given that Indians voted for this government in the hope of ‘change’. One hopes that the call for ‘change’ includes changes in gender issues as well. The Prime Minister has an economic vision for India, which would need increased participation from women to come into the economic mainstream. However, continued gender issues might just threaten the realization of that end.
Hindu Mahasabha, a right-wing Hindu nationalist group of which Nathuram Godse was once a member, created news in Haryana province by allegedly commenting that young girls should not wear jeans or skirts as that ‘provokes’ mean leading to rape, mobile phones can lead to immoral activities amongst young people, and western clothes spoil Indian culture. The defence given by a prominent member of the group, during a new-debate show on a leading Indian news channel, was that wouldn’t Indian parents want their children to dress in decent, cultural clothes.
However, these controversial comments raise questions on gender issues. One feels it is not so much about whether girls should wear jeans/skirts or talk on mobile phones, as much as it is to do with the tactics of a section of men trying to dominate women by ordering them what they should do or not do. The male ego finds soft targets to boost itself and asserting control over women is one seen in several nations, not just India. One cannot help but think that such comments by right-wing groups might have had similar motivations in mind, as much as they may justify it by talking of protecting cultures. If more Indian women are to enter education and job avenues, and participate in India’s economic vision, then such sections of Indian men need to stop asserting dominance over women, even if they are feeling insecure or threatened by the rise of socioeconomic independence amongst the women.
The alleged comment that appals the most is about the girl’s clothes ‘provoking’ men, thus leading to incidents of rape. While the Mahasabha’s member may defend himself on the TV show by saying wouldn’t Indian parents want their children to dress in decent, cultural clothes, it is horrifying to observe that he did not accord the primary cause for rape to the man’s misconduct. I am sure no parent would want to see their son commit a heinous crime like rape, even more than which clothes are worn. Such comments which potentially indicate that the primary instigator of rape incidents is what the girl wears, raises serious questions on the safety of women. India is already infamous for crimes against women, and it is worrying if men who commit such heinous crimes are not hauled up for their wrongdoing and instead end up finding defence in such immature comments. Another aspect is that if the girl’s tight, western clothes are the main instigator of rape, then how does it explain rape incidents with old women and minors?
No culture is perfect. Every culture has positive as well as decadent aspects, be it western culture or any other. Perhaps that was the sentiment which the right-wing group had in mind when they initially spoke out their views. It can be said that young teenagers specifically may not always have the maturity to understand the possible ramifications that the fast adoption of convenient technology, social media and different clothing has on societies which are ‘in-transition’ – like India. Some boys might interpret wrongly what a girl says, does or wears, due to immaturity of age. Peer-pressure amongst young people is another challenge. One might argue it can sometimes lead to unsavoury situation, even if only as an exceptional case. However, the two observations, about men asserting dominance over women due to feelings of insecurity and placing the primary fault of rape on the girl’s dress instead of the man’s misconduct, are indeed causes for concern.
It was change that Indians wanted when they voted in the federal elections. That change also includes the way in which the society treats its women. If change does not happen, then Indians may get disgruntled. The new federal government cannot afford to ignore such controversies, since the people hope for change from it. It has to swallow the bitter pill by taking on such right-wing groups. Vote-bank politics has already necessitated political parties to appease the rural, ruling communities like ‘khap panchayats’, who are powerful communities when it comes to vote equations. As it is, a leading politician from Samajwadi Party had also courted controversy recently due to immature comments of ‘boys will make mistakes’ while addressing the issue of rape. The new federal government needs to ensure that the hopes and confidence of modern-thinking Indians does not get diluted, as their role is critical for the new government to realize its ambitions for this country. Women comprise almost half of the country, and if their safety, independence and involvement cannot be ensured, then those ambitions will struggle to get realized.
But on a second thought, it might be better to abide by such comments, immature as they may seem. After all, if the Indian society is so immature that it cannot handle women becoming independent socio-economically due to feelings of insecurity, and if it cannot guarantee basic safety and justice to its women against heinous crimes by punishing the perpetrators for their misconduct, then it is better to abide by such comments just so our women stay safe. Safety is something which every Indian todays prays for his daughter, sister, wife and mother in this country. But it will be a sad day indeed, if things really do come down to a situation where abiding is the only alternative.
It is not entirely surprising since this controversy occurred in Haryana province. It has one of the worst gender statistics on aspects like female foeticide and female:male ratio. In any case, any group whosover has no right to order what the people should or should not do. Only the federal and provincial governments have that right. It is ironical to see that same member admitting on that news show that he also carried a mobile phone. The federal government recently had a meeting with the chief of a leading garments maker from Japan, so one expects it does not view western attire as entirely decadent. But one does expect it to act against illogical and immature comments. Right-wing extreme thoughts are a challenge in several countries, including secular, Islamic and Christian nations.
As an ending-note, one might add that the women participants on that same TV news-debate show included Saba Naqvi, Advaita Kala and Shazia Ilmi – each one being an accomplished professional in their own right. India is proud to have daughters like them, and its aspiration should be to have even more daughters like them.