Since the Dec 16th gang rape in New Delhi, there has been much commentary about the status of women in India. Many have pointed out that we are all witting and unwitting collaborators in perpetuating subtle and arrant practices of discrimination against women. From cultural ‘lakshman rekhas’ or boundaries that prevent or discourage women from participating actively in society, to social customs that dictate appropriate behaviours for women, especially in the areas of morality, sexuality, and dress code, there’s ample evidence that there are dual and separate standards for the two sexes. When the problem is everywhere, and all pervasive, as is the issue of women’s status in India, the solution must also be one that can be applied everywhere and in a pervasive manner. Top-down solutions are capable only of ‘trickle-down’ effects, and not capable of larger brush-stroke changes. For a solution to bring about meaningful alterations within a single lifetime, it must begin with a broad base that is common to women of all ages, socio-economic, educational and ethnic backgrounds.
So how does one even begin to think about solutions to a problem that can be described as: Changing the perception that women can be violently abused and then discarded as trash – from a moving bus? While this description pertains to the specifics of one recent and well-publicized incident, the gist of it applies to a million more. The key elements are that women are abusable and then expendable. In its extreme form, the dispensability of women is nowhere more evident than in the practice of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. This is a crime in which women are equally culpable as men. When expendability is applied to adults, we see dowry deaths and bride/wife-burning. We see suicides by victims of rape, where the lack of recourse to justice and shame over the violation contribute to sending the woman down the path of complete self-destruction. Manifestations of abuse are too varied in manner and severity to peg into a few categories, but the most prominent one, high on the severity scale is rape. It has proved to be so successful as a tool in acquiring control and power that it is now a much relied upon “weapon” of warfare in some parts of the world. Questions that have no simple answers are: Which type of rape is more dysfunctional – the one committed in isolation for no apparent tangible gain, or the ones committed as a part of a larger strategy to gain power? How are they different, and what do they have in common? On a moral level, they are both equally vile. On a social level, rapes that are not committed as a means to some larger end are perhaps more disturbing, and indicative of greater social dysfunction than the ones committed for obvious gain. What they both share in common, though, is the recognition by the perpetrators that women can be easily manipulated to work against themselves. Why else would victims of rape be subjected (by men and women) to so much shame and self-recrimination?
A paradigm shift in perception is required before any substantive changes can be observed in the position of the beleaguered women. This paradigm shift is not only about how men view women, but especially how women view themselves and other women.
A person’s identity is a complicated amalgam of associating oneself with many social groups and social roles. Social Identity Theory describes identity as the outcome of highlighting the similarities with members of the in-groups and exaggerating the differences with members of the out-groups. In trying to understand worldwide rape statistics, post-rape suicide, female foeticide/infanticide and non-violent manifestations of female oppression in the context of social identity, it is easy to see that women’s self-perception should be the logical starting-point of remediating efforts. Gender-identity should stem from meaningful differences between the sexes, and not be clouded by a blind quest for “equality.” Gender-identity should celebrate the unique characteristics, capabilities and limitations of the “weaker sex,” and not be defensive about women’s obvious conflicts of interest when motherhood and career overlap for her maximum attention. And lastly, gender-identity issues should be framed in neutral language that avoids connotations of otherness and exclusion.
An elaboration in the next segment….