Walking alone at night on the street...

As the anger fizzles out, fear persists

maansi-parpiani

Maansi Parpiani | January 30, 2013



More than a month after the Delhi rape incident, much of the anger has subsided. The intervening period saw intense debates, mass protests and much collective action from different people. Two issues were emphasised repeatedly: the commodification of women by the patriarchal society and the sheer brutality of the violence leading to the death of the female victim. Both these issues however have nuances and implications of their own that need to be looked at.

The making of someone into a commodity is in the plainest terms an act of dehumanising the person. This implies putting a price on the person – making them something that can be bought by money, stolen, borrowed or forcefully acquired. It also implies making them devoid of any agency and more importantly of diversity. The commodity must resemble all others like itself – much like detergent soaps on a supermarket shelf that all look alike and serve the same purpose. In this vein, the protests against sexual crimes though occurring at divergent places also fell to the trap of homogenisation, akin to the process of commodification’s rejection of diversity.

In the most tangible way, this occurred with the protests becoming repetitive fodder for 24/7 news channels that viewers were constantly consuming. In more subtle ways, it made protesters – both men and women –caricatures of themselves, all signifying a homogenised, collective anger. Their demands and grievances might diverge somewhat, but they came to represent a monolithic manner of expression. Anger seemed to be the only legitimate response: anger against the state, against a particular government, against the police or against men in general.

Ironically, patriarchy in the Indian society tends to make an important distinction between the private and public spheres. So concessions might be made for a woman to go out and work, as long as she continues to perform her feminine duties at home. Similarly, while in the public realm, men and women aghast at the violence of the brutal rape case chose to protest and fight for larger freedoms for women, at a not so necessarily disconnected private sphere, most continue to harbour a fear psychosis, also provoked by the incident.
 
Fear for personal well-being exacerbated in the aftermath of the Delhi rape owing to the sheer brutality of the violence meted out to both the male and female victims. All the focus on the public anger discounted the fear that it simultaneously generated. More importantly it couched how the incident had set into motion a rethinking of women’s choices. So while the protesters demand the right of girls to walk the streets of an Indian city at night, alone and wearing a short skirt – how many girls would not think twice before doing so in the wake of recent events. Some might go ahead and exercise their constitutional freedom, while others might decide to not take the ‘risk’. This fear of increased risk of putting yourself in vulnerable positions severely discounts any attempt to reverse commodification of women, if anything it will lead to a further withdrawal of women in sterilised zones of activity, where their safety can be maximally ensured. Further, it reiterates that the onus is on the women to make the choice each moment of securing her private space, ironically even in a crowded protest against sexual crimes, as was evidenced from the incident of a female protester being groped at such an event.

Moreover, discussions of the sexual violence at dinner tables witnessed words of caution from different family members – male and female – being meted out to the women of the family. Among these words of pre-emptive advice are stricter time curfews, appropriate dress codes or manners of public comportment. The homogenisation of the anger over the incident has couched the different ways in which each woman’s space for negotiating for her choices and freedoms has been severely restricted both in the house and out on the streets. So, while anger and frustration have helped women to express their desperation, there is no overnight wishing away of the problem. Fears are very private emotions and rarely articulated publicly. By that virtue, they tend to become persistently potent factors in decision making and in the consideration of risks. So, even as anger in the forms of protests and heated debates subsides, caution of the utmost kind for the preservation of self and for women of the family will continue to be crucial coping mechanisms.

It is true that the fault lines of sexual differentiation are constantly created and made increasingly violent because of the workings of patriarchy, the influences of neoliberal consumerism and easy gratifications, the lack of effective policing, the inadequacies of legal apparatus and process among other things. However, their manifestation is not via the incidences of rape or their sheer brutality alone. The everyday realities reflect constant negotiations of choices and compromises resulting from falling victim not to any physical perpetrators but to an elusive yet all pervasive fear of violence. It is important to recognise the existence of this fear and its persistence.

Further, different women already have different levels of access to the tools of securing their safety in society. So, for example, not all can afford to move around in private cars, some live in relatively more vulnerable slum settlements while others are able to achieve a relative sense of safety by living in secured gated communities. Socio-economic factors aside too, women deal with their fears differently in different situations. Some just accept fear as a consequence of social malaise and build their choices around it while others try and constantly negotiate for relatively wider freedoms. The envisioning of safe societies needs to take into consideration the diversity of women’s efforts of dealing with fear. Thus one does not need solely the right to roam the streets at night alone wearing whatever one pleases, but more importantly one needs to be able to exercise that right with relative fearlessness. Tackling fear as the core issue would help unravel the everyday choices of women hidden behind their seemingly uniform anger and experience. More importantly, it would break the myth that there exists any singular idea of what constitutes a society safe for all women.

 

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