During the anti-gang-rape agitations, I watched intently as people gathered at India Gate and Jantar Mantar to protest against the Delhi gang-rape - they asked for speedy trial and harsh punishment for the culprits and, in general, better security for women. Their agitation was against the establishment. They were activists (many of them, in spirit) and they were doing their job well.
I'm not an activist or an intellectual. I'm a human being, a son, a brother, a friend, a member of this society and a citizen of this country. And I'm not doing my job well.
On December 29, when I got news that the victim of the Delhi
gang-rape had died - I was saddened by the death of the 23-year-old girl, but to tell you the truth, my sadness is greater for our lethargy and indifference. We needed a 23-year-old girl in Delhi to die for us to wake us up. Why did it take me so long to wake up? No, I'm not doing my job well.
As I watched the protests and the debates over these few days, I was overpowered by the desire to do something. I followed all the news from the start and listened to various opinions. Although I agreed with almost every opinion, I resonated most strongly with those commentators who talked about social change. I felt that social change is the only true comprehensive and permanent solution to the problem of women safety and equality.
Take the example of Los Angeles. Almost no one in LA smokes cigarettes. Hard to believe that this is possible in a city that is home to the glamorous Hollywood. How did they do it? Not by banning smoking or films or smoking in films. Instead, about twenty-odd years ago they went into their schools to tell children about the ill-effects of smoking. Those children are now non-smoking adults, teaching their kids the same. That is the power of social change.
Social change can stop rape. But the thing to understand here is that rape is not the disease. It is a symptom of the collective depravity of our society. That is the disease, our society, the way it views women, the power (or the lack of it) it gives to women.
Why are we overlooking the disease of our social malaise, instead focusing all our energies on ensuring death sentences to the perpetrators of the Delhi gang-rape? When the doctor knows that shivering is a symptom of malaria, would he prescribe medication for the shivering or for the malaria? Would he cure the symptom or the disease?
It's good to talk about prevention of rape and stricter laws. But as long as we keep talking only about rape and its prevention, we will never reach the root cause of the problem.
So as I watched the events unfold at India
Gate, I was really convinced about the need for social change in this whole debate. I wanted to do something but I felt helpless, cursing myself for not doing anything. I wanted to see social change, but I didn't know how it would happen. I blamed our “society” for the way it was. I never thought that I was at fault, that as a member of this society I was not doing my job well.
Today, I came face to face with this truth. The truth that although our society needs to change, the change has to begin with me and you at the individual level. It is I who need to change. There's an I in the middle of socIety. The truth was bitter and I found it hard to deal with, but accept it I must. For this is the truth of our country and our society. This the truth of all of us. We are not doing our jobs well.
Imagine yourself walking in a dark alley. You get the feeling that something is wrong but you don't know what it is. Then, out of nowhere, a dark frightening shape appears in front of you. It's a monster and you are disgusted and scared at the sight of the creature. A sliver of light shoots through the empty lane, momentarily defining the features of the monster. And you realise...that the monster is you. You are standing in front of a mirror. And when you point a finger at the monster, the mirror points it back at you. We can blame “society” as much as we like, but ultimately the accusing finger points back at us.
The intellectuals have talked about how, in a gang-rape, there is no sense of personal guilt as a group dilutes the accountability of the individual. We are doing a similar thing by blaming society and avoiding our individual responsibility. We are all a part of this society. Are we too afraid to hold ourselves accountable? Are we too afraid to look in the mirror?
This is the truth. There's a monster in all of us. We don't even realise it. Society is a reflection of its people and I am a reflection of the society. If there's something wrong with my society, I am responsible. After the shooting that took place in a high school in Connecticut, US recently, many people gave up their weapons. US has an arms culture and many people possess weapons in the name of self-defence but the easy availability of weapons leads to more violence. Instead of focusing on how the government should ensure better security of children in schools, many people realised their personal responsibility and that change has to begin with them so they did what was right and surrendered their weapons.
When I realised this, I stopped blaming the society and held myself accountable. I am a part of the society. What am I doing to stop this disease of inequality towards women? I realised that more than social change, we need individual change, because we are all responsible for how we think, what we teach our kids and what we allow. Ye toh chalta hai, we may say for something like eve-teasing, not realising that it originates from the same attitude towards women as something like rape. I must change.
Rumi had said “Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I am changing myself.” Many of us don't even realise that we are harbouring similar attitudes towards women as “illiterate, uneducated, uncultured, orthodox, extremist, intolerant” people whom we blame for everything that's wrong with our society. Let me give you an example. I heard someone talk about the death of the Delhi gang-rape victim. The person, a male, was angry and imploring all men to respect women. Up to this point, we can see that this guy was deeply concerned and he had good intentions.
But then he said if you can't respect women, don't call yourself men, wear a pair of bangles and join the other side. To me that statement 'wear a pair of bangles and join the other side' is inherently chauvinistic. It was subconscious, unintentional and not meant to be offensive towards women, but it was. This shows that even the best of us – educated, sophisticated, urban, free-thinking – can subconsciously harbour the stereotypes that society has promoted. And we are all prisoners of such an attitude, not just men, but even women.
We are conditioned that way from childhood because we live in a society that breeds gender inequality. I'm not blaming anyone. It's not about blaming the society or our parents for this conditioning. Just accept it and acceptance will open the way to change. You should say “OK. So this is the problem. Now what should I do about it?”
Yes, I must change. I must undo years of conditioning that tells me women are not equal. I must not act or speak in a way that promotes such a belief. I must stop it from happening in my own family and my own community. I must step forward and raise my voice when I see it happening to a stranger in public. I must do my best to ensure that me and my immediate society are not unequal to women in any way – not just in action, but also in thought and attitude. Above all, women will have to claim their right and say “I must stop it from happening to me”. Because, often, women stay silent and let it happen to themselves and to other women, their daughters, sisters, mothers, daughters-in-law.
We must show ZERO TOLERANCE towards any form of gender inequality. Sumana Ramanan, Senior Editor, at Hindustan Times, writes, “We have reached this shameful place because we tolerate attitudes that may not always end in violence but that continually belittle and humiliate women.”
This thought suddenly made me realise that probably all of us feel that we are better off than khap panchayats and rapists and right-wing organisations. At least we don't go around raping women or abusing them or “outraging their modesty” in any way. We do all the right things – we condemn inequality and crime against women, we say politically correct things, we treat our female friends with respect. We are good people. How are we to blame? How are we responsible? Of course we are not as bad as criminals and fundamentalists, but are we not responsible? We are not rapists but there's a good chance that all of us harbour gender stereotypes, if only subconsciously. And we feel saying something like “you are not a man and you should wear bangles” is relatively harmless. But the attitude is still there. As long as we are tolerant towards the small, seemingly harmless violations of equality and respect towards women, we cannot really bring about change.
The more I thought about this, the more I realised how important it is at the individual level. I thought about my own family. I belong to an average well-educated middle-class family that is relatively progressive in its thought. I'm a Rajasthani and as you must be aware Rajasthanis are known to be conservative. Obviously my own family has come a long way from the kind of society shown in Balika Vadhu, but there are still some traditions that I feel breed inequality towards women. Daughters-in-law are expected to cover their heads with their dupattas in the presence of males and elders. This seems pretty normal when you think about what happens in villages. This practice seems harmless, tolerable. But I realised that even a thing as small as this should not be tolerated because it's about the attitude. That act of covering your head with a dupatta, in itself a small thing, represents something much larger: the attitudes of our society towards women.
This is a small thing but I'm doing something about it. By getting rid of this chauvinistic tradition I aim to bring a change in attitudes. I'm writing a letter to my grandfather to explain my opinion to him in a peaceful and respectful manner so that he can not only adopt this attitude himself but also promote it among others of his generation.
The most important thing here is to do your best to make the other person see your point but never force it upon them. At the end of the day, if my letter to my grandfather is ineffective, I wouldn't be disheartened because I did my job. Now it's up to him. I'm responsible for changing myself. I can only help others see the light, but transforming their mind is up to them.
I'll be making a more conscious effort from now on to make sure that I follow the things I have listed here. If I focus on changing myself, society will change. I'm sure.
The mantra is I, the INDIVIDUAL, who must change. Not WE must change, or THEY must change, or YOU must change, or SOCIETY must change, or MEN must change, or POLITICIANS must change. “I” must change. That is the one thing in my control. I will do my job well.