Even though a much stricter law was enacted after the Nirbhaya gang rape case in Delhi, there has clearly been little improvement in the security situation for women. In fact, disclosure after disclosure is bringing to light the insecure conditions women face in all walks of life, be it even an internship with a judge of the Supreme Court!
It may be argued that, at least, the women have lowered the tolerance level for misbehaviour to near zero and are no longer willing to accept behaviour that may have gone unchallenged in the past, but there are still too many shortcomings in the response at the social and systemic levels. Every time a story breaks with a new twist on the sexual harassment theme, it requires a campaign at a near hysterical pitch to obtain some very reluctant action from the authorities. Obviously, strict provisions of punishment under the law are not enough to deal with the problem and it has to be addressed in a multi-dimensional way.
To begin with, Indian society will have to shed its deep-rooted hypocrisy on sex. ‘Officially’, society is happy to project India as the land of the Kamasutra and Khajuraho, as though this automatically provides Indians a special understanding of man-woman relationships. It is also, however, a fact that India is a heavily repressed society with almost a non-existent courtship culture. Marriage in very many communities is ‘arranged’ and sexual experience is a covert affair – enough to provide a lifetime of guilt that is subliminally communicated to offspring through restrictions and ‘moral’ programming. Under the circumstances, the man-woman relationship is that of a predator and prey rather than a socially mandated, regulated and conducted courtship. With social, cultural and popular norms promoting this psychology, a woman’s presence triggers the predatory instincts and she is ‘hunted’ down. A woman is not loved, she is ‘snagged’ (patana).
India, thus, needs to reshape its social norms. This requires a lot of input from the various sources that determine culture – academia, writers, social scientists, psychologists, entertainers and role-models. Perhaps, a code for the ‘guardians’ needs to be evolved – including the police personnel, society elders, government protocols, etc. They must protect the fundamentals of interaction between the sexes – freedom of choice, prevention of violence and a liberated environment for women. Once the focus is strictly on this, rather than the judgmental aspect, the young people would be able to evolve the codes of acceptable behaviour. However, if they are attacked the moment they experiment or enter ‘unsafe’ territory, this process is hampered to the detriment of all.
Freedom is, of course, a perilous thing – not at all for those of timorous nature. One may be weaker in physical, economic or social terms, but fearlessness and mental strength can more than compensate. One route to liberation is to be informed, which makes graded and sensitively handled ‘sex education’ a must. Girls can be informed about ‘predatory’ behaviour, its patterns and ‘moves’, warning signals, precautionary and safety measures, psychological tricks that could help in most situations, self-preservation techniques, and their legal rights. Merely by having established protocols in cases of sexual harassment, many of the difficulties involved in registering complaints and preparing a case against offenders can be eliminated.
The challenges for a society evolving into a 21st Century world can only be met by adopting a far more sophisticated approach than exhibited by Khaps, moral thekedars and patriarchal control freaks. This remains, without a doubt, one of the most inadequately addressed problems of Indian society today.