Debraj Bhattacharya is an alumnus of Presidency College, Calcutta, and currently is with Institute of Social Sciences, a civil society organisation, where he researches on contemporary development issues. He has earlier edited a book of essays, "Of Matters Modern: The Experience of Modernity in Colonial and Post-Colonial South Asia" (2008) and has written several reports on rural development issues of India. He also writes in more popular vein in newspapers in English and Bengali.
Two cheers for the anti-rape movement
Posted on: 02:11 PM IST Jan 01, 2013 IST
Following the horrific assault and rape of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi there has been massive protests at Delhi, in other cities of India as well on the social media. Print and electronic media have played a significant role in highlighting the issue, analysng the problems related to law, policing, attitude of political leaders, attitudes of the society towards women, role of Bollywood and television serials. It is one of the rare cases where the mainstream media and the alternative media of the blogosphere have sung the same tune. Middle class Indians who usually do not take part in any social cause have joined candle-light protests in Jantar Mantar; young students have broken through police barricades and faced lathi-charge. The incident has sparked off outrage not only on the incident itself but also as to the way in which women are treated in the country. In articles and posts on social media questions have been raised as to why a woman cannot wear what she wants to and go out at midnight like any other man. Blog articles encouraging the protestors have received massive numbers of facebook likes - a new indicator of popularity. While there is enough reason to feel sad and depressed about the death of the girl there are also enough reasons to feel cheerful about the fact that people of India have come out to protest in large numbers and have shaken the Government.
At the core of this massive protest has been a dedicated group of activists fighting for the cause of women in the country. They have spearheaded a movement that has given courage to many young men and women who have defied the patriarchal society in their own way to come out and protest in public. A young woman standing on a lamp post and pointing the middle finger towards the Presidential Palace has become a much circulated photograph. Clearly this is a landmark moment in the women's movement in India. Two Cheers!
Why two cheers and not three? This is because this movement has also suffered (at least so far) a fundamental problem within the women movement of the country. There are, broadly speaking, two movements for emancipation of women in India and the two usually have very little dialogue with each other. The first is the kind of movement that we have been seeing since the tragic incident. This is the voice of the metropolitan India which is in sync with women movements elsewhere in the developed countries. This circulates around a discourse of men and women being fundamentally equal and therefore should have equal rights not only to jobs but also the freedom to wear what they want and the freedom to have a drink at midnight in a bar. This women's movement is characterised by events such as SLUTWALK, Reclaiming the Night, and the kind of public protests that have been seen recently. It is mostly urban and upper middle class.
The second movement for emancipation of women in India is taking place in rural India. Over the last ten to fifteen years, a massive number of Self Help Groups have been formed across the country. They vary in degree in terms of their strength and but the sheer number is staggering. There are experts and professionals who are continuously working towards new ways of providing training to the SHGs, finding ways of providing them employment, discussing how they can become economically strong and how they can be more empowered. Organisations like SEWA in Gujarat and Kudumbasree in Kerala have shown the way for millions of rural women. Thanks to the SHG movement many of them have come out of home for the first time, started small economic activities and have even participated in the political process.
Both are encouraging signs for India. But they hardly ever understand what the other side is talking about. Women interested in SLUTWALK hardly ever bother about the women in rural India. Conversely SHG groups hardly ever participate in the urban events organised by feminists who are in the first category. For the last fortnight or so since the anti-rape agitation started I have been trying to find one example of a Self-Help-Group from rural India coming to Delhi or in some other way participating in the movement. I am reasonably confident that there was no such incident. I have tried to find examples of elected women representatives in Panchayats joining the movement. I could not find any such examples. Not even from some highly educated women who have become famous for taking the decision of becoming Panchayat president.
Clearly the ice between the two sides of the movement for emancipation of women in India has not as yet melted. Unless this ice melts the movement as a whole will remain fundamentally fragmented and therefore weak. If somehow the massive number of rural Self-Help-Groups would have joined the anti-rape movement of the urban areas then the sheer force of numbers would have shaken the political class. If that would have happened then I would have said Three Cheers! For now however I have to restrict myself to a couple of cheers only.