An open letter to the chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit

By — December 27, 2012

Students protest violence against women in the Raisina Hill/Rajpath area of Delhi on December 22. A 23-year-old student was violently gang-raped on a Delhi bus on December 16. She is being treated for severe internal injuries. (Nilanjana Roy)

Dear Mrs. Dixit,

I have read your comments on the Delhi gang-rape. I applaud your honesty in admitting failure, in admitting the dangerous condition of Delhi for women and your determination that there must be change. In a more cynical mood, I think that it is easy for you to make these admissions considering that you are not in charge of security. However, you are in charge of the city and the mindset thriving in it makes this your responsibility. This also doesn’t let you off the hook for other comments in the past.

However, this letter is about the future. You have mentioned in an interview that you have the intention to not sit idle and wait for security to happen, but to initiate a social drive to create a transformation in society. This is one of the wisest things anyone has said on the subject so far. I agree that this is the correct approach, and as a keen people watcher with an interest in women’s rights, I have suggestions for transformation, if applied with integrity.

Most of the things on the table will not work. The buses and pubs are topical measures. Unless you plan to install CCTV cameras in fields and school toilets and turn the whole city into a super surveillance prison, this can’t really starve rapists of locations or methods. Even as prison it will fail. This will strip the rights of the common man, which are already pretty shredded and encroached; lead to overall unrest.

Rapists don’t see themselves as criminals till the need for a cover-up. What happens to criminals will not deter them. Plus prosecution is lethargic and cops not interested in filing cases they can avoid. Harsh punishment for rapists won’t fix the problem. There is a danger in creating laws in a moment of fury. Our country has a penchant for slapping laws onto things that can’t be fixed by laws. And this is without our notoriously flawed witch-hunt investigations and propensity to frame people. Irreversible punishments may just lay the brickwork for future disasters.

There is a process to rape. A rapist has a certain kind of thinking that allows the use or abuse of women sexually. Such a person finds an opportunity and a reason to do it. Then there is the victim. There are cops. The investigation. Judicial process. The judgment itself. Each of these can be improved. Lots of potential here if someone is serious about rolling up sleeves and getting to work. Most important is everything coming before the rape, because that can actually prevent it.

The opportunity and reason part of it is near impossible to prevent (and is [Home Minister Sushilkumar] Shinde’s job anyway). Other things like police response and all will definitely help, but like you said, you can’t do much about that beyond insisting, which you must.

In a normal society, there is a non-verbal contract of obeying laws, paying taxes, and other duties in return for enforcement of rights, facilities that support and enhance living, protection from harm, etc. India is in a precarious position. People are experiencing that while they obey laws and pay taxes, and so on, they are not safer, they are finding living more difficult from inflation, unemployment, insecurity, whatever. There is dissatisfaction and very little awareness of equality.  It is every person for himself, with the sexually repressed environment demonizing sex, lesser chances of marriages, etc. The primitive chauvinistic culture has little in terms of legal oversight (possibly the price of vote bank politics).

Too much permissibility of subjugation of women has made their condition precarious. To add to this is a reinforcement of impunity for further humiliation of women with public figures making rabidly anti-women statements. Witness [Member of Parliament Sanjay] Nirupam’s questioning of Smriti Irani’s character. [Irani is an actress and member of the Bharatiya Janata Party.] This is pretty much what every street thug does as he sizes up your breasts to grope on a bus. Big breasts is loose character, dancing is loose character, revealing clothes is loose character, late night on bus is loose character. The predator needs to find a way to turn his victim into a “bad person” in order to punish her with his actions, or he has to face that he is a demon (which no one does—everyone thinks of themselves as good people). Which is how Smriti Irani dancing is a reflection of her character, but hey [actor] Sunil Dutt or [actor-turned-politician] Govinda danced way more than her for far more money. But there is no utility in questioning their character.

This is further compounded by the Savitri and Sexy syndrome, where some women are objects of evil, while others are objects of innocence. [Savitri is a mythological character who brought back her husband from the dead through her devotion, which entailed burning herself alive. “Sexy” is a common catcall on the street.] So it is highly unpredictable who is a potential attacker till too late. Who knows who has what kind of hang-up? So you had students protesting the rape of a student showing bangles to the police—as if it is an insult to be a woman. They used foul language about you or [President of the Indian National Congress] Sonia Gandhi—both women. Needless to say going among them without security is highly inadvisable for either of you, while the other “innocent” girls may do so without fear (unless they break another stereotype). It is not possible to go around analyzing every man. Nor is it appropriate to treat all men as potential sexual predators—the traditional line taught to unmarried girls in the hopes of keeping them away from men. Usually fails and leads to heartbreak or marriage or great/lousy sex. Hormones are a compelling influence no amount of moral policing can trump.

The need of the hour is a carrot–stick approach that keeps enough people in line that the rest can be fixed in other ways.

The carrots are the goodies. Increased acceptance of sex, propagation of ideas of sex as a natural and healthy thing, education on contraceptives, de-shaming sex, education on the paramount importance of consent as a part of sex (this also needs more solidly plugged into the laws and constitution), acceptance of sexuality, acceptance of sex professionals, industry (not exploitation), films and toys, and more. The more you can end repression of sexuality and make it easy and acceptable (as natural), the less likely it is to burst out in unpredictable, uncontrollable and devastating ways. Please note that this doesn’t mean lowering the age of marriage. Sex and marriage need to be differentiated.

The sticks are the taboos. Enforcing laws is the biggest one. Creating public opinion on the unacceptability of sex without consent. Punishing every instance of demeaning women without discrimination (more below) by public figures or in media. Preventing exploitation in marriage, trade, whatever. The idea is to make these taboos so strong that you have to be a really filthy creature to even think these things. Think of how well the church has done making homosexuality unthinkable. The pope is still fighting tooth-and-nail for his right to devastate lives. For a good cause, it could work brilliantly. Really heavy-duty bombardment and relentless public opinion mongering. Religious leaders could be roped in to whatever extent they feel able to follow the laws of India.

The idea is the creation of a social environment where the laws matter. Here, your leaders and public figures are important. Visible role models upholding law will create a virtue out of that; visible role models insulting women will encourage the public to do similar. What is good/bad, acceptable or not, even which laws to take seriously and which ones to bend is often understood by watching what others are doing, and the references lie in the public space.

About the punishing of demeaning of women, it is actually written that it should be so. Another law enforced to manipulate people, but not protect them. It must be enforced. The women’s commissions should be hauled over coals for not protecting women to begin with and then, if they repent, should be tasked with filing legal cases for offending the modesty of a woman for every single instance of victim-blaming, character judgments, insulting comments about women, etc. Such people should be punished in courts or if they settle out of courts, one of the conditions must be a public apology that should be well covered in media. If the people receive it well, they are off the hook, or the case should go on.

Every single instance. be it a politician, a police officer, a judge, a school principal, a khap panchayat [an all-male, unelected village council]—whoever, whatever. Regardless of political loyalties. The women’s commission must not have any members who belong to political organizations or are related to politicians. Any of them not fulfilling these conditions must be replaced. Women’s commissions should also alert appropriate authorities in the case of anyone in a tax-funded job, so that appropriate action may be taken. Good idea for this could be fining half the salary for six months to fund women’s rights initiatives. On an aside, a good person to have on a woman’s commission is a blogger called Indian Homemaker. A superb and sensible warrior of human rights with an impeccable sense of what is fair. With no affiliations (that I know of) to make her judgment suspect.

The censor board must be hauled over coals for allowing content that promotes women as inferior and encourages subjugation. All the soap operas showing bold women as evil must be forced to rewrite scripts to be compatible with the message of equality in our constitution. Films with super hit songs (and stories) promoting sexual harassment must be forced to run captions that the action demonstrated in the film is actually illegal as per Indian law. “Good” women characters must be forced to comply with health weight charts. An underweight model must not be promoted as a role model, particularly in stories showing women of normal or heavier weights as stupid. “Good” characters must not exhibit a virtue of suffering abuse silently. On the contrary, they must fight abuse—against themselves at least, compulsorily. Challenging status quo must not be the sign of a bad character. Any “item numbers” projecting women as enjoying being touched by a crowd of men must have the actresses giving independent interviews disclosing if they really enjoyed being touched or would like to experience such a thing in real life. These interviews must be appended to the film in all future releases. Shows to focus on various aspects of women’s rights to raise awareness must be designed. Tax exemptions must be given to films/books/content that promote healthy attitudes toward women.

I think this is a good laundry list to start with. Particularly important is the point about punishing public role models of humiliating women. I congratulate you on your healthy attitude to the problem, and I think you need not find yourself helpless. It will not be so difficult to change society if the people planning the change know what they are doing. Particularly for someone with the tremendous resources and reach of the state on their side. We stand by you, and hope that you come up with a model that can be replicated countrywide.

I would be happy to hatch more ideas with any team you have, if you find these useful.

Wishing you the best,

Vidyut

This letter was originally published on AamJanata.com.