I was a student at Manipal thirty five years ago. The college library used to be open till 1 am. Taking a break from studies, we would step down to the road to eat boiled eggs and rubbery toast, and drink some hot syrupy tea. After the library closed for the day, we would walk back to our hostels. When we worked nights at the hospital, we visited these food carts at all times of the night whenever our youthful stomachs groaned with hunger.
When disturbing incidents like the rape and abduction of an unsuspecting young woman in Manipal is reported, I sometimes hear the negative perceptions of some ‘educated’ men and women, about women’s attire or their presence on the streets so late at night.
In the early 2000s, after several decades of sari-wearing adult life in India, I lived off and on for three years in Scandinavia. Just the experience of living in a country with a different dress code from ours, and constantly seeing western attire from beach wear to formal wear made this imagery a part of my subconscious. That is how easy it can be.
In Oslo, after being invited for dinner, I often went home alone by bus or subway as late as 1 am. Many other guests did the same. Closer home, about six years ago, I was doing field work in Valsad, a small coastal town in Gujarat. I had to take a 4 am-train to Ahmedabad. The two young women who worked with me offered to drop me off at the railway station on their scooters. When I said I had to carry a rather large suitcase, they said: “Ma’am, both of us will come (from different parts of town) and one of us will take you and the other the suitcase.” I marveled at their offer because as a Bangalorean, I could not have offered similar. Not only were these young mothers willing to come at 3 am on their two-wheelers to take me, they were also quite sure their families would let them do so without apprehension. Though I took an auto rickshaw from the hotel to the station at 3 am, I could see women on scooters going around town as late as 11 at night, in that small town. That is how easy it can be.
It is not about what ‘they’ do or how ‘they’ dress, it is about what ‘we’ do and how ‘we’ think.
This is a genuine issue of safety for women in most parts of our country, where a woman can be abducted and raped from a public place just because she is physically less powerful and unable to resist. What leads to these acts? I know it has been said before, but I cannot help wondering. Is it the senseless glorification of violence in cinema and television that incites us? I stopped watching Kannada and Hindi television soaps several years ago because their regressive plots and dialogue made me cringe and left me disturbed.
What happens to the mind of a viewer who is constantly fed on a diet of rape, kidnap, cheating, selfishness, insensitivity, etc, through these media day after day? Or is it the perception that poor law and order will allow us to get away with anything? What happens to the attitude of a citizen who sees perpetrators of serious crimes either not brought to book or walking around free for years, maybe forever, after being booked?
There is an urgent need for self-regulation by the visual media. I say visual media in particular because it is the most accessible. And for self-reflection and action by the rest of us including and particularly, the police and the justice system. Then perhaps women of all ages will be free to walk around the streets of this country that prides itself on its ancient heritage and civilization.