Special Article / Malini Bhattacharya

Women’s Matters

There was a time when there would be a weekly or fortnightly ‘women’s page’ in prominent national and regional newspapers. Traditionally pre-eminence would be given in these to cookery and home-making, but in the 1970s and 1980s, other voices were also emerging on these pages raising questions about women’s status, about laws that need to be changed and about social attitudes on gender.  Today it has mostly disappeared; I do not know about other regions, but it is not there in the most widely-circulated Bengali papers. This perhaps suggests an universalisation of ‘women’s issues’ which should make people like us who have been fighting for this over the years happy. But one suspects that there is actually another dimension to this which causes concern.

 In most big newspapers, the editor’s autonomy has given place to the overweening power of the owner or the financial manager who is obsessed with his/her own ideas of what would sell. It is generally modern, urban, progressive and educated women who are seen as the target group of such newspapers. If women who matter are already thus empowered, then what is the use of keeping a special niche for them? They are already part of the ‘mainstream’ readers! On the other hand, such women are also assumed to be inveterate consumers and the policy-makers do not mind choking newspaper space with illustrated reports on fashion-shows, shopping and eating sprees, weddings and birthday parties presided over by celebrities and even celebrations of ‘karva chauth’ and ‘dhanteras’. This is how ‘women’s matters’ find a space in the mainstream today. 

There are of course exceptions to this. For one thing, journalists have not necessarily sold themselves out to this exclusively commercial approach and they do sometimes succeed in smuggling in ‘women’s matters’ of a different and more thought-provoking kind even when they have less appeal to the consumerist instincts of the reader. Secondly, there are occasions when some particularly blatant incident (generally of some atrocity) agitates the public mind so much that media has to foreground it, if for no other reason then for its sensational nature, and when this happens, articles, debates and media discourses on the issues thrown up by the incident find prime space in newspapers for some time. But then the furore subsides as the situation throws up some other exciting subject and ‘women’s matters’ again take a secondary place in them.

 I am not arguing here for a return of the ‘women’s page’, but for a more consistent and regular interest within public space, of which media is an important part, in urgent matters which are outside the ambience of the consumerist approach taken by media. That even the needs of the empowered woman targeted by newspapers are not covered by market-driven solutions offered by media is evident from recent incidents in Viswa Bharati and Jadavpur University. Media deserves praise for highlighting these incidents, but its general atmosphere of trivialization still tends to brush aside the burning questions raised by them.

Both Viswa Bharati and Jadavpur University are elite institutions of higher education in the public sector known not only for academic excellence but also for a liberal atmosphere within the campus which enables women to move around with freedom and self-confidence. Even under the guardianship of its illustrious founder Rabindranath Tagore, Viswa Bharati had allowed its women greater freedom of movement than other educational institutions did at that time. The same can be said of Jadavpur University since more and more women came to study here from the 1950s particularly in the newly-founded faculties of Arts and Science. Jadavpur University was one of the first institutions in the country to develop Women’s Studies as an academic field and had been able to put in place a comprehensive gender policy for the campus and to implement it in accordance with the Visaka Guidelines before most other higher education institutions in the country. The general liberal atmosphere in both institutions had been sorely put to test from time to time, particularly in recent times, but the academic community had still survived these tests.

The two incidents that took place in these institutions in the course of the last few months have assumed a different dimension because in each case the topmost administration has not only failed to respond appropriately to the charge of molestation (molestation and blackmailing in the case of Viswa Bharati) brought against senior male students of the institutions by girls who were studying in the same place, but further because in both cases there have been atrocious attempts by the administration to suppress the complaints. In the case of Jadavpur, the administration went several steps further by getting the protesting students beaten up not only by the police, butalso allegedly by armed goons associated with the ruling party. The operation took place at dead of night right in front of the Administrative Building at the personal behest of the Vice Chancellor and girl students too were allegedly beaten mercilessly, as well as molested.

 Jadavpur is still on the boil because the entire academic community, including students, teachers and non-teaching employees, have decided to resist the Government move to give permanent tenure of Vice-Chancellorship to a man who has discredited himself so badly and has even refused so far to utter a single word of regret. In Viswa Bharati, a strange dead silence is pressing down upon the campus in spite of the fact that the complainant has been virtually forced to interrupt her studies and return home and while the police have arrested the accused students on the basis of the girl’s FIR, the administration has done nothing to salvage its accountability in the matter of the mishandling of the issue and the attempt to suppress facts. While the matter is known to the Central Government and the UGC, they too have maintained silence so far. In the meantime both campuses are overrun by security personnel of all kinds engaged by the administration and  restrictions have been imposed on the movements of students and teachers as well as ‘outsiders’ like emeritus professors, alumni, visitors, retired teachers and other employees.

Instead of remaining confined to these two incidents, however, my proposition here is that the present situation within these elite institutions is symptomatic of a general shift in the negative direction in public perception. The image of the emancipated woman in media whose consumer status enables her to wield complete control over her own world tends to cover up this shift. The image in media asserts the emancipated status of the modern urban woman who is its target. But in public perception, this status is trashed so that her vulnerability is exposed. The callousness and hypocrisy of the administration in the two institutions feeds on the widespread attitude that we find in the public sphere today that women who speak up against sexual or familial violence are out to make trouble, that their moral character is in question, that they are making false complaints to bring trouble to men and so on. A distinction is also made between the traditional woman and the modern elite woman with disruptive tendencies. If they really face sexual violence in fact, it is asserted that they attract it by their boldness. The University authorities in both cases have proceeded on the assumption that an issue has been made out oftrivial occurrences only by media to disrupt order on the campus and it will die down when media ceases to take interest. This itself shows how the all-pervasiveness of media distorts reality.

Sometimes today, the question arises as to whether there has been a real rise in the incidence of violence against women, or whether it is because women complain more often and media highlights such complaints that we have an impression of increase. To put the same question from a different angle, are women more empowered since they are voicing complaints or does the rise in complaints show that their vulnerability has gone up?I would say that there is some truth in both these views. Through their larger participation in the public sphere, women have acquired a voice of their own. Supported by the Constitutional promise of no discrimination, they have fought for equal rights and have succeeded on the basis of their struggles in bringing changes in law and in policy which might give them greater autonomy and dignity. All this has been happening since Independence and traditional society has shown signs of positive changes. However, when the forces of patriarchal conservatism within society are spurred by the fear of losing control, they always generate a backlash. This has caused a real aggravation in all kinds of violence against women particularly in the last two or three decades when the state itself has changed its character under the compulsion of neo-liberalism.

The assurance of unfettered growth and free trade relations with the whole world underlying the neo-liberal agenda carries the sheen of a global brand of modernity. Still such are the self-contradictions within this agenda that it can only flourish by aligning with the most reactionary tendencies within society. To allow ruthless competition, all protective measures to ensure the democratic rights of the vulnerable sections of society are withdrawn by the state; apart from aggravation of economic inequality this also has the effect of encouraging and reinforcing the conservative backlash from within society. It is not as if traditional society did not suffer earlier from fear of losing control over subservient sections like women; it is not as if it did not make pious utterances and take stringent action to crush or contain dissent. But in independent India, some constitutional and legal protection had been extended by the democratic republic to such sections. Conservatism had persisted, but it had remained subdued to some extent in the public sphere.

Today, however, not just ordinary people, but celebrities, elected representatives and religious leaders make the most horrendous statements in public with impunity.Bhupender Singh Hooda as chief minister of Haryana justified the activities of the so-called ‘khap panchayats’ and said publicly that it is the sentiment of the family that leads to honour killings. Mahant Adityanath, a member of Parliament, propagated the fabricated theory of ‘love jihad’ which not only encouraged honour crimes, but added fuel to communal tension. Tapas Paul, also an elected member of Parliament, talks in an open meeting of getting houses of his political opponents raided by ‘my boys’ who would also rape the women in these houses. Lobbies which seek to dilute or trash laws to protect women from domestic violence on the argument that women are prone to misuse these laws are given political legitimacy by the state itself. Let us take the case of the two Universities mentioned earlier. A law has now replaced the Visaka Guidelines on sexual harassment at workplace. What prevented the University authorities from informing the complainants about available redress and from setting up a legally constituted ‘internal committee' to enquire into the complaint? Nothing but that neither the state nor the institutions feel that all efforts must be put in implementing the laws which protect women’s lives and dignity. Withdrawal of the state from the social sector means that even the minimum budgetary support is lacking for such implementation. The ‘mantra’ of development tells us that people are expendable, women more so.

Another factor that links the neo-liberal regime with the increased violence on women is the fragmentation of the rights perspective. Abdication by the state of its responsibility to look after the rights of all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, religion and gender, means that it grows more and more oppressive towards minorities and vulnerable sections. Not only the economically dominant, but the socially dominant are free to install the rule of majoritarianism. The aspirations of the oppressed then get channelized into separate caste-based, community-based lobbies. Sectional control over women becomes important as a result of this identity politics. Hindu patriarchy, Muslim patriarchy, patriarchy within dalit and Adivasi groups gets intensified. An Adivasi girl going to work outside her community as a result of  increased mobility enforced by neo-liberal forms of labour is not only vulnerable to exploitation by non-tribal employers where she works, but she also gets penalized by their enforced conservatism within her own community.

Malini Bhattacharya is presently Honorary Visiting Professor at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. Formerly Professor of English at Jadavpur University, and the Director of its School of Women’s Studies, she has also been a Member of Parliament from 1989 to 1996. Having served as a member of the State Planning Board, West Bengal and West Bengal State Commission for Women, she now spends much of her time towards empowerment of women and the marginalized sections of society. Some of her well known books are Talking of Power: Writings of Bengali Women from Early Nineteenth Century, Gananatya Andolan: Bikash o Rupantar, etc.

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