Monday, October 13, 2008

I'm angry so this might be raw

A few days ago, a young journalist was shot in New Delhi at 3 at night as she drove back from work. The Delhi police is (typically) baffled and has no leads, clues or witnesses as far as I can glean. A woman being harassed, abused, raped or even killed in New Delhi is sadly not surprising news. It is a notoriously difficult city for women to live in. There are tons of blog posts on horrific encounters and everyday humiliations that women go through. I lived seven years there, for a long time on my own, and it was frequently uncomfortable and scary. Every woman has a bad Delhi story - it's just a matter of degrees.

What really enrages me, however, is the Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit's remark on the incident:
""All by herself till 3 am at night in a city where people should not be so adventurous.''

Anyone can be suckered into giving a bad quote but in subsequent interviews and statements, Dikshit has only tried to qualify the comment in ever more aggravating ways. In the opportunism and hypocrisy typical of Indian politics (or any politics, lets be fair) the BJP has condemned Dikshit's (she's from the Congress) comment but for all the wrong reasons. This from the people who brought you valentines day vandalism, bans on the movie 'Fire' and Water etc. in the name of 'Indian culture'. So forgive my cynicism.

The lesson to take away from this, according to Dikshit is that the onus is on women to lock themselves up, be home at a 'decent' time, confine themselves to 'safe' jobs and no doubt not to drive, go to a bar, smoke, name it.

None of this is surprising in itself or even unique to India. You hear similar arguments everywhere. 'she was asking for it', 'she was wearing a short skirt', 'she was drinking alone'. Not new. And I'm the first to advocate basic common sense and vigilance, specially if you're a woman in a dangerous city. Yes, it's probably not a good idea to walk home alone at 2 am at night in a dangerous city, or accept a ride from a stranger or meet a blind date at their house - whether you're a man or a woman.
However, that does not mean you shouldn't be able to be a journalist, or wear a skirt or drive home late at night. Again, none of this is particularly revelatory.

What is really appalling to me, and I think is troubling about contemporary India, is that people like Sheila Dikshit (or whoever it is) can get away with making comments like these. Where are the watch dogs? Why is she not forced to apologize for her remarks and actually go after the people responsible for upholding the law? When does all this b.s. end?

The institutional discrimination and insensitivity to questions of gender (or other minorities) should truly trouble us as members of a large, liberal democracy. It is not enough to keep congratulating ourselves on our unexpected and against-all-odds success with the great experiment of 'democracy'. We need to recognize the challenges to the strengths of that tradition and to acknowledge the failures and systematic weaknesses in it. So to Dikshit and all the other protectors of our so-called morality, I have a simple point. At the risk of pointing out the obvious- caging women up after dark is not the answer. Providing security, infrastructure and a civilized public discourse about women is. It is tough in a city like Delhi but cannot be helped by statements and attitudes like Dikshit's.

And if you really do want to cage people- I would suggest starting with the charming men of Delhi.

Lastly, thanks a lot, Sheila. You've shown nicely why women leaders are not necessarily the best news for women's interests. I'm not going to say the word but it starts with a P, ends with a N and rhymes with a brutal, bearded Soviet Dictator.


Heather said...

well put! this is a really difficult balancing act that i've often struggled with personally. this politician's quote is clearly unhelpful (to put it mildly) and illustrative of everything you point out. but as a matter of individual decision, finding the right balance between an appropriate vigilance and an egalitarian independence is something i've often struggled with(in syracuse and elsewhere). i know that's a bit beside the important point you are making here but i think it's what remains even after you pursue all the sensible policies you advocate here.

Lightlight said...

I totally agree- I think that balance is difficult- going in either direction is fool hardy. Yes, it is what remains in the end - and you know me, I would err on the side of vigilance. But either way those decisions need to be made within institutional and societal structures that are supportive to egalitarian independence. Tough. It's one thing i will never miss about Delhi.