In the last few weeks, I have been continually harassed by people in the media asking for a comment or reaction on VS Naipaul’s recent statement about women writers not being serious and writing, as he describes it in his very English way, mainly “tosh”. A few weeks ago, there was another such instance of outrageous but entirely predictable male behaviour when Dominic Strauss-Kahn was accused of molesting a maid in a hotel in New York, and this, too, resulted in media people ringing and asking for comments.
The questions media people asked had a striking sameness to them. What did I think of Naipaul’s statement? What did I think of the maid’s allegations? Were women writers really inferior to men? Could the maid have been making up the story of sexual harassment? Could she have been a victim of political manipulation given that DSK, as he is known, was a prime candidate for the French presidency? And so on.
I wasn’t at all surprised at being asked these questions, the media always want a ‘bite’ for their programmes or their articles and any such incident is an immediate provocation for the building up of a story — even when there isn’t really one. But I was surprised at my own reluctance to answer them — there was a time I would have been incensed by statements like Naipaul’s or behaviour like Strauss-Kahn’s (for no matter what the truth of that particular incident, DSK is well-known for his attitude towards women) and I would have spoken out against them.
But now, reading about DSK and Naipaul, I only felt a terrible sense of weariness, and in some ways even a sense of despair — when, I wondered, will we stop doing the same old same old, and when will men start becoming respectful of women? There is a strange way in which our responses to such incidents are very revealing — if you don’t feel angry at something any more, it is not always because the anger is gone but also because it’s been overlaid with something else, in my case a weariness and sometimes even a sense of hopelessness.
Apart from feeling weary at being asked such questions, I also now feel both disturbed and disappointed. The media, for example, rush to ‘experts’ or those in the know on this or that issue to ask them for a comment or a reaction. But there is seldom, if ever, or almost never, a time when they will ask a man to comment on what they see as a ‘women’s issue’. Somehow, issues involving women are seen to be limited only to women. The fact that Naipaul has made derogatory statements about women writers should surely be a matter of concern for everyone, male and female, writers and everyone else.
And yet, at least in the Indian media, virtually all the opinions sought come from women — I haven’t seen a man make a strong statement against Naipaul’s sexist remarks. A few years ago, when Naipaul made similar derogatory remarks about Muslims, there was a furore across the world. Not so for women.
In some ways, I think this is because we live in an increasingly misogynistic world. Look around you — whether it is in India or Pakistan, there are terrible incidents of violence against women every day and every hour. If a woman dares to love someone of her own accord, best to shoot her. If she does not respond to your advances, shoot her. Or throw acid on her face, disfiguring her and ruining her for life.
A few days ago, a group of women from different parts of India made a series of presentations to a government committee on a law that was enacted in 1983. Titled 498A, this law is the only safeguard women have against cruelty in the home, particularly domestic violence and dowry abuse. It’s a criminal law and the perpetrator of cruelty (which is very carefully defined in the law) can be arrested on a non-bailable warrant and thrown into jail.
Although a very significant piece of legislation, it hasn’t been widely used, partly because — as is well known — women are reluctant to make reports to the police on what they see as their private and ‘domestic’ concerns. Another reason is that women think 10 times before making a complaint about their domestic situations because they know that often for them there is no other recourse. There is no place for them any longer in their natal homes.
And yet, the government has been considering changing or even doing away with this law because they have received a number of petitions from people who claim it is being ‘misused’ by women to have innocent people arrested, to carry on liaisons with their pre-marriage lovers and to destroy the family.
These are clearly preposterous claims but they have found some purchase only because people are always ready to believe the worst of women (for example, there is no law that does not get misused, but misuse of a law does not mean the law itself is faulty, the problem lies elsewhere). Despite the fact that domestic violence is widespread in the world and it kills more women than perhaps any other form of murder, its seriousness as a crime against women does not get recognised.
And this is what my despair is about. For the media, Naipaul and DSK are stories. There is little recognition of the injustice towards one half of the human race that they represent. There’s little recognition of the battles women have waged, not only on their behalf, but on behalf of the world’s children, their families, their friends and comrades.
If this is what the situation is like in the twenty-first century, who knows what it will be a few years hence? Feminists often say the clock cannot be turned back, that once the path of feminism and the emancipation of women has been chosen, there is no going back. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, one can only hope this is true.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 2nd, 2011.
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