I currently live in the UK. I am a naturalized citizen of the USA and the UK as well as an Overseas Citizen of India. So you see, my loyalties are not exclusive to any one land or country. I have strong emotional ties to all of these places that I have called home at different points in my life.
With this context, let me share three recent news stories from my three home countries.
Newsweek, an American magazine, titled its cover story in January of 2015 as ‘What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women’. This story informs us about sexual harassment and attitudes towards women in the hallowed and wealthy world of technology and innovation, the Silicon Valley. Here is a link to the story: http://www.newsweek.com/2015/02/06/what-silicon-valley-thinks-women-302821.html
The next story is BBC’s coverage of a grooming scandal in Oxford, UK, where young girls as young as 12-13 years old from disaffected homes were groomed and sexually exploited over many years by gangs of men. It goes on to highlight that local social service authorities were aware of these activities and chose not to act for various reasons. Here is the link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-31696276
The last story I share with you has resurfaced in Indian media in last few days. A little over two years ago, a 23-year old woman was raped by a group of men in a public bus in New Delhi, India. When she fought back, she was so brutally attacked that she succumbed to her injuries. A few days ago, BBC aired a documentary in UK called ‘India’s Daughter’ which highlights the viewpoint of convicted rapists in this case. Indian Government has banned the broadcast or reprinting of this interview in India due to “offensive comments against women, creating an atmosphere of fear and tension with the possibility of public outcry and law and order situation.”
Here is one link to the recent Indian coverage on the banning of the documentary: http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/indias-efforts-to-ban-rape-documentary-spur-greater-interest-online-744639
I feel repulsed, violated and angry after reading each one of these stories. But what do I do with these emotions? How do I channel them in some constructive way?
Let me start by sharing some observations (no Nobel prize for making these observations) from reading these stories over the course of just a few days:
- Humans are capable of heinous crimes in all parts of the world.
- Women are sexualized in all parts of the world.
- Humans of all colors and creed can be inhuman.
- Education or economic levels of perpetrators does not stop them from acting in despicable ways.
- Education, economic levels, clothing, actions or behaviors of women are not the reasons for why certain men objectify women.
- Having appropriate laws and a strong judicial system enabling those laws is extremely important to protect the freedoms of women in a civil society.
- Laws are necessary but NOT the sufficient condition for the welfare of women in any civil society.
To me, unwritten societal norms, traditions and what we all deem acceptable in our daily lives play a pivotal role in how majority of the members of a society behave on a daily basis. Focusing on our daily lives, I want to share what we can do as a response to these awful stories around us.
Let us not assume that the ‘evil’ is in the ‘other’. We are all part of these societies and these communities – however alien and unfathomable the actions of accused might seem to us or to our world. It is very easy for each one of us to say that ‘they’ are not ‘me’. It is tempting to say that ‘they’ are evil or ‘they’ are monsters. But ‘they’ are in our cities, in our workplaces, in our communities, in our social structures, maybe, even in our own homes. Let’s begin by asking the questions: What do I do when a colleague throws out a sexual innuendo in front of a female colleague who might be uncomfortable? How do I behave as a boss when I hear about an employee’s unwanted advances to a woman at an office party? What do I do when a family member shares an offensive joke at a dinner? Let’s not smooth over such conversations with, at best, awkward laughs, or at worst, by co-opting in the behavior. And yes, this responsibility falls on women as well as men. When my teenager starts to see the ‘f’ word as normal, do I invite him or her to pay attention to the sexual violence hidden in that word? Or do I consider that to be a normal way of expressing rage? Or do I myself use that language to emote, be cool or to fit in?
Yes, all of these uncomfortable moments are the times when we need to ask the question: What is the right thing for me to do? You might say, “Come on, there is a huge difference between rape and using the ‘f’ word.” Is there? I am not so sure. To me, they both fall on a long but single continuum of behaviors expressing rage and abuse of power. I know I may have lost most of you by drawing this analogy but I truly believe that instead of looking to ‘help’ ‘others’, we should all ask ourselves the question: In my life, on a daily basis, what do I do or accept as normal or tolerate, intentionally or inadvertently, that might be making it harder for women who are breaking new grounds at all levels by entering new arenas but are still at the early stages of finding stability and strength.
I am not trying to recruit for ‘morality police’ or ‘politeness brigade’. I am also not asserting that all women are uniformly offended by same actions. I am also not asking men to tiptoe softly around all the women working besides them. But I am unequivocally stating that we all have to make certain changes as more women enter the hitherto man’s world. It is not just incumbent upon women to adjust to a man’s world, every body has to alter their mindsets and their behaviors from the days of the past. We don’t have to do this in an antagonistic or in a militant way. We don’t have to fight every time somebody is offensive but we do have to mark where the boundaries are and point out when they are violated. Sometimes, we may even be able to do that with a smile on our face.
My next plea is that let us not brush the issue of treating women as sexual objects under the rug. Let us not plug our ears when we hear that a convicted rapist, who has no remorse, blames the victim by saying “she should not have fought us”. Let us not blame the messenger (BBC in the Indian story) who is highlighting the disease that is ailing all of us. Let us not hide behind the argument that “there is nothing more to be learned from this story so let’s move on.” I also don’t understand the logic that just because a rapist is despicable, his voice is not worth listening to. Listening to such voices is exactly what will illuminate what makes him so inhuman? What mindset sees another human merely as an object of his entertainment? What is feeding or nurturing that mindset? If we want to get rid of the evil amongst us, we need to be able to look at, hear and understand the evil that is within us.
On this International Women’s Day, let us all dig deeper in our mindsets, in our traditions, in our norms and find where we may be falling short of treating the women in our daily lives as less than humans. As the world changes around us at astronomical speed, each one of us is bound to find some neural connections that need to be rewired. Let’s pay heed to the idiom, “We can’t change the world, unless we change ourselves.”