Op-ed: Gender safety starts when we look beyond statistics and cases

Gender-based violence is as old as the hills. To change something that is so deeply embedded in our thinking, we need to respond, rather than react. Awareness and introspection are the keys to changing mindsets and culture.

This article is part of a special series: Safety of women in Indian cities

In December 2012, it felt like the ground under my feet was shaking. An upheaval seemed underway. True to the sensation, the world around me also began to show signs of an epoch-making era ahead of it: one that would call out the lackadaisical approach to violence against women, one that would witness radical changes in the laws and the security sector in ways that would prioritise justice for survivors of violence. 

In December 2019, it felt like nothing had changed. Seven years had passed since a heinous crime of gang-rape woke a nation up. Seven years since, the nation was up in arms in protest against the same authorities (different appearance), over the same issue. 

It is unfair, however, to limit this trajectory to “December 2012” and after. The women’s movement in India has risen to question and protest everything from apathy and inaction to discriminatory laws in response to rape and sexual violence: a simple examination of history will drive home this point clearly. And yet, as a society, our callousness to the issue remains. 

Reactionary at best, even the most conscious among us get swept up in the maelstrom that is the media and relegate narratives to a thing of the past, to be revived again in the future, when the next unpleasant incident unfolds. 

Response is a verb

In the words of one of the women leaders and political scientists I look up to, Swarna Rajagopalan, the gestation period of social change is one generation. Much like the Chinese proverb that suggests that one generation plants the seeds for another generation to enjoy the shade, efforts toward planting and nurturing the seed need to be persistent, every day, and unrelenting. The basic fact about gender-based violence is that it is, for lack of an actual timeline, old as the hills. 

To change something that is so deeply embedded in our thinking, conditioning, and existence, requires efforts that speak to the deepest depths of the soil in which those roots are entrenched. Responding, rather than reacting, holds space for introspection and for systemic overhaul. 

One of the key points of contention in response to incidents of violence is that there needs to be a stronger penal framework, with some calling for aggressive implementation of the death penalty. However, these solutions respond to the symptom and not to the disease itself.

Something brought us here, and that something is manifesting itself differently through these instances of crime and violence: if we want to question what’s manifest, it’s important to look at the structures that enable, encourage, and foster that manifestation. One route to do this is to invest in sustained education. 

Our understanding of education is unfortunately limited to literacy. We seem dedicated to creating economy-worthy individuals, equipping them with the capacity to enhance global wealth. In the process, we’re dissociating the human from the being, and there is a poverty of empathy and compassion worldwide. 

The fundamental truth is that patriarchy victimizes everyone: from the body whose gender identity is determined by a glance at its sex identity, to the boy who is forced to aspire to a breadwinner’s role when he may have no inclination to pursue it; from the girl who is socialized and conditioned into believing that she has no social worth, to the trans man whose identity is treated as an anomaly. The sooner we arrive at a collective realization of this fact, the firmer our steps will be to build tangible solutions for lasting change.  

Embracing the other

With education and awareness, we come to a place where we can introspect to check our own behaviour. Sexual violence is a social crime targeting a personal body; everything from microaggression to policy/legislation plays an enabling role, if it is not playing an active role in preventing it from happening. Introspection can help us check our own thoughts, behaviours and conduct, and acknowledge where our privileges oppress others. 

The most obvious behaviour that will be noticed upon such introspection is the rampancy with which we create binaries of sex and gender: most of us are socialized into believing that men and women / male and female are the only sex or gender identities. In reality, though, science has an answer for “how” a body appears in terms of its sex – but does not tell you “why” it exhibits a particular sex identity or a gender identity, or “where” a gender identity truly comes from. When something that is conventionally believed as concrete and irrefutable (with exceptions) fails to stand up to these questions or yield answers, why do we so vehemently refuse to acknowledge diversity? 

This stubborn reaffirmation of the binaries and the rejection of non-binary bodies as anomalies, or even the pressure to conform to the binaries, pose major stumbling blocks for gender safety. 

This becomes the basis of rigid gender roles that encourage victim blaming (“What was she wearing? Why was she out so late? Why didn’t she behave in a manner befitting a woman?”) It becomes the foundation for the idea that men are slaves to their lustful ways and that therefore, he cannot help himself. 

It prevents the provision of support to every body that has been targeted for its gender, sex or sexual orientation through violence: aid is available only to certain bodies that fit certain identities. Redress is accessible under law only to those it names as beneficiaries, and systemic violence isolates more than it provides for. 

Violence against women has often been treated with a “sensationalism” or a “nothing-else” approach – both in our own approach and perceptions, as well as those of the security sector and media. In this space, we have normalized such violence and homogenized all victims and survivors into numbers in a statistical record – revived and reproduced for shock value when necessary. Starting with awareness and introspection, we can, as a collective, arrive at a point where dialogue, engagement, and constant efforts to shift mindsets becomes the norm.

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