In the line of fire

The questions we must address are what do we mean by ‘safe’?

The Hindu Photo ArchivesThe questions we must address are what do we mean by ‘safe’?

If women’s safety is all about owning a handgun, what about the rapist who lurks at home?

Now that there is a handgun especially designed for Indian women, are we going to be ‘safer’?

On January 6, the Indian Ordnance Factory in Kanpur announced the launch of ‘Nirbheek’, India’s first gun for women. We are told it weighs just 500 gm and is a 0.32 bore light revolver. It will cost a mere Rs.1,22,360, thereby ensuring that it is out of reach to the majority of Indian women who fear for their safety.

How amazing that someone should actually think that a light handgun named ‘Nirbheek’ or fearless will actually make a material difference to the lives of Indian women.

Just to give some perspective, in Uttar Pradesh, where this gun has been manufactured, the police (tasked to ‘protect’ women, one presumes) has 2.5 lakh firearms, while the ‘aam janta’, mostly men, has over 11 lakh firearms. And these are the licensed ones. Can any woman, even if she is equipped with a pricey light gun, feel ‘safe’ under such circumstances?

Let’s discuss the question of women’s safety that keeps popping up over and over again, particularly after the terrible gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi on December 16, 2012. There have been countless debates and all kinds of demands. Hang the rapists; change the Juvenile Act; have more police; have more CCTV cameras in all public places; train women in martial arts etc.

Writing this literally from the other side of the world, the perspective that greets me is that suddenly all of India has become ‘unsafe’ for women, that our streets are full of sexual predators just waiting to pounce on unwary women and that our criminal justice system is simply not able to deter these predators.

Between these clearly exaggerated images and the drummed-up fears, lies a different reality, one about which we need to be constantly reminded.

The questions we must address are what do we mean by ‘safe’? Are women ‘unsafe’ only in the public space if by safety we mean sexual assault? What if such assaults take place at home, at the workplace, in schools and colleges — spaces that would generally not be viewed as ‘unsafe’ because you are surrounded not by strangers but by people you know?

Every year when data on crimes against women is published, this is the other perspective that emerges, if only people were to read beyond the screaming headlines. So, for instance, a Right to Information petition by social worker Anil Galgali revealed that in Mumbai last year there had been 237 rapes and eight gang rapes, including the one in the deserted Shakti Mills compound in central Mumbai that drew a great deal of media attention. But once you read past the statistics, you realise that in most cases, the perpetrators of the crimes were ‘friends and lovers’ or neighbours of the raped woman. Men known to her. Not unknown men hanging out in public spaces.

In Delhi last year, although the number of reported cases till August are far greater (1,121) there too, according to the police, surveys have established that the attackers are known to the women. This is, in fact, the main factor preventing women from reporting the crime.

Thus, while there is no denying the horror of the gang rapes that have captured media attention, we must not lose the perspective that if safety consists of women not fearing that they will be sexually assaulted, then the main site of danger lies in homes and familiar surroundings and not outside.

Stricter laws, guns, and martial arts will not solve this lack of safety. Here, as has been repeated in these columns and elsewhere, we have to tackle the system of patriarchy, where men believe they are entitled to control the lives and actions of women, where men believe they ‘own’ the women related to them, and where men see nothing wrong in punishing the women who dare question or try and upset the established systems that guarantee their superior status in our society.

To illustrate this further, let me narrate the horrific story I read even as the year began. An 11-year-old Class 5 student from a village in Betul district, 175 km southwest of the capital of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal, was singed on her cheeks and beaten with a rock for refusing to quit studies. The perpetrator of the crime? Her father. The girl, Roshani, is recovering in the district hospital but no member of her family has come to visit her.

How do we ensure that the Roshanis of India feel ‘safe’ enough to get an education? This is the perspective we need when we discuss women’s safety.

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