They keep coming and keep getting worse. They have the power to offend and disgust. They cut across class and race, time and space. They launch debates and discussions and lead to protests and walkouts. They may be ignored but are never forgotten, at least by one half of humanity. Yet they keep coming.... Misogynist comments! They are deep-rooted in the male psyche and a part of our history. Let me open with the oft-repeated musings of Sant Tulsidas: “Dhol, ganwar, shudra, pashu, naari, sakal taadan ke adhikari.” Translated, it means drums, illiterates, low castes, animals and women deserve to be beaten. And although scholars may debate that he meant uplift by taadan, the inclusion of drums gives away the plot, for how can a drum be redeemed.
Though we have evolved as a society and refrain from endorsing cruelty against animals and low castes, sexist remarks are a different ball game. They are thrown around with impunity, many times by our lawmakers themselves. A recent study by International Center for Research on Women shows that Indian men are among the most chauvinistic among the six developing countries surveyed. Sixty-five per cent still think women deserve to be beaten, 68 per cent say a woman should put up with a violent husband for the family and only 17 per cent can be considered fair to women.
This, despite the fact that Indian women have made great progress in every field known to men. This has brought economic freedom and the confidence to demand better treatment. In some ways, the accompanying independence has turned the average orthodox male against them. For what else can explain the sexist remarks, which range from unsolicited advice on how to conduct themselves to blatant verbal abuse. Since misogyny is so rampant, I am quoting the reactions to just one incident that is still fresh in public memory. Some are insensitive and trivialise rape like the Union minister who dismissed the tragic Nirbhaya case as a small incident or the lawyer who said dogs can't be blamed for pouncing on unattended sweets. Some blame the victim like Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi. Mohan Bhagwat asserted that more rapes happen in ‘India’ than ‘Bharat’—the first a symbol for promiscuous modernity; the latter for a more traditional order where women live within prescribed boundaries.
The problem isn't these men and their outbursts. Had it been just them it could have been dismissed as an aberration, ignored on the pretext of freedom of speech. The sordid truth is that they represent a much wider and deeper mindset. In a magazine's nationwide survey, the results indicated a complete absence of male accountability. The common thread was that the burden of social order and morality lay with women. How can a society decide and enforce moral values if there is a foundational disagreement over what those values are?
Another disturbing question is, are these men just following in the footsteps of their fathers? I am a great fan of Gandhi's ideology but his behaviour towards women varies between patronising to plain sexist. Sample what the father of our nation had to say about rape and its victims “I have always held that it is physically impossible to violate a woman against her will. The outrage takes place only when she gives way to fear or does not realise her moral strength. If she cannot meet the assailant’s physical might, her purity will give her the strength to die before he succeeds in violating her.”
To be fair, sexual discrimination was around much before Gandhi. So, at worst, he can be accused of following a tradition that was already in place. The roots of such behaviour can be traced to the Manusmriti. A part of the text focuses on guarding women from sexual freedom and possible infidelity. Balye pitorvashay tishteth panee grhasay yownay. putranam bhartre pretay na bjait stri swatantr tam. [5/151]. A girl should be controlled by her father, be under the custody of her husband after marriage and in her son's care when widowed. In no circumstances should she be allowed to assert herself independently.
Nothing unites our nation like misogyny. Sample these roughly translated nuggets of folk wisdom from various parts of the country. Starting with a proverb from Punjab: ‘A woman who shows more love for you than your mother is a slut.’ A Malayali saying warns, ‘One who adheres to women’s advice will be reduced to beggary.’ Manipuri tradition asserts, ‘A woman can never grow tall enough to reach the shelf.’
Misogyny is a perfectly secular sentiment, practised across all religions and endorsed by their leaders. The clergy of the Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind advocated coeducational institutes to be shut down, premarital sex to be outlawed and girls to dress in sober clothes as ways to prevent rape. Pope Francis, who is hailed as a liberal, called church women strawberries on the cake, stressing their decorative function. In an interview to an Italian daily when asked if his remarks were laced with misogyny he laughed and said, “The fact is, woman was taken from a rib.”
This mindset is the fallout of a patriarchal society where the male head decides what is good for the entire family. Harassment of women and sexist behaviour is not uncommon around the world. But, in India, it is crass because there is a lack of awareness about sexual and political correctness. This is because most Indian men grow up without much contact with women outside their family and do not know how to interact with them and forge a healthy relationship. Thus frustrated, they ridicule and assault. Bollywood’s popular imagery of women creates wrong impressions, and titillating scenes that objectify women reinforce the lurid male gaze.
Even among educated men, modernity is cultivated more in terms of its superficial aspects than inculcating progressive values like equality among sexes and races. Contemporary Indian women who dress in western style and assert independence are considered of low moral character by them. I have spent most of my life in Haryana, the state with the worst sex ratio. And I have frequently observed that the average youth confuses modernity with a lifestyle, not an outlook. The truth is that behind the liberal garb of the modern man there still lurks an orthodox Indian.
We can debate and dissect this issue ad nauseam and point fingers at our forefathers but the simple truth is that misogyny is still prevalent because it suits men. The pertinent question is can we curb this menace? And, more important, do we feel the need to do so? The answer is, that if not completely, we can reduce it significantly.
We can blame our scriptures, the very basis of our society, and excuse ourselves saying it is the way we are. But sexism in our revered books is more likely a case of misrepresentation. It is difficult to believe that any holy text will encourage derogatory behaviour towards a fellow human being. Manusmriti, as the name indicates (smriti means memory), and many other Indian texts were recited from memory for many generations before they were finally committed to paper. I would like to believe that some of what the great sages said was misinterpreted and the rest was lost in translation.
A change in the male mindset is the need of the day. This can be achieved by a multifaceted approach. Apart from women empowerment through education, opportunity, safe environs and legislation, gender sensitisation has to be introduced in schools. Young boys should be encouraged to accept their feminine side and not be ridiculed for being emotional and sensitive beings. Cinema should be more responsible in its portrayal of women. Misogynist behaviour should be suitably punished. This should not be difficult at least for the state and its institutions. People in public office should be held accountable for voicing or acting on misogynist impulse. It should automatically invite censure or expulsion. Nothing has more impact than a Constitutional principle made visible.
A gender sensitive society will not only help women reach their full potential but also help the country reach its potential. For a nation that does not harness its women-power cannot take its true position in the world. It's time men realise this.
Gupta is a gynaecologist practising in Haryana.