Categories
Issue 9

Caste (In)Justice: Inadequacies in Addressing Gender and Caste Violence

On February 17, three minor Dalit girls were found lying unconscious in their family farm in Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh. Two of them died by the time they were taken to the local hospital while the third girl luckily survived the ordeal. The family alleged that the girls were found tied up in the fields; the forensic report revealed traces of poisoning and the police claimed that the motive behind the crime was revenge by the accused for facing rejection of his unwarranted advances towards one of the girls. Several activists and journalists foregrounded the Dalit identity of the girls as being crucial to understanding the nature of the crime as was the case with the Hathras rape incident and the Unnao rape incident previously. This narrative of caste-based violence received immense backlash from the state. On the face of it, the February 17th incident did seem like one of plain vengeance. However, the shame of rejection stemming from the difference in the caste identities should not be ruled out as an integral cause of this crime.

Law, as a tool of governance, has attempted to legislate against the patriarchal and caste structure that has existed since thousands of years. However, the law and its machinery do not exist in a vacuum.  The law is brought to life by the human hand that upholds and implements it. If the human hand continues to be governed and conditioned by these structures of patriarchy and caste, then it is impossible for the law to be effectively applied in letter and spirit. How can such a law ever be just and fair?

From police authorities who investigate caste and gender crimes to the state governments that sanction such investigations and the judiciary responsible for adjudication – the positions of power and authority in all of these systems are over-represented by the upper caste heterosexual men. As the direct beneficiaries of a patriarchal, casteist polity, men in such positions of power operate with deep rooted biases that tend to maintain the status-quo of their privilege and dominance. Legal authorities deliberately refuse to label crimes like the Unnao incident as caste violence and instead look to other explanations that are blind to the intersection of gender, sexuality and caste. As a result, violence against marginalized genders and caste is not simply afflicted through crimes in the society but also through the passivity of the legal mechanism. 

While we have dedicated legislations like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 for protection of Dalits and Constitutionally mandated reservations for representation of Dalits, we cannot mitigate systemic caste and gender violence without proper implementation of such laws. It is imperative that there is space created for marginalized voices to appear in local panchayats, police, judiciary and state governments. It is only when Dalits are adequately represented in the public sphere, the role of the caste identities in gender crimes will find space in public discourse of justice.

It is no secret that crimes against women in the country have been rising consistently over the years, especially towards scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs) (Crime in India Volume I, NCRB 2019). The burden of honour and shame placed upon women’s bodies and sexualities becomes the very reason for the violence against them. In this, the Dalit woman, who is the most vulnerable and silenced member of the society, is further condemned to an inevitable fate of violence by the upper caste men. From crimes of kidnapping, murder to sexual abuse and rape – dominant castes, with the aid of state impunity, exert their caste hegemony over Dalits in the society. 

In cases like the Unnao poisoning incident, we dwell upon the particularities of facts to recreate timelines, motives and scene of crime to ensure that the accused is proven guilty without a doubt. The State and the society make unequivocal calls to clear the collective conscience of the society and speed up the process of justice. Yet, there is never a discussion on the collective guilt of asserting the dominant caste privilege. The intent of the accused is broken down to its finest point while the audacity of the accused is never questioned. As the patriarchal and caste structure stands unwaveringly strong, no Dalit woman ever gets to live or die in a just manner. 

The question of the hour then is what we, as privileged individuals who condemn the inadequacy of the legal mechanism, make out of such horrendous incidents. For decades and especially after the Nirbhaya rape incident, we have been amplifying the need for more inclusive laws instead of stricter punishments against sexual violence. We demand for gender neutral laws, inclusion of marital rape and acknowledgment of rape in communal violence. We also point out the paternalistic and moralistic views of such laws and the lawmakers. We even recognize the intersection of gendered violence with caste. But we don’t go as far as to acknowledge that caste encompasses gender in the Indian context. One’s caste is assigned even before their birth with no possibility of deviation from the norm. Whereas, genders that deviate from the heteronormative impositions have managed to create some space for themselves through their ongoing struggles. The apathy towards such caste and gender complexities necessitate that Dalit woman and Dalit queer folx be at the forefront of our conversations on legal reforms. For inclusive justice to initiate, our fight against the violent structure of patriarchy cannot be won without speaking of the violent caste structure in the same breath.  

Shreyashi works as an Assistant Manager at CSGS. She is trained as a lawyer with litigation experience on issues of gender violence. Prior to joining the Centre, she studied as a Young India Fellow. She continues to volunteer with Just Justice, a Teach for India initiative to increase legal literacy among the underprivileged communities. Alongside other things at the CSGS, she is enthusiastic to focus on the questions raised by the entanglements of law with gender and sexuality. Most of her free time is spent running after her mischievous pup, Orwell.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 8

Feminist Bollywood, Really?

The question – are you less of a feminist if you listen or dance to songs that demean women is perplexing. All of us regardless of whether or not one is a feminist should feel degraded by writing, singing, dancing, or listening to songs that demean any human being. 

Unquestioningly accepting disparaging attitudes -whether in-jokes, images, music, or literature –  normalizes conversations and behaviours that exacerbate an already existing unequal power structure. 

All this matters particularly in the context of popular culture. Bollywood plays such a disproportionate role in defining our culture and values that it would be the obvious place to first examine what is being propagated.  Bollywood songs are everywhere. Not only does the music influence us but so do the themes, dress, dialogues, and the subtle ideologies that are conveyed almost imperceptibly. Clearly, Bollywood’s broad reach both mirrors Indian culture and shapes it.      

This two-way stream of influence makes it difficult to establish causality. But anecdotal evidence suggests that our everyday mimicry of the reel becomes our reality.  

Let us first consider a song like ‘Makhana’ by Yo Yo Honey Singh. A hugely popular Indian singer, rapper, composer and actor. Yo Yo’s (as he prefers to be called) single hit ‘Makhna’ climbed the charts soaring to around 19 million viewers immediately. He was flooded with messages welcoming him back, cheering this song and eagerly awaiting the next release. Some viewers talk about the beat that makes one want to jump onto the dance floor. While others have protested and wanted to file a case against the vulgarity of the lyrics. At a Delhi poetry slam another rapper Rene Sheranya Verma wrote and performed an open letter entitled “Namkeen Kudi” berating Honey Singh’s lyrics and views.  The most offending verse in Makhana says: 

 “Par Main Hu Womanizer

Mujhe Akele Main Mat Mill” .  

Misogyny in Bollywood lyrics has come a long way from the now seemingly innocent “Choli ke peeche kya hai” released in 1993, which had caused such a stir in those days. 

Some critics have attributed what they call India’s ‘rape culture’ to suggestive dance numbers and glamourized often forceful courtship to Bollywood.  But did this problematic portrayal of women already exist in our culture or has it been created and exacerbated by Bollywood? Indian culture seems to hold the veneration of women goddesses and the denigration of women seamlessly in the same hand. 

The issue, of course, is not merely about the lyrics but also about the in-your-face, crass eroticism of scantily and sexily clad women who sing and dance in an exotic carnival-like location. Women in Bollywood films often are not mere objects of and in the songs but are an integral part of it – by participating in it as actors, watching it, dancing to it, and, loving it. Where does one draw the line? Misogyny is not only a men-only domain. These ‘item numbers’ are as much for what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey termed the voyeuristic male gaze as they are for women who could also take pleasure in the women but also in the bare-chested, hip-thrusting men and even the bad-boy image projected by Honey Singh’s Makhana. Is it feminist to enjoy this kind of turning of the tables or is it merely reverse sexism? 

 If we accept the huge impact of  Bollywood on the Indian psyche then the fabric of our culture is already interwoven with misogyny. Honey Singh might be a one-off example, but so much of the way Bollywood depicts women and men’s relationships remains questionable, and, yet we continue to accept them as normal – ‘it is like this only’. Till recently we took Bollywood’s men forcing their unwanted attention on women and not taking no for an answer as acceptable if not ultimately desirable.  The many ways women are mentally, emotionally and physically abused and demeaned are visible in almost all Bollywood films. Even so-called feminist films such as English Vinglish or Dangal remain problematic.

Feminism may not dictate a response but we as individuals and part of a patriarchal community should not find it too difficult to come up with our own creative responses to what we find offensive. One might be to have these kinds of songs banned or censored and have Honey Singh and others of that ilk castigated, another would be to respond in kind as did the Delhi rapper Rene but ultimately the answer would depend on each individual. However, these individual protests need to blossom into something bigger that will raise awareness about what our popular culture is actually teaching us.  

There is no one size fits all formula for the degrees of feminism one should aspire to. I find Honey Singh’s songs vulgar and lewd not only because I am a feminist but they should offend anyone because the lyrics, and indeed the whole package is offensive.

Let’s not make feminism a rigid rulebook. We know censorship is a bad approach, especially in today’s borderless world. Already we see that Ailaan and Asi Vadangey – two Punjabi songs critical of the farm laws have been taken down from YouTube at the behest of the Indian government. There is no great distance between politically objectionable and culturally offensive.  

Geetanjali is currently Associate Professor in the Department of English at Ashoka University. She has also been Senior Lecturer in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years. She received her Ph.D. in English Literature from Hong Kong University and her Master’s degree from George Washington University. 

Her book:  Indian Women in the House of Fiction (2008) is now in its third edition with the University of Chicago Press. Aside from participating in many conferences internationally,  Geetanjali has written numerous articles on various subjects including Sikh Masculinity, Representation of Sikhs in Bollywood, Children’s Literature in the diaspora, Indian women’s fiction etc. 

Geetanjali co-founded The Attic, Delhi – an interactive space for the living arts.

Picture Credits: reidy68/ Pixabay

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 8

Wages for Housework: Giving Wives Their Due?

What do Kamal Haasan, Charlize Theron and Julianne Moore have in common? One proposes salary for housewives in India and the other two support a Marshall Plan for Moms in the US. Very similar ideas, prima facie laudable and progressive.

First of all, in India, several women who get counted as “not working” actually contribute substantially to household economic activities (farming, livestock, kirana shops, workshops etc): work that is unrecognized and unpaid. For this work, women need to be recognized legitimately as workers. They need to be seen as equal partners whose labour allows the household to earn a livelihood. 

Turning to domestic chores, everywhere in the world, the burden falls disproportionately on women, regardless of whether they are “housewives” or not. The enormous weight of endless and repetitive housework leads women to either drop out of paid employment altogether (or temporarily), or to seek part-time work. Women who manage to re-enter paid employment after a childcare break typically enter as juniors of, and earn less than, men comparable to them in age, education and qualifications. In other words, collectively as a society we want children, for which mothers pay a penalty, but not fathers.  

Feminists have highlighted the sexual division of “reproductive labour”, where women disproportionately bear the load of domestic chores, care and nurturing responsibilities, which eases male participation in “productive labour” and allows the productive economy to continue running smoothly. A typical picture of a standard early 20th century family, where the man is the breadwinner and the woman the housekeeper and caregiver. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened this divide: women did more housework than men before the pandemic; they do even more now. Even though the sheer volume of this work is enormous, it is undervalued, invisible and completely taken for granted. Globally, the monetary value of this work (calculated at minimum wage) is estimated to be USD 10.9 trillion

Then what is wrong with explicitly recognizing this and paying women for their massive contribution to the household? The short answer is: everything

The salary-for-housewives proposal takes the “male breadwinner” heteronormative family structure as a given. It completely solidifies the boundaries and divisions that have kept women in the kitchen and/or taking care of the kids, and/or caring for the elderly, and/or maintaining the house, and/or be responsible for nurture of family members. 

Over the last 70 years, all over the world, these boundaries have gradually begun to blur as the movement towards greater sharing of the reproductive labour has gained momentum and voice. While the division is far from fair or equal anywhere in the world, there are green shoots of gender equality that, until Covid-19 hit, were gaining strength, albeit not fast enough. 

Covid-19 hit and those lucky enough to have jobs to work from home found themselves stuck with demands of both domestic work and their paid jobs. The immense pressure of childcare and home schooling has led to women dropping out of the workforce in greater numbers than men.

The gender gap in paid employment has markedly worsened due to the pandemic. To fix this, women need enabling conditions to get back to work. Instead, the pay-the-moms/wives proposal is arguing for the exact opposite. It has nothing to say about sharing the load. 

South Asia in general, India and Pakistan in particular, have among the most unequal division of domestic chores, where women spend as much as 10 times more hours compared to men. In India, this is the key social norm that hinders women’s participation in the labour force. The lack of economic independence also lowers women’s position within the household in terms of decision making and mobility. Often even women who work outside and earn a salary have limited control over their hard-earned money.

In this scenario, what would payment to women – most likely controlled by the husband — for domestic chores result in? Greater respect? More equality? Greater decision-making abilities? Higher mobility? More control over their own lives and choices? 

None of the above. 

It would result in greater dependence, reduced status, enhanced burden, with a shift to paid employment even more difficult than earlier. We can only imagine how many Indian families might sack their domestic maids and nannies if they had to pay their wives for the same work. (PS: How would this work in families with same-sex couples?)

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that women’s unpaid reproductive labour is the biggest social safety net that allows the wheels of the paid economy to continue moving. This work has to be shared equally within the household, instead of pushing women back into the 1950s-style traditional stereotypes. 

Since the suggestion is about valuing women’s work in India, a good starting point would be to explicitly recognize their contribution to household enterprises as workers, on the same footing as the men, and share the earnings from the household enterprise fairly. 

And stop thinking of domestic chores as women’s work. 

Ashwini Deshpande is an Indian economist who specially works with topics concerning poverty, inequality, regional disparities and gender discrimination. She is currently an Economics professor at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).