Ladies’ Special

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I travelled in a “Ladies Only” taxi for the first time this week. The 26 km commute from the airport was one of discovery–that many women work outside their homes in this megapolis at great personal cost.

I was walking to the taxi stand when a girl in her mid-20s, in trousers and sharp pin-striped shirt, approached me asking if I needed a cab. She was from “XYZ” car company that ran a fleet taxi service for women with women drivers.  She told me she drove a Mahindra Logan and for my destination she would charge by the km and give a receipt.  I decided to try it and hopped in. Alas, we barely went 20m when the car stopped.  And then came the first discovery: some men will not lose any opportunity to pull down a woman they see in a job  that has traditionally been their preserve.

A bunch of Cool Cab drivers sidled up to the car – one started mocking the driver “J”  for the crappy car she drove, another patronisingly asked her if she knew what to do, a third asked her if she knew how to switch between CNG & petrol . While she opened up the bonnet, a few more mean comments came by. She sat back in car, called a colleague to take her fare ( i.e., me) and then called her company to report the problem.

While I waited in her car for the next cab to come, I asked her what she would do. She said she would move the car to the side and go home. The company would send a towing van when they could arrange for it. I worried for her safety even in the supposedly secure premises of India’s busiest airport.

“M” came by a few minutes later. She expertly transferred my bags into her Hyundai Accent and we drove off. On discovering I spoke the local language, M spent the next 26 kilometres telling me her life story.  Having lost her mum to cancer 2 years earlier, M gave up on a college degree. Her older sister had just gotten married, her 2 younger siblings were under 10 and she had finished class 12.  Her painter dad needed another income to pay off medical loans and get the household running.  M’s neighbour was a lady-cabbie and she decided to give it a go. She got through her driving test and training and got a job as one of the 25 or so lady cabbies of the city. The system worked like this: every fortnight she paid the cab company 9000 rupees; the rest of her earnings, less the cost of fuel, was her income (around10-15000 Rs. p.m) . She said she preferred doing at least 1 airport trip a day and then came my second discovery: M did not use a public toilet anywhere in the city other than the airport. Said she “held” herself because the public toilets were dirty or wet or simply unusable.  If she was lucky, she got a chance to use a facility at a fare’s office building.

This reminded me of Sujata Anandan’s article. When the physiological needs of a woman member of Maharashtra State’s Cabinet is not factored in by colleagues, the needs of women taxi drivers come low in the pecking order of responsibilities of governments and municipalities towards its citizens.

Makes me wonder:

  • What is the role of regulatory bodies when it comes to behaviour of its members?
    It’s bad enough a lady cabbie is ribbed in broad daylight with a passenger sitting in her vehicle, what happens if some of those men are drunken louts, at night?  The Taximen’s Union is not the most liked group of people in the city; this experience confirmed that many of its members have one hell of a mean streak. They rage against change in a way that is hurtful beyond belief and the Union has no interest in enforcing some basic human values in them. In few cities will less civilised people be in charge of passenger transport. How can we claim our place at the high table of world powers if we cannot ensure some order among our taximen?  I hope some good Samaritans would have helped J push her car aside at the airport that day because not one of those Cool Cab drivers showed any inclination to help.

  • Just how high are the cards stacked against women?  We talk of reservations to acquire political power but what about creating an environment where they can work without facing hostility?

  • And finally: just what is it about us and poor sanitation?  Why can’t we build more toilets and having built them why can’t we keep them clean ? Incidentally, you know when you are going past the men’s loo at the airport arrival lounge–the stink is in the air. Tells me whoever designed the ventilation system didnt do a good job . Of course,  it would help if the airport authorities invested in some air fresheners too.

Or maybe we must have self cleaning loos everywhere and pray to Swachcha Narayani instead.

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Gender Violence as Insecurity: Research Trends in South Asia, new study

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Anupama Srinivasan, who runs the Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce at Prajnya, received a grant last year from the Global Consortium on Security Transformation to undertake a study on the state of gender violence research in South Asia. The study has just been published and we are proud to share it with you.

Anupama Srinivasan, Gender Violence as Insecurity: Research Trends in South Asia, Global Consortium on Security Transformation, New Voices Series, No. 9, February 2011.

Domestic Violence and Diplomacy: New links

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This case of the diplomat accused of domestic violence raises so many important questions, that it is worth logging interesting commentary links here.

Salil Tripathi, Immunity from Justice, LiveMint.com, January 19, 2011.

Swarna Rajagopalan, Truth, Justice and Protocol, Asia Security Initiative Blog, January 20, 2011.

Marital rape and the law

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A rare editorial on gender violence, from today’s Indian Express.

An offence, of course

It is a cry that is often muffled within the walls of a home, and one that cannot find justice easily even when it reaches the hallowed halls of our courts. For marital rape is still not spelt out as an offence in India. Which is why, when the government conveyed to the Supreme Court the necessity to treat forced sex between husband and wife as rape and amend laws accordingly — the proposal was made a couple of years ago by the Law Commission — the sense of urgency with which we have to respond to violence against women calls for reiteration.

Section 375 of the IPC archaically qualifies sexual intercourse between husband and wife as rape only if the wife is less than 15 years old.

Women have to take recourse to 498-A of the IPC to protect themselves against “perverse sexual conduct by the husband”, or to the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. A serious debate on marital rape, combined with a willingness to change laws, began again last year, when the department of legal affairs drafted the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, based on recommendations of the women and child development ministry and the National Commission for Women. The intention was to amend various sections of the IPC, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Indian Evidence Act to recognise new categories of sexual assault. We can no longer afford to dither on this. We need to debate this as well, without treating marital rape as taboo or resorting to euphemisms, but looking at it as a social, criminal problem.

 

The music we love, the moments we would hate to live

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I was watching the Jhalak Dikhla Jaa premiere last week and was appalled when one of the performers staged the circumstances of a gang-rape to open her performance. She danced, petite, delicate and in faux distress as a large group of tall male dancers in black moved around her menacingly. I was not appalled because I work on Prajnya’s gender violence campaign. I work on the campaign because this is a circumstance I would find appalling, and it is scandalous that it is considered artistic foil for a competitive dance performance that has nothing to do with violence.

Surfing channels a little later, I watched one of my favourite songs and actors. And thought, not for the first time, whether in Hema Malini’s place, faced with someone other than Dev Anand and a host of cameras and film crew, I would find the song or situation in the least bit beguiling. Consider this: you travel for work with a male colleague and cannot be in your room without finding him peering through every window and opening! It would actually be terrifying.

Pal bhar ke liye, Johny Mera Naam, featuring Dev Anand and Hema Malini

Another song that really is criminally catchy is “Khambe jaisi khadi hai,” from Dil. In this very sexist, menacing number, Aamir Khan and his friends mock new classmate Madhuri Dixit for daring to not respond to their overtures.

Khambe jaisi khadi hai, Dil, featuring Aamir Khan and Madhuri Dixit

The menacing tone of this is taken forward to the rape simulation in the film, which is Aamir Khan’s character’s way of proving to her that rape charges should be made seriously. Well, that’s not the message you remember first though–what you remember is that the potential victim falls in love with her assailant.

People made a huge fuss about ‘Choli ke peechhey kya hai,’ but I have always found Madhuri Dixit’s hit, ‘Chane ke khet mein’ a great deal more scandalous. Perhaps my understanding is faulty, but does she not talk about being accosted in the fields and ‘jora-jori’ chane ke khet mein? How is coercion in the gram-field appropriate for any celebration?

Chane ke khet mein, Anjaam, featuring Madhuri Dixit

But all these three songs are catchy, and the first one is really a classic, so quietly, like a sugar-coated pill, stories about violence slip into our playlists and we listen to them with pleasure rather than horror.

I was thinking about this and came up with three examples, and three Hindi examples, because this is what I listen to and this is what came to mind. I am sure there are lots of other examples. Do share them. Let’s see if we can come up with a long list of songs that really should be banned, if only we could get them out of our heads! At least, let us tempt the possibility that someone will read this post and its responses and think: hey, actually this is not a cool song or dance situation! A girl in these circumstances is actually more likely to be traumatised or screaming for help rather than dimpling back in exasperation or dancing beautifully!

Workplace Sexual Harassment: New Indian Law

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The Indian cabinet just approved the introduction of the Protection of Women against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill, 2010. Law Resource India describes the proposed bill here, and provides links to related articles. So far, action in workplace sexual harassment cases has been governed by the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court of India in the Vishakha case in 1997.

 

Sexual violence as politics

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Rakhi Chakraborty, Raped repeatedly, Naxal leader quits Red ranks, Times of India, August 24, 2010.

Today’s TOI carries this report about a Maoist commander who experienced sexual violence over a period of six years, after first being raped at 17 by a fellow-rebel.

“Somewhere On The Bengal-Jharkhand Border: The eerie calm in the dense sal forest is deafening. Walking along a snaking dirt track, a clear patch appears. Sitting on a rock, hidden by thick, emerald green foliage, is the diminutive figure of a woman, a gamchha (thin towel) covering her head. Her blue salwar-kameez meld with the surroundings. Her eyes dart around at the slightest hint of sound. Shobha Mandi, alias Uma, alias Shikha, gives a searching look and then smiles. The 23-year-old CPI-Maoist Jhargram area commander says she was expecting us.

“From commanding 25-30 armed Maoist squad members, Uma turned a fugitive four months ago. She fled her command post on the plea of seeing a doctor. She hid with her aunt for a short while; and now she says she wants the world to know her story. She wants to surrender and is likely to give up Naxalism on August 26.

“Why did she decide to shed her battle fatigues seven years after she joined the Naxals? “They committed injustices against which they claimed they were fighting,” said Uma. “As a recruit, I protested against the habits of some leaders in the presence of Kishanji. Nobody liked it. The leaders instructed the squad members not to speak to me. I was isolated and warned of dire consequences if I protested,” she said.

What didn’t she like about the leaders? “They rape,” she shot back, eyes flashing with rage. “After about a year of joining Naxals, I was put on night-long sentry duty at a forest camp in Jharkhand. Suddenly, out of the dark, Bikash (now, head of the state military commission) came up and asked me for water. As I turned to fetch it, he grabbed me and tried to do ‘kharap kaaj’ (indecent acts).” When she objected, Bikash threatened to strangle her. After forcing her into submission, Bikash raped her, she said. She was 17 then.

“He warned me against telling anyone about this. But, I told Akash (Kishanji’s confidant and a state committee member). He said he would look into it but did nothing. In fact, Akash’s wife, Anu, lives with Kishanji,” Uma said.

“Most women recruits are exploited by senior Maoists. Senior women leaders, too, have multiple sexual partners, Uma said. “If a member gets pregnant, she has no choice but to abort: A child is seen as a burden that hampers the agility of guerrillas.”

“Uma has heard tales of brutalization of other women Naxals, too. “Seema (then a recruit) told me that Akash raped her as well. Rahul (alias Ranjit Pal) raped Belpahari squad commander Madan Mahato’s wife, Jaba. In this case, the party punished Rahul, who is a key weapons trainer at Maoist camps. He was removed from the regional committee for three months,” said Uma.

“State committee secretary Sudip Chongdar, alias Goutam, was also punished for similar acts, she said, and transferred to Jharkhand’s West Singbhum district. Maoists divide time between forest camps and hideouts in villages. Villagers can’t refuse shelter to gun-toting Maoists. Also, they must keep all night vigil to alert them against police raids. “When Sudip took shelter in villages, he raped women in their homes. They were too scared to protest,” said Uma.

“Many of her senior leaders exploited her sexually. One day, says Uma, Kamal Maity, who is a Bengal-Jharkhand-Orissa regional committee member, came to her rescue. At a meeting attended by Kishanji and other top Maoists, Kamal proposed a relationship with Uma. The leaders agreed. “After Jaba’s incident, I learnt that a woman cadre is protected against sexual exploitation only if she is with a senior leader,” she said. That was a turning point and she rose steadily in Naxal ranks.

“Uma is on the police’s most wanted list. She is suspected to have planned and executed a series of attacks, including the massacre of 24 EFR jawans in Silda (February 2010); a raid on Sankrail police station in which two policemen were killed and an officer abducted (October 2009). She is also one of the suspects in Jharkhand MP Sunil Mahato’s murder in 2007.

“She mentored PCPA members, including Bapi Mahato who is in jail for the Jnaneswari train sabotage. Last year, when the joint central and state forces advanced into Lalgarh to break an eight-month siege, she along with other Maoists fired at the police. In Jhargram, she is known as didi. According to a source, Uma single-handedly built up the PCPA at Jhargram.

“Uma joined the rebels in 2003. CPI-Maoist hadn’t been formed then. “I joined the People’s War (PW) which later merged with MCC in 2004 to form CPI-Maoist,” she said. She was given a new name, Uma. “I was plump. Anu (Akash’s wife; Kishanji’s companion) said I looked like Uma Bharti. So, she named me Uma.”

“Maoist leaders spotted her organizational skills. She was asked to mobilize tribals women at Jamboni and Dahijuri in West Midnapore. She also underwent three-month arms training at Jharkhand’s Gorabandha forest. “First, we are taught with dummy weapons using tree branches. All recruits have to fire three bullets in their first session. Those who hit the target are picked for armed squads,” she said.

“In spite of guns and guerrilla warfare, the woman in her sometimes longs for simple pleasures like painting her nails or wearing earrings. But, she says, “We were not permitted to use even fragrant soaps, lest we get detected. Only Lifebuoy is used by cadres.”

“Did she join the rebels of her own free will? Circumstances, she said. Uma is second of four siblings. Along with their parents, they worked as wage earners on farms or collected sal leaves, mahua and red ants (kurkut) to sell. “I was good in studies but weak in math. I worked all day and studied at night,” the girl from Khayerpahari village in West Bengal’s Bankura district recounted. “I couldn’t pass the Class X board.”

“This was in 2002. Younger brother Sanjay, who was in Class VIII, was already taken away by the extremists. He became a Lalgarh squad member and is in jail now. “My father, Jamadar Mandi, was an alcoholic suffering from tuberculosis. There was no money to buy him medicines. We sold our land and also borrowed money,” Uma said.

“While the family struggled, some “party” members offered help. “They gave my father some money and told me to join them. They said I could leave if I didn’t like working with them,” said Uma. The prospect of a job spurred her.

“But only after she signed up did she realize she could never go home. “Whoever comes here, never returns,” a senior leader told her. She wanted freedom from poverty but found herself chained to an ideology she couldn’t understand.

“After seven years of witnessing bloodletting, she has no fear of death. She now hopes the state she has fought against will rehabilitate her. “There are many in the Maoist ranks who would flee given half a chance,” she said.”

Outrageous. Particularly in an organization that is supposed to be fighting exploitation. Outrageous, but not entirely surprising, perhaps.
But even as I am outraged, I cannot help wondering about the timing of the report. Is this true? Is this part of some counter-insurgency disinformation campaign?
This is the challenge that most of us face on issues like this: our hearts go out to the cause in its purest essence–equity, justice, rights–but our minds tell us that that neither side has a monopoly over virtue or vice, integrity or dishonesty.
The problem with gender violence in conflict situations is precisely this: there are so many layers of complications and so many shadows, that complete certainty beyond the principle, is hard. Even if you really want to be completely sympathetic.