India still widely believes that a woman who displays the least hint of any autonomous sexuality is a dangerous rogue missile that must be brought down by any means, from patronising forms of gallantry to rape and murder. Whether it’s right-wing fundamentalists assaulting women in bars; or village elders banning women from going to the market alone or using cellphones; or spurned lovers melting their beloveds’ faces off with acid; or khap panchayats beheading errant couples, the root impulse is to control women’s sexuality, presumably lest it pull a funny face and somehow destroy the planet.
The recent violence in Guwahati, where a mob was filmed assaulting a young girl, has thrown up the usual (and necessary) soul-searching about culpability, law enforcement, and media ethics. But one issue that surrounds every such incident does not get enough airtime, and that is the insidious language used by people in positions of authority, whether policy-makers, law enforcers, or members of the judiciary, that reinforces the easy moralising of society at large.
Words carry powerful cultural assumptions, and the easiest way to keep women in line is to ensure that the language they grow up with keeps them intimidated and docile. Raise your daughters to believe in good words and bad words, and they just won’t give you as much trouble by trying to choose their own partners, or entering a profession of their choice, or wrecking your social standing by leaving their abusive husbands. Good words: decent, moral, character, Indian, married, modest, dignified, family, values. (Best phrase: family values.) Bad words: single, fast, modern, unmarried, indecent, provocative, obscene, Western, immoral. (Worst phrase: Western immorality.) If she controls herself, that saves you the trouble.
The easiest way to preserve the social status quo is to reference these words. The language of analysis, after each brutal incident of sexual violence against women, points to the fact that the people who make and enforce policy are — sometimes totally unselfconsciously — as depressingly regressive as those who commit crimes. Thus, if the Sri Ram Sene can pervert language so that dancing is “obscene”, and assaulting customers in a bar is the honourable way to “protect” “Indian” “values”, the former Karnataka women and child welfare minister can also say, earlier this year: “I don’t favour women wearing provocative clothes and always feel they need to be dignified in whatever they wear.” The Andhra Pradesh DGP can say, last year, that the rise in rape cases “cannot be attributed to failure of the police…In villages more women are wearing fashionable clothing and if one studies the crime pattern...it is one of the factors provoking the accused [towards rape].” (My italics in both cases.)
The founder of the Sri Ram Sene described women drinking in a pub as “indulging in obscenity” and justified assaulting them thus: “Even if our sisters had done this, we would have acted like this only.” Assault is thus seen as the natural punitive response to any perceived female sexuality, and men's intimidating or downright violent behaviour is turned mild as milk by the term “eve teasing”.
In 2010, the Supreme Court quite unselfconsciously used the word “keep” (as in, an extramarital sexual partner whom a man also maintains financially) in a judgment relating to the 2005 Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. The fact that the court was baffled by Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising’s vigorous objection to the use of the word, reflects how ingrained this kind of language and thinking is, and therefore how important it is to challenge it. Legal terms like “outraging a woman’s modesty” are stuck neck-deep in the dark ages of sexual politics.
It’s when women themselves propagate this language that you've really got them by the short and curlies. The Dimapur chapter of the Naga Women’s Hoho last year decided to deal with rising crime against women by asking women to stop wearing ‘indecent’ clothes. In the recent Guwahati case, the considered opinion of the chairperson of the National Commission for Women was that “women should be careful about the way they dress because such incidents are a result of blindly aping the West”, and, ironically, went on to say that the NCW had to change the social mindset of discrimination against women. She then offered the following mystifying interpretation of this great challenge: “Westernisation has afflicted our cities the worst. There are no values left. In places like Delhi there is no culture of giving up seats for women.” That’s right, forget a mob bent on sexual assault — we have fallen so deep into Western sin that people don’t give up their seats for women.
The fact is that until India openly and genuinely accepts that women are sexual beings who have the right to be sexual beings without being held responsible for other people’s criminal behaviour, and until the language we use reflects that, we can expect many more Guwahatis, and not much justice.