Arguments are liberating

The problem is not that women have views. The problem is they don’t find expression. Namita Bhandare writes.

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I spent much of my adolescence mortified by my mother. As a teenager, like most other teenagers, I wanted to fit in. My mother, unfortunately for me, was anything but a conformist. She was argumentative, loud and didn’t seem to care what other people thought about her. She had an opinion on everything.

It was terrifying. Other mothers came to pick up their children from school in immaculate saris and perfect nails. My mother had no patience for beauty parlours and refused to stick to safe topics – servant problems, birthday parties and annual vacation plans – holding forth instead on rising prices, failing governance, the need for austerity, the lack of discipline. There was nothing she couldn’t speak about.

It was only later that I realised the importance of having an opinion and being able to back it with an argument. For a college student, debating with other college students well into the night was exhilarating, a heady time of discovery: What did you stand for? What did you believe in? And yes, arguing with my mother was liberating too. She had a voice and she allowed me mine.

An opinionated woman is a rare creature. ‘Well-brought up’ women are required to keep their thoughts to themselves. A well-brought up women does not make her point aggressively. A well-brought up woman does not disagree with her husband/father/brother, at least not in public. A well-brought up woman does not fight back. Writing for Mint recently, my friend Priya Ramani touched upon this when she noted that on Twitter men often use the word ‘arrogant’ pejoratively to describe a woman they cannot slot.

One person’s arrogance is another’s opinion. And social conditioning is deeply ingrained not just in India but all over the world. A May 2012 study by the Op-Ed Project ( found that women make up only 24.4% of columnists at eight major US syndicates. I am not aware of an empirical study related to India, but to me it seems the figure here would be far lower. When women write, as I do, it is often on subjects like gender, family, entertainment and lifestyle – as if these are somehow exclusively the concern of women. It’s as if we are socialised into steering clear of ‘hard’ subjects like science, technology, economics and security.

Earlier this year, TrustLaw, a legal news service of the Thompson Reuters Foundation caused a minor furore by placing India at the bottom of a list of the world’s worst countries for women (below even Saudi Arabia). The obvious reasons – female foeticide, child marriage, rising crimes against women – are easy to spot. The latent hostility comes in far subtler forms of discrimination: When mothers bring up daughters to be submissive, when we teach our daughters to walk on the streets with head bent and eyes down, when we drill into their heads that life must be a series of continuing adjustment and sacrifice.

When women face sexual harassment they are told they ‘asked for it’ because of the clothes they wear or the opinions they articulate. Women are now to be blamed for crimes against them either because they own mobile phones, wear western clothes, don’t get married early enough or just question the authority of their fathers and husbands.

The problem is not that women have opinions. The problem is that these opinions don’t find expression. When they do, as we’ve seen from the impact of women’s reservation in panchayats, all of society benefits from more equitable governance and a focus on issues like education, health, water and sanitation.

This year my mother turned 80. She’s battled diabetes for over 40 years, has had a heart bypass and is virtually blind in one eye. Her once brisk walk is now a shuffle. But she remains as outspoken as ever. She has taught me one thing: to be fearlessly able to voice an opinion. It is my most precious gift.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer
Twitter: @namitabhandare
The views expressed by the author are personal

Don’t defend the indefensible

A spate of rapes is not the occasion to score political brownie points. Instead of blaming women for crimes against them, maybe it’s time to start putting blame where it belongs. Namita Bhandare writes.

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When headlines shout rape, our ‘leaders’ will find solutions. Om Prakash Chautala’s remedy to the rape cases in Haryana — 18 in 30 days, and that’s just the reported figures — is to endorse the khap panchayat’s suggestion that parents marry off their daughters at a young age. Presumably, child marriage will end the surge in sexual crimes.

The idiocy of the khap argument, seconded by INLD leader Chautala is obvious. Chautala has tried to backtrack saying it was up to the government to accept it. Still, just to dispel any ambiguity let it be stated:

Married women get raped, married men can rape. In Kaithal a five-month pregnant woman was raped by two men. In Hisar four of the accused rapists are married.

Rape has little to do with sexual desire (presumably early marriages will ensure sex-on-demand for testosterone-overloaded men). It has more to do with an assertion of power.

With 830 girls for 1,000 boys, where will Haryana’s men find enough wives? Politicians might want to campaign against female foeticide instead of regressing into the medieval ages by supporting illegal khaps who rule what women should wear or whether they can go to markets unescorted.

Fifteen of the 18 reported rapes this month are of Dalit women. When Dalits are targeted for rape by upper caste men, it is to establish dominance and ‘humiliate’ a community. Married, single, widowed, doesn’t matter.

Early marriage puts girls at risk of early childbirth, the leading cause of death for girls in the age group 15-19 in developing countries, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Children are also more likely to experience domestic violence, including marital rape, finds HRW. Moreover, the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006 makes child marriage illegal.

Illogic is not the monopoly of any one party. Rising to Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Hooda’s defence, Congress spokeswoman Renuka Chowdhury says the state is working “discreetly to reassure families that they will be safe and they will not have to worry about the social support they need. It is not a very simple black-and-white law and order issue only.”

Err, discreetly? Not a law-and-order issue? Social support?

Two rapes were reported on the day Sonia Gandhi visited a Dalit family whose daughter had killed herself after being raped in Jind.

This is a red flag issue. Governance, action and exemplary steps are called for. But Haryana’s CM has been so discreet that until his party boss came to Jind, he hadn’t bothered to meet a single rape survivor. Not to forget, his state party unit head was blaming the rapes on a ‘political conspiracy’ while another partyman, Dharamvir Goyat stated that ‘90% rapes are consensual’.

It’s a rare politician who will take on the khap panchayats. It’s a rarer politician who has made women’s issues, including crimes against women, a personal crusade.

Mamata Banerjee dismissed the reporting of rape cases as a media conspiracy. Sheila Dikshit advised women to be ‘less adventurous’. And who can forget UP Congress chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi’s remarks that Mayawati should be raped in order to comprehend the plight of victims in her state?

A spate of rapes is not the occasion to score political brownie points. Was Sonia Gandhi’s visit to Jind an attempt to politicise the rapes as the BJP’s Balbir Punj, and even Chautala claim? It doesn’t matter. This is not about party politics. This is about asking: what are you doing to get a better deal for women? What are you doing to make the country safer for women? What are you doing to ensure dignity and right to life for untouchable women?

Instead of blaming women for crimes against them, maybe it’s time to start putting blame where it belongs.

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal