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Women must arise now and embrace equity

Women must arise now and embrace equity

On 13 February, a mother and her daughter were burnt alive during an encroachment clearing drive in Dehat village of Kanpur; the incident that killed a 44-year-old mother and her 21-year-old daughter had triggered massive tension between police and the villagers.

A few days earlier, on 7 February, in Karnataka’s Koppal district, a Dalit woman was beaten with slippers and abused by an upper-caste man when she entered his property to get her cow back. The animal had apparently strayed inside the man’s land.

Early in January, a thirty-year-old Adivasi woman belonging to the Oraon tribe was allegedly raped and killed by forest department officials in Bihar’s Rohtas district while she was gathering firewood in a forested area near Rohtasgarh Fort.

Not long ago, the photos of over one hundred Muslim women, including journalists and activists, were displayed on an app saying they were for sale, to humiliate and intimidate them.

In September 2020, the gang-rape of a 19-year-old Dalit girl in Hathras UP tore at the conscience of the nation. Sadly, a few days ago on 2 March a court in UP acquitted three of the four accused men; the fourth was found guilty only of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and under sections of the SC/ST Act but not of rape!

All these heinous crimes against women were reported by some media, in a matter-of-fact way, as though such violations need to be expected. The tragedy is that these incidents are not one-offs; they are representative of a systemic wrong that exists in a highly patriarchal society, which thrives on a chauvinistic mindset.

According to a 2018 survey by the prestigious Thomson Reuters Foundation, India is the most dangerous country for sexual violence against women. The status of women in India is abysmal: The World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked India at 135 out of 146 countries in its Global Gender Gap (GGG) Index for 2022.

India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in its latest report shows that crime against women rose by 15.3 per cent in 2021 from the previous year, with 4,28,278 cases registered last year following 3,71,503 cases in 2020.

The NCRB report also shows that the rate of crime against women (the number of incidents per 1 lakh population) increased from 56.5 per cent in 2020 to 64.5 per cent in 2021. All this is certainly a crying shame for a country, which today holds the Presidency of the G-20, and is also desperately trying to propel itself to be the world leader- with plenty of cover-ups and cosmetics!

As another International Women’s Day (IWD) dawns, there will be the usual round of cosmetic programmes, and the plethora of speeches reeking of tokenism; male speaker after speaker will wax eloquent with that typically patronising attitude towards women. The sad and cruel reality is that precious little seems to change.

In India, most women continue to be condemned to live as second-class citizens in patriarchal and male-dominated societies. Male domination continues in all the major religions! Interestingly the campaign theme for IWD 2023 and beyond is to #EmbraceEquity.

The concept notes state that “Equity is not just a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. A focus on gender equity needs to be part of every society’s DNA…Equity means creating an inclusive world…Each one of us can actively support and embrace equity within our own sphere of influence…. We can all challenge gender stereotypes, call out discrimination, draw attention to bias, and seek out inclusion. Collective activism is what drives change. From grassroots action to wide-scale momentum, we can all embrace equity. Forging gender equity is not limited to women solely fighting the good fight. Allies are incredibly important for the social, economic, cultural, and political advancement of women…. Everyone everywhere can play a part”.

Significantly, 14 February was also the anniversary of the ‘One Billion Rising’ movement. It is the biggest mass action to end violence against women (cisgender, transgender, and those who hold fluid identities that are subject to gender-based violence) in human history. The campaign, which launched on Valentine’s Day 2012, began as a call to action based on the staggering statistic that 1 in 3 women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime.

With the world population at 7 billion, this adds up to more than one billion women and girls. The Theme of the campaign for 2023 is ‘Rise for Freedom’. The campaign states that “this year we call on the world to rise for freedom - freedom from patriarchy and from all its progeny…. capitalism, impunity, poverty, oppression, division, exploitation, shame, control, individualism, greed, violence…and in this rising…create the new culture.”

True there have been (and are) several women who have had the courage to embrace equity and create this new culture. The list is endless but includes the likes of Savitribai Phule, widely regarded as the country’s first woman teacher. She died on 10 March 1897. She is credited with laying the foundation of education opportunities for women in India and played a major role in the struggle for women’s rights in the country during British rule.

She was a poet too; her poems were against discrimination and of the need for education. For most of her life, she campaigned vigorously against untouchability, the tradition of sati, child marriage and other social evils, which affect women. In one of her poems, she writes, “end misery of the oppressed and forsaken…break the chains of caste.”

Along with her was Fatima Sheikh who was India’s first female Muslim teacher. Together Savitribai and Fatima spearheaded an educational revolution in the 1800s. Fatima Sheikh played an essential role in starting the country’s first girls’ school. In 1848, Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule were asked to leave their home due to their anti-Brahmanical views.

At that time, educating women and the lower caste was considered a sin. Along with her brother, Usman Sheikh, Fatima Sheikh gave refuge to them and started the school from the same building. Sheikh even undertook a teacher’s training course along with Phule to assist her in managing the educational institution.

In our midst today, we have Justice B V Nagarathna who is making waves in the Supreme Court! Recently, she pronounced two dissenting judgements; both were verdicts of 4:1. The other four who opined were all male judges! Justice Nagarathna has however been unflinching and undeterred: her views have certainly not gone unnoticed both the print and the electronic media (including the majority pro-establishment ones) have provided the space and given the necessary coverage to her views There are several editorials and op-eds singing paeans to her judgements - with legal luminaries, academics and other intellectuals vying with each other to critique her judgements and at the same time provide grist to the mill.

The Supreme Court is still a male bastion. Being a lone woman on a bench with four other men is perhaps not very easy. It requires grit and determination to think differently! Justice BV Nagarathna has undoubtedly proved that her ability to stand up to men who call the shots, is no flash-in-the-pan! She already seems to have broken the glass ceiling!

Then we have the horrendous tragedy of twenty-one years ago, which engulfed Gujarat. Bilkis Bano experienced it all. Following the burning of the S-6 compartment and the tragic death of 59 persons (mainly ‘kar sevaks’) on 27 February 2002, all hell broke loose, the next day, in several parts of Gujarat.

Sensing trouble, a group of seventeen persons fled their native village of Radhikpur in the Dahod district. The group comprised Bilkis, her three-year-old daughter Saleha, her mother and fourteen others. They took refuge in another village Chhaparvad hoping they would be safe there.

On 3 March, however, they were attacked by about 20-30 people armed with sickles, swords, and sticks. Among the attackers were the eleven accused men, just set free. Bilkis, her mother, and three other women were raped and brutally assaulted. Of the seventeen Muslims, eight were found dead, six were missing.

Only Bilkis, a man, and a three-year-old child survived the attack. Bilkis was unconscious for at least three hours; after she regained consciousness, she borrowed clothes from an Adivasi woman and made her way to the Limkheda police station to register a complaint. The Head Constable there, according to the CBI, “suppressed material facts and wrote a distorted and truncated version of Bilkis’ complaint”.

Bilkis has relived the horror of that tragedy several times over as she unwaveringly narrates the brutality, she was subject to.

In great pain, she says, “All 4 men of my family were killed brutally. The women were stripped naked and raped by many men. They caught me top. My 3-year-old daughter, Saleha, was in my arms. They snatched her and threw her into the air with all their might. My heart broke as her little head shattered on the rocks. Four men caught me by the arms and legs and many others entered me one by one. When satisfying their lust, they kicked me and beat my head with a rod. Assuming that I was dead they threw me into the bushes. Four or five hours later I regained my consciousness. I searched for some rags to cover my body, but couldn’t find any. I spent a day and a half on a hilltop without food or water. I longed for death. Finally, I managed to find a tribal colony. Declaring myself as a Hindu I sought shelter there. The men who attacked us used foul language; I can’t repeat it ever. In front of me, they killed my mother, sister and 12 other relatives. While raping and killing us, they were shouting sexual abuse. I could not even tell them that I was five months pregnant because their feet were on my mouth and neck. I have known the men who raped me for many years. We sold them milk. They were our customers. If they had any shame, they would not have done this to me. How can I forgive them?”

Her dogged and relentless pursuit of justice ensured that eleven of the perpetrators of this dastardly crime were sentenced to life imprisonment. In a clear travesty of justice on 15 August 2022, they were all given remission to their sentence and set free! Bilkis’ struggle still continues: as she fights so that these criminals are sent back to jail.

In a public statement on 17 August 2022, she said “two days ago on August 15, 2022, the trauma of the past 20 years washed over me again. When I heard that the 11 convicted men who devastated my family and my life, and took from me my 3-year-old daughter, had walked free, I was bereft of words. I am still numb. Today I can only say this- how can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land. I trusted the system, and I was learning slowly to live with my trauma. The release of these convicts has taken from me my peace and shaken my faith in justice. My sorrow and my wavering faith are not for myself alone but for every woman who is struggling for justice in court. No one enquired about my safety and well-being, before taking such a big and unjust decision. I appeal to the Gujarat Government, please undo this harm. Give me back my right to live without fear and in peace. Please ensure that my family and I are kept safe”. Blikis continues to wait for justice!

It has not been easy for Savitribai and Fatima, for Nagarathna and Bilkis and for several other women who have dared the system and worked towards change! These are women who have risen against all odds, ploughed the lonely path and courageously decided to embrace equity. These epitomise the immortal words of Maya Angelou, the American civil rights activist and poet:

Out of the huts of history’s sham, I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain, I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear, I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave, I rise!

Yes, Women must Arise Now and Embrace Equity!

Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer.

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