The Fragile Sanctity of Being Female

The process of news reading is not a leisurely activity when the news is dismal enough that “good news” needs its own channels, as if in contradiction. Amidst the usual pall of gloom that has descended on the globe, there are cases, bigger and tougher to cure than a virus.

Police brutality was caught by the throat in America, Lebanon suffered a scaled loss at the cost of deadly corruption, Belarus is paying the price of Russia losing a battle against the human desire for freedom. Running along (or under) these, is a silent humanitarian struggle that burns at the altar of all times, compromised or not – crimes against women.

Closer home, on August 11, three reporters from The Caravan visited Northeast Delhi to investigate a claim that three local Muslim women were sexually assaulted at the local police station. The reporters were taking photos of saffron flags when they were attacked by a mob of locals. The only woman reporter managed to get away, but was soon surrounded herself. According to her testimony:

“The men, who looked to be in their early twenties, began taking photos and videos of her, and ‘making cheap and lewd comments and started saying, Dikhao, dikhao’ (Show, show). As she walked away, ‘a middle-aged man in a dhoti and a white t-shirt, with a bald head and a slim pony-tail stood in front of me… He then opened his dhoti and exposed his genitals while looking at me. He proceeded to shake his [genitals] with his hand and started making objectionable and lewd expressions, while laughing at me.’”

The 21st century has seen women step out as independent beings, pursuing dreams built of their own accord. There’s something novel about this situation, where women are not just business leaders, political office holders, running newsletters, but most importantly, are using these platforms to represent the community as a whole.

It isn’t unnatural that we have an entire society circumspect of this wave. It would be strange if tradition had taken to this change lying down. Questioning and criticism are healthy pursuits in a democracy. You can answer questions and counter criticism with logical arguments in a healthy debate. But how do you fight resistance that is fuelled by an inflated ego, nursed over centuries of use and abuse?

The human love for status quo is not new. Alongside other identities like caste, colour, creed, religion, male superiority has similarly been a preserved legacy of hierarchy. So the uplifting of women is seen not simply as a change in the status quo, but as a disruption that comes at the cost of the all-we’ve-ever-known knowledge of ‘female submission’ to men. And that probably explains the reason why men are so threatened by this shift in the spirit of women everywhere. From workplaces to household responsibilities to partnership equations, women are rising up the ranks to ask for an equal space. But society won’t have it. So we have suppression, oppression and pushback in overt and covert ways.

Also read: The Male Gaze and Unreported Stories of Everyday Abuse

The idea of honour continues to be the most common and also almost the strongest weapon in this battle. And the most evident manifestation of this idea is the female body. Assault the female body and you have not only successfully traumatised a being into forceful fear, but have also managed to avenge the enemy that the woman “belongs to”.

If this wasn’t atrocious enough, we also have the most bizarre form of violation – one where a woman is assaulted not by inflicting visible harm upon her, but by exposing another being’s genitals that could potentially destroy her modesty.

In a single stroke of flashing their penises, men intend to shame and threaten. The idea being sold here is that the penis is stronger than the vagina, because male is stronger than female. A flash is to spark a dread in the woman – of what the penis could possibly do to her physically, and as a result, empty her claim and ability to lead a life worth living.

This happens in metros, locals, restaurants, bars, hotels, poolsides, beaches, and any other “public spaces for all”. Yet there is something increasingly disconcerting and odd about these instances. Imagine a sanctity made so fragile that the sight of the opposite sex’s body part can be used to assault another from afar.

Women don’t typically build cases out of these instances. There are not many FIRs against men flashing women. Because the honour at stake is the woman’s – the only honour that matters. These instances serve as horrifying reminders of the fact that this honour is not awarded to women as the keepers of societal principles, but used as a trump card to oust them from society using these very man-made principles.

They serve as disturbing reinforcements that whether it is her body or his that is exposed, it is only she who needs to fear. They serve as lasting signs that if the oppressed design ways to raise a voice, the oppressor will evolve its manner of oppression – in competition with its own self.

The power play behind this act and its ability to freeze women in their tracks underlines the fact that this is a long fight to uproot systemic beliefs. I’m not sure how long this battle will last, but I do know that the rise of one will require and depend on a disruption of another – in this case, that of normative male superiority.

Antra Sharma is a researcher with Gartner, a research and advisory firm. She spends most of her free time reading and writing, with a limited desire to formalise the two leisurely habits.

Featured image credit: Antra Sharma