After recent much-publicized incidents of molestation and khap panchayat fatwas, there have been a lot of discussions, finger-pointings and public outrages. Obviously accused will be punished, but the everyday incidents, which do not get much publicity, will remain unaffected unless we dispassionately discuss and find solution to the problem of “sexual assaults on women in India”. For that to happen, we have to look at the issue as a social phenomenon, not as a problem of an individual. We have to put away our rage and look at individual manifestation as a symptom of deeper social problems. Demonizing all men as perverts and whole Indian society as patriarchal society having sick rotten value can take us nowhere. So, lets go into the basis of the issue.
Every society has some moral values which are based on the history and the environment of that society. We must be very clear from the onset that no value system or morals are right or wrong. Righteousness of value system depends on the place of that particular society in time and space. Nobody has right to say that his/her moral values are purer than somebody else. I would even go to the extent of saying that even a cannibal is morally correct in his/her position, if he truly believes in those values. Second peculiar thing about value system is that it changes with change in technology, but the process of change in value system is very slow, compared to pace of change in technology. In the mean time there exist two sets of value system in a single society. India is going from one of those changes.
As all of us know, the empowerment and sexual liberation of women is not in tune with the traditional value system. So people holding traditional value system see a modern woman as a delinquent. This view, typically found among people born before 60s, is cause of tacit and even vocal support of larger society to the incidents of sexual assault on a modern woman. Society always finds mechanism to punish delinquents, by enforcing laws, by mob behavior or by social comments. I will emphasis on the point that, in my opinion, there is nothing wrong in their value system and they have every right to protest against the supposed delinquent. Law can not, and at-least society will not punish anybody who seems to uphold the value system of society. So intelligentsia of society, which is not more than 5% of total population should forget that larger society is going to oppose these acts any time soon.
You will hear many say that society which worships Durga/Saraswati treats its women so badly. But these comments are with no theoretical basis, because the society which worships durga doesn’t find modern women fitting in its idea of a proper woman. That is why you will find a minister supporting diktats of khap panchayats in UP, people not coming forward to help a girl who is molested by crowd for drinking alcohol in Asom, or any aunty in your neighborhood telling a girl not to dress provocatively. This view of society may change with the changing time and meanwhile we can not blame people for their attitude, because they are just being good citizen, following their value systems and doing what is right in their opinion. In moral science, intent to do right thing is more important than content of that deed. So the society is going to face this tussle until a value consensus is developed on social issues. Education can play an important role in changing that attitude. But confrontation should be avoided with older lot, if we can, over such issues in our already divided society, because as I already said, nobody is right or wrong, they just have different values. Read an incident based on kissing in public issue here
After the above analysis, mind asks, if social delinquency of modern women is the main cause of sexual assault then why so called traditional women face these problems. In modern indian society men have created an image of perverts for themselves. Touching woman bodies in buses, leering after women in public places, frequent sexual advances in offices and heavy popularity of item songs are some examples of such behavior. If we think about root cause of this problem, then mind wanders to a deeper problem of value-system mismatch in modern indian society.
Before going deeper in sociological analysis of “growing sexual assaults on women in India” I would like to narrate an interaction I had with an auto-rickshaw-wallah in Delhi. I was going from IIT Delhi to Greater Kailash to meet one of my friend 2 years back. This auto-wallah had a picture of Lord Shiva on one side of his speedometer and that of Gandhi on the other side. I have a habit of talking with auto drivers when I find something interesting in their auto. So we have had a discussion about religion and Gandhi and all kinds of moral issue. You know how knowledgable and moral a man on streets of India really is, about worldly affairs.
When we were passing from Saket, there was a group of young girls, wearing short skirts, talking loudly, having fun. They passed in front of auto, when it was standing at a red light. The auto-driver abused them, calling sluts and other related words. When I questioned and requestioned his morals on this issues, he admitted that main problem was that he sees sexually attractive females everyday, but as he was living away from his wife, he has to control his sexual urges. This deprivation leads to frustration against those females unconsciously. I appreciated his honesty. Few weeks later, if my memory didn’t fail me, I saw his name as the accuse of a rape case in newspaper. I support whatever punishment court grants him, but I somehow felt sadness for him at that time.
Let us consider two paradigms here. In traditional indian system, age of marriage was just after attaining the puberty, ie 13-14 years. So the value system dictates that there shall not be any pre-marital sexual relation and prime importance was given to virginity and modest behavior. There was very less spatial mobility, so people lived with their spouses whole life. In modern western system age of marriage is 25-30 years. So the value system allows sexual relations before marriage. But in modern indian society we are seeing hotchpotch of the two systems. The age of marriage is raised due to career orientation and awareness about safe motherhood. But the value system still frowns upon pre-marital sex. This has created an army of sex-deprived individuals among 15-25 age group. They may subscribe to modern value system or they may not; but in order to follow basic instincts, they indulge in heinous acts of sexual assaults at the first possible opportunity.
According to a newspaper report less than 25% urban and less than 15% rural people experience pre-marital sex in India. Like right to food and water, denying a person right to sex, when his/her body demands it (after age of 15), is a gross violation of human rights. On top of that, socially imposed guilt in pornography and masterbation makes life difficult for a large set of people. These are the people who talk about liberation of women but indulge in sexual harassment if given any chance.
Males and females, both experience such deprivation, but stringent social restrictions and physical structure of human body makes rape by a female far less likely. The society should provide for right to sex to every human being above 15 years age to curb problem of sexual assault. Punishing a deprived person for act of stealing or looting that thing reminds me of Amitabh Bachchan movies. Here individual is not at fault but social structure is. Only new social structure, not any law, can take care of this situation. Some genius mind in pre-historical times invented concept of marriage and monogamy to provide sexual gratification to everybody in society. Same kind of innovativeness is needed in new social setup.
After analyzing social and psychological premises of sexual assault, we can go one level deeper, to biological problem of sexual assault. The question why only males are culprit of such malice in every society, has an evolutionary answer.
Thousands of years of hunting-gathering, agriculture and even manufacturing has put women in a disadvantageous position physically. The mothering role confined them to the household and male took charge of physical work. But with the advent of service society, physical attributes and mothering roles are no longer a handicap for women and it has put male-female on equal footings. The respective physical changes corresponding to service society will happen in thousands of years, till then males are going to face an increasingly tough task of controlling their stronger bodies and hormones. They have to adopt and blend into the new rules of the game. Ofcourse transformation is going to be turbulent, but none-the-less necessary. Meanwhile society has to answer one more important question of how to share responsibility of raising our youngs in new social setup where males and females are doing same kind of jobs on equal footings.
If above article in any way seems to suggest that I am supporting sexual offenders, then I must make it clear that I whole-heartedly support most stringent punishment, according to law, in these cases. My point being that although women are obvious victims of this value consensus crises, but men are not having too much positives either. As a social scientist, the responsibility lies on us to create new value system which is good for all members of society and to create such society where an individual is not punished for the wrongs done by social system. Social structures and social values decides to a large extent our acts. The mismatch between official laws and unofficial feelings can give birth to many more Guwahati incidents. If we want a change and want to move away from this situation, then we must create a new value system which is not necessarily western, which takes its cues from everything good that exists in any society. Open discussions without naming individuals can be a positive start. We are living in a turbulent time, lets not loose hope.