Originally Published 2013-09-03 14:13:43 Published on Sep 03, 2013
Everyday fears of violence against women have sharpened in the recent past. However they are increasingly being addressed by new prescriptive do and don't lists of precautionary measures for women. This is happening even while we consistently assert that the onus need not be on the women to keep themselves safe.
Growth of fear of crime among women needs to be addressed
"Debates over sexual violence over the last several months have sufficiently indicated that there is a difference between the incidences of crime and the increasing fears or threat perceptions of crime. In the wake of more sexual crimes being registered by the police and being reported by the media, there is a heightened sense of fear among women of being confronted with similar incidences of violence. The growth of this fear psychosis and sense of vulnerability needs to be addressed as much as the efforts to reduce actual incidences.

However response to women's heightened fears is increasingly becoming one of dictating precautionary measures. This is happening even while we consistently assert that the onus need not be on the women to keep themselves safe. The fears associated with the sheer physicality of violence that sexual assault entails has resulted into this conundrum wherein while we aspire for a safer society, in the immediate future, many women would admit to have started regulating their dress, timings of returning home and comportment as 'precautionary' measures. In the face of a loss of faith in the societal and institutional frameworks of safety, the onus is repeatedly coming back on the women - if not in the form of blaming the victim after an incident, then through a list of preventive measures before potential incidences.

General precautions of 'be alert' aside, a flurry of other ideas are being suggested in order for women to be able to keep themselves safe and also 'empower' them. Take for example, a statement by Mumbai Commissioner of Police Satyapal Singh who in the aftermath of the Delhi rape, said that in the case of an eve-teasing complaint, when it is one man's word against one woman's, the police shall not hit the accused as it often leads to human rights issues. He was quick to add that the police, however, would allow the woman in question to hit back at the accused. Funnily, his predicament played out just two days following this comment going to press when a girl in Thiruvananthapuram, returning from a 'One Billion Rising' event on February 14 was harassed by a group of men. The girl, a black-belt in karate hit back at the men. News of her prompt action attracted much attention from the media and a state minister even visited her home as a sign of support. A complaint was registered against the two accused. However, this was followed by a complaint being registered by one of the accused against the girl for having physically attacked him.

In this circular logic, where the problem in a way itself is seen as the solution, the question of whose violence was justified becomes bigger. It distracts the issue from being one of the subjugation of women in society -which takes place through not only the assertion of physical force, but a multi-layered gendering of roles and power domination. By reducing the problem to merely that of violence, the idea of empowerment of women, also gets reduced to a simplistic 'right to slap back'.

The approach of responding to violence by reactive violence is the same as dealing with fear by creating a new kind of fear to combat it. An instance of this can be seen in South Africa where the acceptance of sexual violence as an eventuality has led to the creation of an intense fear psychosis in the country. About two years back, a South African doctor Sonnet Ehlers came up with the concept of Rape-aXe, 'a female condom with teeth'. To be worn by women when venturing out to lonely places or blind dates, the condom had sharp protruding teeth-like hooks which would attach themselves on a man's penis in case of forceful penetration.

There don't seem to be many takers for this solution, suggested by the lack of any women's testimonies to support the initiative. A similar and more recent idea was provided by a group of Indian students who invented
electric bras that would shock the attacker and send GPS signals to the police. The wearing of the condom or the bra as a self-preservation technique in many ways exacerbates the fear of an impending act of violence as an accepted eventuality. Most women do not accept more fear as an appropriate way of dealing with increasing sexual crime, even as a so-called precautionary measure.

These approaches of deriving solutions from a narrow understanding of the problem create a mirage of reducing fear or of creating empowerment. They might address the issue in part or even create temporary solutions. However, their circular self-defeating logic reveals that these are mere rehashed lists of prescriptive rules and tokenisms of empowerment, which women would refuse to accept as substantial long term answers to their heightened vulnerabilities.

(The writer is a Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai)

Courtesy: DNA

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