Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

Essay | Rules of separation

We continue to see women as vulnerable, as people who can't be trusted to take decisions that would keep them safe

Think of a society which makes a rule saying that Dalits cannot work in the same industries where upper-caste men can work. Or if it lays down a law that says Muslims cannot work between 8pm and 6am. Or, it frames a regulation that Sikhs staying at student hostels must sign in their guests, and can invite non-Sikh friends to their rooms only on one day in a year. Besides, they must get home by 8.30pm. Or, it warns devout Jain men not to wear special white clothes when they go to the derasar (Jain temple) for their own safety. You would be quite right to feel incensed and call such a society unjust, its laws and rules outrageous and discriminatory, infringing on the freedom of particular groups—Dalit, Muslim, Sikh or Jain—and demand that such practices must end.

Yet, these rules seem perfectly reasonable, are termed appropriate and even considered legitimate when they are imposed on women. The rules are, after all, in their own interest, to protect them. The arc of freedom gets severely circumscribed when the freedoms being described are women’s freedoms. Like all other freedoms in India, women are free, but then there are limits, for their own good, to protect them from harm.

Work? Under section 27 of The Factories Act of 1948, women cannot be employed in any part of a factory for pressing cotton in which a cotton opener is at work, unless certain conditions are met; under section 66 as amended in The Factories (Amendment) Bill, 2005, women can work in factories before 6am and after 7pm only after certain conditions are met, such as the employer ensuring safety and security of the women employees, and getting approval from the relevant state government and workers’ organizations—a well-intentioned requirement that won’t benefit women who work for small, non-unionized companies; under section 22, a woman is not allowed “to clean, lubricate, or adjust" any part of moving machinery; and under section 87, the state can ban employing women in occupations it considers dangerous.

Residence? Women’s hostels in India set down severe rules that curb the freedoms of the women who live there, about when they can come and go, who can visit them, and by what time they must return. Women staying as paying guests in urban India find all sorts of conditions imposed upon them, limiting their freedoms. The freedom to wander simply doesn’t exist. As Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade’s book, Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, puts it so eloquently, women in Indian cities simply do not have an equal claim on public spaces. No matter what she wears, a woman who wants to go alone for a walk in a public park is advised against it, particularly after sundown. It is for her protection, after all.

To be sure, such caution is not without reason. To understand the baseline, consider the statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau: In 2012, as many as 38,262 women and girls were abducted—nearly four per hour—and the conviction rate was a paltry 21.2%, meaning nearly 30,000 women and girls remain unaccounted for. Assaults on women? The figure is higher: 45,351 cases, or one case every 12 minutes. The conviction rate is about a quarter of the total, which means 34,467 cases remain unresolved or cases against the perpetrators have not been proved. These incidents have taken place, quite literally, anywhere and everywhere—as the shocking incident in Delhi last December showed, in a public bus, but also on staircases, in private homes, in public spaces, behind bushes, in offices after all others have left. The women who have been victims have been of all ages, wearing saris and salwar-kameezes, jeans and skirts.

This doesn’t mean that the streets and parks outside are the only dangerous places and the home is safe. An astonishing 106,527 cases of cruelty by husbands or relatives were reported in 2012, with a rather poor conviction rate of 15%. Given how difficult it is for a woman to walk into a police station and get a complaint registered against the husband or in-laws (or even their own families), this figure is undoubtedly an understatement, suggesting a far deeper malaise.

So we continue to see women—our mothers, sisters, wives, partners, daughters, daughters-in-law, friends—and other women in our lives and around us as people vulnerable, to be protected—who can’t be trusted to take decisions that would keep them safe, who, it seems, as in that song from The Sound of Music, are in constant need of someone “older and wiser" telling them what to do—because they are forever 16, and “we" are 17.

With just such a patriarchal view, Maharashtra decided to ban dance bars, where “dancing girls" performed. The Bombay Police Act, under which the ban was imposed, has a peculiar section—33B—which allowed dancing at any hotel rated three-star or above. Meant to protect women, in reality it created two classes—women who danced at bars frequented by the working class lost their livelihood; but women fortunate enough to get such jobs at upper-class hotels could continue to do so. According to one estimate, some 75,000 women found themselves unemployed. Terming the law unconstitutional, Justice S.S. Nijjar of the Supreme Court wrote: “Our judicial conscience would not permit us to presume that the class to which an individual or the audience belongs, brings with him as a necessary concomitant a particular kind of morality or decency. We are unable to accept the presumption that the enjoyment of (the) same kind of entertainment by the upper class leads only to mere enjoyment and in the case of poor classes, it would lead to immorality, decadence and depravity. Morality and depravity cannot be pigeon-holed by degrees depending upon the classes of the audience."

Generalizations are always difficult, and all the more so in India, where there are exceptions to every rule, and those exceptions run into large numbers. So now think of the outliers. Indians proudly recount Pratibha Patil as President, Indira Gandhi as prime minister, Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati, Rabri Devi, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, and earlier, Sucheta Kripalani, Anwara Taimur and Shashikala Kakodkar as chief ministers of states, Fathima Beevi as a judge in the Supreme Court, followed by many others, Punita Arora as a lieutenant-general, Harita Kaur Deol as a fighter pilot, Nirupama Rao as an ambassador, Chanda Kochhar, Naina Lal Kidwai and Meera Sanyal as bankers, Vinita Bali and Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw as corporate executives, or Zia Mody as a lawyer. It is truly an impressive list, and it is tempting to conclude that Indian women are free to pursue their dreams.

But not always, and not so fast. Betwa Sharma of The New York Times writes a moving profile of Akbari Begum Khan, who works as a cook for several middle-class homes in New Delhi. She has a bright 16-year-old daughter, Nazia, who wants to become a lawyer, but they find the fee— 77,000 a year for five years—daunting. Khan makes 6,000 a month, paying half of that in rent. She walks to work, because she cannot afford public transport. One of Khan’s employers agrees that Nazia is smart, but she has advised Khan that it would be wiser for Nazia to take a more practical course, like training as a beautician. She tells the journalist: “Her ambition for her daughter is wonderful to see, but I also think her children will have a better future with more practical dreams."

Practical. Pragmatic. Realistic. Sensible.

The essence of freedom is being able to think what you want, and be what you wish to be. Circumscribe that, and you dream narrower dreams. Then, the sky isn’t the limit, the ceiling is. The door doesn’t open to an opportunity; rather, it shuts firmly, reminding you that it is for your own safety. You learn to swallow your words, because others are shouting, and nobody is listening.

Salil Tripathi writes the fortnightly column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.