Bhakti Shringarpure

The past year and a half has been a volatile one for India, starting with a violent gang rape case in December 2012 that rocked the nation into an angry fury. The incident brought myriad issues to the forefront of public consciousness - the systemic and endemic sexism, the daily and gleeful harassment of women in public spaces, the Bollywood song and dance culture of deliberate and crude objectification of women and the many ways in which the law enforcement regime has ignored the regular assault against women. While the rape victim's death was certainly too high a price to pay, it seemed to have given birth to an outraged nation standing united against all these problems. For me, more than anything else, it felt as if finally India had woken up from its usual intellectual slumber. Public indignation had won the day and despite many bloodthirsty death-penalty type of outcries, it felt like a turning point where things would move forward and some progressive thinking would unfold.

Unfortunately, the intelligentsia's reactionary backlash to the public furor against gender issues began soon enough, stemming from another notorious sexual assault; the alleged case against esteemed and prolific writer and editor Tarun Tejpal. As Indian media was shaken at its core, its sexism came to the fore and continues to boil over to this date with new devolutions in the debate on sexism and gender imbalances. The woman allegedly subject to Tejpal’s assault has been, on more than one occasion, identified as a troublemaker primarily because of her frank and brave letter detailing his advances and offering a timeline for the events as they unfolded. Many members of the India media seem peeved at what they perceive to be this woman's "faux" call for victimhood, in sharp contrast to the immediate labeling of victimhood afforded to the woman who was gang-raped; her involuntary silence and her horrible physical condition immortalizing her. To make matters worse, in a shocking article published in India Today, Palash Krishna Mehrotra offered up a theory about the victimhood of Indian men, i.e. “as being under a state of siege.” Mehrotra was perturbed - no, frightened - by what he believed to be the legal widening of the definition of rape:

"Frighteningly, the new law makes it clear that consent given under intoxication does not translate into informed consent. This means that a drunken consensual tumble with a woman can come back to haunt the man the next day, or even ten years later. This seems grossly unfair. And what about demanding sexual favours? Clinton, for example, was clearly demanding a sexual favour of Monica Lewinsky. But if a man offers to 'go down' on a woman - is he offering a submissive sexual favour or demanding one? Many Indian men admit privately that they feel they are under a state of siege. The bedroom has been criminalised. Is it going to be impossible to form relationships from now on? Have we as a society, yet again, swung from one extreme to another?"

The writer then went on to on caution women against hysterical feminism. I wish I could say I was speechless with anger when I read this, but really I just felt deeply sad. Where could one even begin to dismantle such vile logic?! Explain the fact that Lewinsky was half Clinton's age and several chains of command below him shows a complete abuse of power? Explain that there is nothing submissive about assaulting a woman and trying to rip her clothes off of her as she struggles to reject this supposed "favor"? Explain that if any of these instances seem to be playing out in Mehrotra's bedroom, then perhaps a criminal inquiry is indeed in order? Surely it’s only been a couple of hundred years since attempts to correlate hysteria and female-ness have been in place. The deep, deep, really deep chauvinistic entitlement shown by Mehrotra was perhaps given agency by the particularly erudite and literary environment he came from, being the son of esteemed poet and translator Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. I could only hope that this was perhaps the reason why the piece got published in the first place without any editorial disdain.

However, another Very Important Person amongst the Indian literary/media circles recently penned a defense of Indian men. Chandrahas Choudhury, the powerful Fiction and Poetry editor of Caravan magazine, was feeling extremely demonized by a survey that, yet again, proves that gender inequality is alive and well in India by stating that "where the average man spends just 19 minutes a day on “routine housework,” the average woman spends almost five hours on such duties." Using a pathetically limited understanding of the categories and complexities of class, caste, urban versus rural differences and of course, gender to describe various types of Indian households, Choudhury finally arrives at the point he wants to make about the Indian man, nay hero:

"In patriarchal cultures, there is a kind of heroism about men doing carefully measured amounts of housework and no more. Every middle-class Indian person knows the kind of man who won’t lift a finger at home but then decides to throw a party, whipping up a sensational three-course meal (his mother’s recipes), pocketing with a modest smile dozens of compliments for his genius. In patriarchal cultures, men often voluntarily do small amounts of housework when none is expected of them, thereby earning brownie points both for being traditional and for being modern. Beyond a point, such work yields diminishing marginal returns, and it is best avoided until the next party comes along. Conversely, women must be seen to be doing large amounts of housework (“I’m so busy”), or else they might be perceived as taking it too easy."

As the Indian twitterverse erupted with folks pissed off with his article, there was a deafening silence among the so-called Indian "public" feminists active on social media such as a Nilanjana Roy, Deepanjana Pal, Anindita Sengupta and Supriya Nair. Looks like no one wants to lock horns with a powerful editor and book reviewer!

Nothing is scarier to me than women complicit with patriarchy, sexism and muscular chauvinisms. Its only wishful thinking to imagine men were the only ones defending rape and gender inequalities but Lavanya Sankaran's idiotic New York Times pieces titled The Good Men of India certainly left no doubt that women were also participating actively in this agenda. Here, Sankaran offered her observations on a few bourgeois men she observed at places like airports burping babies and doing other such noble things that disproved for her the allegations of gender inequality in India. She also added that apparently it was not failures or glass ceilings that women owed men but in fact, "...female success, in a place like India with complicated social structures and a tradition of the Old Uncle Network, doesn’t happen in isolation. A successful woman is very likely to have had a supportive male in her life: a father, a spouse, a friend, a mentor." Aman Sethi's excellent take-down of this piece deserves mention where he retorted that Sankaran believed that, "the problem isn’t too much patriarchy, but too little."

Then there was Nirupama Sekhri's utterly evil "Letter to Ms Tehelka-Assault-Victim." Ostensibly from a woman journalist, it probably won the Most Complicit (Fe)Male Chauvinist Pig award during what seems to have turned into an unending backlash on the gender discourse. Sekhri begins with: "...I would like to establish quite clearly that I do not see you as a victim, unless it is of bubblegum feminism which I will speak in detail of later." Thus begins a horrible take-down of the timeline and events of the Tejpal assault case, where Sekhri goes on to shame this woman into irresponsibility, not fighting hard enough, exaggerating and lying about the events and of course, reminding her that she pretty much asked for it. Of course, since I am unable to locate any information on this Nirupama Sekhri, I continue to hope that the article was penned by a bitter, disgruntled male much like Choudhury or Mehrotra with an alias name.

It is disheartening to know that we live in an appalling world where events like rapes and assaults fail to educate and improve thinking around the issues that bring them on. Forget education or enlightenment, perhaps it could tug at our more sympathetic and humane side. Instead the malevolent intelligentsia only reflects how deep the problem really is. When the beacons of thinking and analysis seem to display an acute poverty of thought and empathy, it is no surprise that gender imbalance, gender violence and gender inequality continue to be the most pressing and under-comprehended problems of our time. 

Image via Global Post

Bhakti Shringarpure is editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine.