Dec 312012

Candle image posted by Google India

Sexual violence in India

Over the past two weeks, India’s news has been dominated by the brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi while on her way home with her fiancé after going to the cinema. By Western media standards, it is almost a miracle that her real name has not been published. Instead, the Indian media have named her Nirbhaya (fearless one/braveheart), Amanat (after a TV soap opera about a father with seven daughters) or Damini (after the heroine of a hit film who refuses to let a rapist escape justice).

Unfortunately, this was just one example of the violence faced by women in India. Even as the protests mounted, an 18-year-old gang-rape victim committed suicide in Punjab after coming under pressure from police either to come to a financial settlement with her attackers or to marry one of them! According to Russia Today, “Official figures show that 228,650 of the total 256,329 violent crimes recorded last year in India were against women. However the real figure is thought to be much higher as so many women are reluctant to report attacks to the police.”

Several of our friends and relatives in India have joined the online protests, with some changing their social media profile pictures to a black square or a black circle following news of the death of Nirbhaya/Amanat/Damini on Friday night. On Saturday morning, “RIP Nirbhaya” was the #1 topic on Twitter in India, where 8 of the top ten trending topics were related to it.

Some have been calling for the death penalty for rapists, although there is no evidence that this would discourage rape. Rather, as suggested by a protestor and social worker interviewed by the BBC, it could encourage rapists to kill their victims to ensure that their crime was not reported.

The public outcry has led to a number of analyses of how India treats its women and drew attention to its “rape culture“. A male Indian MP, who is the son of India’s President, dismissed the protestors as “pretty women who were dented and painted” who had “no contact with ground reality”. However, the fierce reaction to his remarks (such as this ironic open letter) obliged him to withdraw them.

The initially muted reactions of senior politicians contrasted sharply with the emotional reactions of the protestors. Perhaps the underlying reason for the former is the challenge of changing attitudes which have been endemic in Indian culture for centuries. For example, this article identified 10 reasons why India has a sexual violence problem and the above Al Jazeera discussion explores what it would take to confront India’s ‘culture of rape’.

Tagore’s campaign for women’s emancipation

Tagore was clearly conscious of this and the women in his works are often strong and outspoken, while suffering from tradition. His campaign for women’s emancipation was decades ahead of equivalent thinking in the West. There have been many scholarly analyses of the female characters in his works and some see his legacy regarding women’s role in society as being one of his most important contributions (see, for example, Rabindranath Tagore’s legacy lies in the freedom-seeking women of his fiction).

“Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated. Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected.” – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

As well as being one of the media names for the Delhi gang-rape victim, Damini is the name of the female protagonist in Tagore’s 1916 novella Chaturanga (Broken Ties or, more literally, Quartet). Damini’s role in Chaturanga, in which she represents truth and innocence, has been compared to those of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Stella in Rattigan’s A Streetcar Named Desire. All the female characters in Chaturanga suffer at the hands of men, with two of them committing suicide as a result.

In his novel Jogajog, (Contact), Tagore highlights the issue of marital rape. In his short story Shasthi (Punishment), two brothers work in the fields all day while their wives stay at home to cook, clean and bring up a child. When one of the brothers kills his wife for explaining that there is no food because he hadn’t brought home enough money, the ‘pillar of the village’ (a man) helps them to pass the blame onto the other wife, who is subsequently executed.

In 1936, Tagore campaigned more overtly for women to step out of the precincts of their homes and play a greater role in society. His paper Nari (Women) was part of his campaign, which included speeches and his dance-drama Chitrangada. Perhaps it is no coincidence that 1936 was also the year in which Victoria Ocampo, Tagore’s “distant muse“, co-founded the Argentine Union of Women.

In fact, all three of Tagore’s dance-dramas (ChitrangadaChandalika and Shyama) are centred on female characters who live at the fringes of society – a warrior princess, an untouchable and a courtesan. Dr Sutapa Chaudhuri has written an interesting analysis of the expression of self and female desire in Tagore’s dance-dramas. She provides more detail in her paper on class, caste and gender in Chandalika.

Tagore created a social revolution by pioneering coeducation at his school in Santiniketan. However, parents still resisted allowing their daughters to dance on stage for many years for fear that they would be viewed by society as prostitutes. The criticism of women dressing “provocatively” is perhaps the modern version of this attitude, without daring to challenge the indecency of those men who molest women.

Where the mind is without fear …

Not surprisingly, several commentaries on the Delhi rape have cited Tagore’s poem Where the mind is without fear as being an as-yet unfulfilled dream for women. Some have pointed out that several elected Indian politicians have been charged with rape – a factor which would be a major electoral liability in Western democracies. Yet it seems to be viewed as being acceptable/unavoidable, male behaviour by a patriarchal, Indian society in which the ratio of girls to boys is one of the lowest in the world.

“Rape happens everywhere: it happens inside homes, in families, in neighbourhoods, in police stations, in towns and cities, in villages, and its incidence increases, as is happening in India, as society goes through change, as women’s roles begin to change, as economies slow down and the slice of the pie becomes smaller — and it is connected to all these things. Just as it is integrally and fundamentally connected to the disregard, and indeed the hatred, for females that is so evident in the killing of female foetuses. For so widespread a crime, band aid solutions are not the answer.” – Urvashi Butalia, The Hindu

Just before Christmas, Valerian Santos wrote to India’s Prime Minister proposing stronger laws to ensure better security for women in India. His son Keenan Santos, together with his friend Reuben Fernandes, was stabbed to death by a mob for taking on a man who had harassed their female friends in Mumbai in October 2011. In addition to the comments from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon above, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for profound change in India in the wake of the gang-rape tragedy.

Of course, India is not the only country in the world where women suffer sexual violence. However, as I write just after the start of 2013 there, it seems to be the only country whose people have found the collective will to begin to tackle the problem. As India’s people, particularly the younger generation, seek a new dawn in attitudes towards women, they (and indeed people of other countries) may find that Tagore’s works could offer inspiration on changing society to empower and respect women.

  5 Responses to “How Tagore could inspire (Indian) women”

  1. Very nice. Tagore’s writings can indeed be an inspiring force for women’s emancipation in India. However, the sad thing is that even educated Indians (other than Bengalis) remember him only as a great Bengali poet who composed the national anthem of India. Not many Indians know that Tagore was a humanitarian who was the face of India to other parts of the world in 1920s. His music, dance, paintings, dramas, novels, short stories, poetry, his role as an educator and his ideas of Indian culture and aesthetics are confined to certain Bengalis only who are mostly based in Kolkata and Dhaka. It is true that the Govt of India also does not promote his multi-faceted talent the way Mahatma Gandhi is taught in India. Therefore, that day is not too far when Tagore will be considered a mere historical character who composed some songs. Coming to the question of women, I would also touch upon his musical play ‘Natir Puja’ [I have very recently read]. ‘Nati’ or ‘Srimati’ is another powerful woman character who was a courtesan, but was given the responsibility to worship the supreme human being ‘Buddha’ because of her mystic love for the Lord and her truthfulness. She finally worshiped him with the only thing she knew — her dance. This did not portray lust of a body, but showed the eternal beauty of it through the medium of dance and music.

    • Many thanks, Suvadip. Indeed, Notir Puja is another excellent illustration of his thinking about women’s emancipation. You probably know that Tagore himself directed and starred in a feature film version of Notir Puja. Released in 1932, it was shot in four days in 1931. Unfortunately, very little of the feature film seems to remain, although a 20-minute documentary made for the 150th birth anniversary celebrations included restored excerpts from it.

      There are, of course, other examples of strong female characters in Tagore’s works, such as Mrinal in his short story Streer Patra (A wife’s letter), Bimala in his novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), Charu in his novella Noshtoneer (The Broken Nest) and Nandini in his play Roktho Korobi (Red Oleanders).

      As you know, one of our aims is to revive interest worldwide in Tagore and his works. We have had the opportunity to work quite closely with the Indian authorities on the 150th birth anniversary. So we have seen a number of quite interesting publications revealing aspects of Tagore’s works and activities beyond his poetry and the national anthem ;-). See, for example, this special edition of India Perspectives and this collection of essays prepared for the High Commission of India in Sri Lanka.

      Of course, we still have a long way to go before Tagore is a household name around the world. Still, through the films we have made of Tagore’s dance-dramas and the global reach of the internet, we hope one day to fulfil Tagore’s aim of using the language of dance to help his works to cross linguistic and cultural boundaries.

  2. This afternoon, Avaaz launched a petition addressed to the Verma and Mehra Commissions which were set up by the Indian Government to review India’s current laws to protect the safety and dignity of women and to suggest measures to improve the safety and security of women in the light of the Delhi gang rape. Avaaz is hoping to collect at least 1 million signatures in 24 hours. See the Avaaz petition page.

    “We call on you to urgently strengthen sexual violence legislation and enforcement, and to launch a massive public education program with hard-hitting and high quality content designed to bring about a profound shift in the shameful attitudes that permit and promote violence against women.”

  3. well conceived and well written blog

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