Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A citizenship deficit

Published here on November 1, 2013.

In a classic but much-criticised 1968 book, the political scientist Samuel Huntington put forward a model to explain “instability,” a problem American scholars and policy-makers then worried about a great deal. With a better quality of life, people come to have expectations for delivery and access that governments cannot meet. The political mobilization—protests and rallies, for instance—that follows creates instability. The great worry in the 1960s was that this instability would lead to the spread of communism. We have other anxieties today but the idea of government falling short continues to concern us.

We live in an age where every way of thinking has developed a crust of science envy and every sphere of action is pressurised into management envy. We borrow words and frames from both to describe our lives and sometimes they are pithy enough that we instinctively understand what they mean. Take the deficit. We have gone from using the term in the context of budgets and inflation, to talking about trust deficits, democracy deficits and governance deficits. In all instances, the deficit describes a shortfall in relation to some standard or some expectation. How do you move from the frame to the fix in matters social and political?

Expectations are inherently problematic: they arise in my head but pertain to some action that you are supposed to take. Given that my ability to make you act effectively is limited, the likelihood of realising expectations is improved by imagining ways for us to work together. Taking responsibility repairs deficits better than cataloguing the areas of shortfall or assigning blame. Not for nothing do we say, “When you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you.” So when we talk about political shortfalls like trust deficits, democracy deficits and governance deficits, what is the underlying citizenship deficit? This, to my mind, is of greater interest and utility. The Constitution of India points to this with its list of ‘Fundamental Duties,’ underscoring its nature as a compact between state and citizens.

Yes, India’s infrastructure is notional in places; too many of us still live in squalor and insecurity; our freedoms feel fragile; basic needs are still a daily struggle—water, food, schooling, health; and of course, corruption is everywhere. What’s the fix? What can I do, as a citizen?

In the information age, not being aware is either a choice or a lifestyle consequence. If anything, what makes it hard for us to stay in touch is “too much information” rather than too little information. Overwhelmed, we opt out. A better citizenship choice is to stay informed selectively—I know at least what is going on in my neighbourhood, I stay informed about policies in my industry, I keep in touch with one area of policy that is important to me. If I choose to tune out completely, then I should not tune in just to complain.

What are my rights and what are the protections that the law affords me? It is important to find this out, and all too often, we skip this step. We outrage and demand, but our sense of entitlement is not always aligned with reality. For instance, it is in the aftermath of last December’s gang-rape, that many first learned about the many laws India has relating to different kinds of violence against women. We really should know. Legal literacy is an important element of citizenship, and primary responsibility for this lies with schools, colleges and civil society organizations. But in the age of the Internet, it is also possible to teach yourself. Laws, both as bare acts and FAQs and other accessible formats, are readily accessible.

One might postulate that there is an inversely proportionate relationship between the tendency to pontificate on politics and policy and the willingness to go out and vote. That’s what voter turn-out statistics suggest—the “educated” urban middle class cares enough to complain, but not enough to go out and vote. And voting is the citizenship equivalent of Facebook ‘likes’—a minimalistic-to-the-point-of-passive way of saying, “I was here, I saw this, wanted you to know.” Yes, voter registration and getting an election ID are still painful processes, names remain missing from voting day lists, booths get captured, and so on—but getting all this right cannot be a prerequisite for participation. In fact, as more people show an interest in using the process, the pressure to fix and rationalise procedures increases. And if voting feels like so much work, how much harder must it be to get in the fray and contest elections? Perhaps we should not revile politicians so; they choose to do something much harder than the voting we are too lazy to bother with. 

Public engagement can begin with becoming an active member of your residential housing society, even by just paying your society dues regularly and throwing garbage where it should be thrown. One might debate the specifics of taxation schedules and one might contest the use of public revenue, but the reality is that unless all of us chip in, there will not be enough resources in the public pool to do anyone any good. And while private companies may build and maintain shinier airports, governments also do unglamorous things like fumigate mosquito-breeding grounds and change bulbs in street-lights—things that neither bring great profit nor particular brand value. Who will pay for those, if we don’t? Tax evasion, bending traffic rules, illegal construction in our homes, siphoning off water and electricity—compliance is necessary for good governance. Compliance is our part of the deal we make with government; the terms are negotiable, but compliance is not.

But for those who hanker to do more, there are a million ways to get involved. Travelling through a very young United States of America in 1831-32, Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by how Americans volunteered in many community activities that worked towards their collective interest. He was convinced that the roots of American democracy lay therein. Residents’ Welfare Associations, voter drives, drives to clean up and against corruption and post-disaster relief activities are easy entry points for any of us. In addition, many service organizations might be able to use our skills, resources and facilities. You can give a little time to maybe proof-read for an NGO, to create and maintain their website, check their accounts, or help them raise funds. If you are a care-giver, you might donate some time to taking care of people who work in emergency services and occasionally need a little support. So much to do, so much need, so much to give! You can start exactly where you stand.

Civil society organizations and social movements perform very important political functions. One, among these, is to aggregate and make available information and platforms for learning. They create rallying-points for collective action and offer a counter-point to political parties that might be too invested in the systems they claim to want to change. Ultimately though, politics, the policy world, civil society and social movements begin and end with individuals—you and me. We choose engagement and activism over apathy and ignorance, and thereby, make the difference. And when we try to live the ideals we espouse, we deepen change into transformation.

As Alice Walker wrote, “Expect nothing. Live frugally/ On surprise./ Become a stranger/ To need of pity/ Or, if compassion be freely/ Given out/ Take only enough/ Stop short of urge to plead/ Then purge away the need.” Or Iqbal’s words might resonate better: “Khudi ko kar buland itna ki har taqdeer se pehle/ khuda banda se khud poochhe, bata, teri raza kya hai.”

Behind every governance deficit, there lies a citizenship deficit. It’s a simple thing. If I cannot be bothered to stay informed and participate, and if all my ingenuity is spent in getting around the rules I authorise my government to make for our collective welfare, then really, I cannot and should not complain. That goes for you too.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training and runs Prajnya, an NGO mandated to undertake public education as part of its activities. 

The deadly burden of honour

Published here on October 27, 2013

In 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled that wartime rape is an act of torture and that sexual enslavement is a crime against humanity. This marked a historical break from the idea that rape may be regrettable but was just one of the spoils of war. Last week, when the United Nations Security Council once again unanimously resolved to engage more women in peace processes and peace-building and stated that helping women pregnant after rape should be a part of humanitarian aid, it signalled the great distance that we have travelled in the last twenty years. But why would the rape, forced pregnancy, abduction and enslavement of civilian, non-combatant women even happen in the course of a war?

The answer lies in this double-edged sword that is women’s relationship with their communities—whether caste, or ethnic, or religious.

The pretty, touristy edge is the idea that women are the vectors of a culture. They teach the next generation the language, the material culture, the social mores and the history of the group. Most of us, even before we know to which community we belong, know that “in my house” we do this or we eat that or we wear such clothes. The responsibility for this learning usually rests with mothers, aunts and grandmothers. In college and in offices, women are entrusted with conceptualising and organising “cultural” activities. Society pays homage to this role even though it undervalues the work that goes into it—the cooking of food, the choosing of clothes, the planning of festival celebrations, the choice of leisure activities, the giving of music, art and dance lessons.

We imagine the community in the body of a woman—Mother India, for instance. This privilege of embodying the community comes at a horrific price for women. And that price is the loss of autonomy over their bodies and lives—for seemingly trivial matters and in extremely dangerous ways.

Look at the clothes we wear. Moral policing has almost no dress codes for men, and several for women. We talk about conservative dress, and modern dress, and traditional dress and Western dress, for women, and each comes with a value attached. Dress codes signify women as being from this or that community, and can also serve as a character certificate.

Women embody tradition in ways that men don’t. When possible, girls are trained in a number of artistic pursuits, whether the classical arts of dance and music or household arts like kolam or traditional crafts like weaving or embroidery. Rarely expected to perform, but they are expected to ensure the next generation’s familiarity with this heritage. Some arts and crafts do also become livelihoods (and sometimes, that is when men take them up)—weaving, for instance.

School friends are sometimes the first encounter a girl has with the invisible but solid borders of her community. But while there are lines demarcating difference between girls from different families, those lines turn into walls between the same boys and girls who grew up playing together. The list of don’ts grows at an accelerated rate after puberty. The possibility of encountering and interacting with unknown boys and men keeps too many girls from completing their education. The fear that they might want to choose their own paths and partners results in too many girls being married early, by force and to men they do not choose. Cross-cousin marriages, which are still common in South India, probably began as a way of keeping property within a family. They also reinforce clan and caste ties. When the right to marry a cousin, niece or uncle is asserted forcefully, what is laid bare is this: Control over women’s bodies (and lives) becomes the guarantor of community solidarity.

Patriarchal societies locate the honour of a community in the bodies of its women. Therefore, what women wear, where they go, what they do and with whom, become communal concerns. Daring to choose your own life-partner and worse, to choose one from another community, is punished with death or harassment that sometimes leads young people to take their lives. The exchange of girls in marriage as part of a conflict resolution deal is another way this "honour-body" equation works. Decisions are taken by male-run community bodies and women are complicit in enforcing them. 

In times of conflict, then, it is not surprising that violence against women becomes just another instrument of war, and one that hits where it most hurts—where men and communities locate their honour and display its distinctiveness—women’s bodies. Rape and forced pregnancy by conflict parties; opportunity rape when displacement and bereavement leave families without support networks; trafficking and sexual exploitation; sexual slavery; and preemptive, forced and early marriage—are all part of the conflict experience for women. We know in our part of the world that moral policing and dress code enforcement are also part of this deal.

None of this is new. What is new is that we are beginning to find these practices repugnant.

This repugnance has been expressed in the global effort to draw attention to sexual violence in conflict situations, through resolutions, through programmes to share their import, through implementation projects and also, through an annual naming and shaming of offending parties. The next step is to extend this repugnance to situations outside the traditional definition of conflict. As we fight globally to end impunity for these crimes, a broader understanding of conflict allows us to apply the norms we are creating to other situations where violence is endemic—communal clashes between sects and religious communities; inter-caste violence; insurgency and counter-insurgency situations; and the newest entrants, development-related campaigns and conflicts over resource use. In each of these, as hostilities increase all around, so does the threat of sexual violence. It is as much an instrument of these wars as the ones that the UN talks about or that we abhor in other countries. (We, of course, would never do such things.)

And we then come full circle, because increasing levels of violence in the public sphere lead inevitably to a brutalization where violent responses to everything become normal and violence within the home escalates. Women, children, the elderly, the infirm, the disabled and sexual minorities are all vulnerable in such a climate.

In India, communal riots get a great deal of attention, but everyday caste violence rarely does. While for non-Indian observers, everything in India can be explained through the lens of caste, sometimes it seems that we Indians (the middle class, “people like us” variety like me) barely notice either the small acts of exclusion or the most horrific acts of arson, mass killing or rape when they happen in the context of caste. But when you read the work of Bama or Sivakami for instance, violence is an integral part of the landscape in which their stories unfold. Violence against women is just another feature of this landscape. The interweaving of caste identity and patriarchy makes a deadly combination, affecting so many of us that to ignore it is inhumane.

In the last few months, we have seen some questioning—can we protest this rape and not that one where a Dalit girls is gang-raped by non-Dalit men? Can we condemn this violence and not that massacre of the members of one caste by another? There are so many stories that call for our attention, so many questions to ask of ourselves, so many perspectives to understand and so many changes to make.  We are barely at the beginning of this long road and the bumpiest stretches lie within our hearts.

Swarna Rajagopalan is writing this article a few days before UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) enters its teens. Much of her research and writing are on women, violence and conflict. She also runs Prajnya.

The gift of infinite possibility

Published here on October 19, 2013.

The education of India’s women was placed on the national agenda by the social reformers of the nineteenth century. Through the last two centuries, philanthropists and community organizations have found the idea of setting up girls’ schools and colleges very appealing. State governments have created subsidies to promote girls’ education. Clearly, we have come a long way from the days when Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Pandita Ramabai, Ramabai Ranade and Dhondo Keshav Karve had to battle odds to convince society women should be educated too. For most of us now, it seems intuitive that women should be educated.

We take for granted growing enrolment and better retention of girls in schools; more women graduates; more women taking up professional courses like engineering or medicine; and more women teachers. 53.7% of Indian women are literate.That means almost half of us cannot read, write or count, like the local entrepreneur who owns an ironing shop but cannot calculate her own earnings each day. Most of the women who make up this 53.7% have barely finished school, with about half of them having finished only primary school. There are also 12 million Indian women who are “graduates and above.”

My great-grandfather, who was an educator and educationist, would say, “Educate a woman and you educate an entire generation.” Education is profoundly empowering in a woman’s life because it gives her self-confidence, a network of peers to grow up and grow old with and credentials that improve her life-chances. Over decades of development planning and programme reports, we know that educated women have better life-chances, marry later, have fewer but healthier children and serve as role models to other women. We pin our hopes on education to deliver empowerment and safety to women. The argument is that if you educate girls, they will be somewhat more secure from violence—ostensibly because they can walk away. Ordinarily though, education does not secure them from violence, from discrimination or from the patriarchal conditioning that reinforces the idea that girls have no value.

Today, the world is celebrating a young girl whose parents believed and raised her to believe that she was a human being, entitled to education and self-expression. But in every other home, there is a young girl whose dreams are dismissed, whose potential is overlooked, who loses out to her male siblings or whose voice is silenced.

Education happens in the home, in the classroom and in the neighbourhood, and it happens as a celebration of freedom and equality. Without the creative engagement of parents, teachers and curriculum designers, the emancipatory potential of education is just an idea.What should this creative engagement promote? What are the things girls need to learn and in their turn, to teach?

Girls should learn first and foremost that they are human beings—not more, not less than that. Their experiences are valid and their self-expression is important. We must show girls that we value their intelligence and initiative. When we teach girls to be self-effacing and non-confrontational, we clip their wings for life. Girls must learn that there is nothing wrong in standing up for yourself and asking for your due—whether it is help with classwork or an equal wage or that an FIR be filed for sexual harassment. Different standards and different expectations at home and school send one clear message that most girls internalise: there is a gender hierarchy, girls come last and they just don’t matter. When parents and teachers discriminate, the idea of gender inequality is internalised by both boys and girls, and both lose out in the long run. 

Girls should learn that they are entitled to every right that applies to human beings and they are obliged to share the responsibility of citizenship. A society that wants to raise daughters and sons as equal citizens would include gender sensitization materials in its civics classrooms and teacher training programmes. In our work with graduating college students, we have found them frighteningly ignorant about their rights. They appear to put up with many threatening situations mainly because they are unsure of themselves—are they reading the situation correctly—and because they don’t know how to cope. An important part of their education must be to teach girls what their rights are in all situations—from political participation to fighting sexual violence to inheritance. And how would you address sexism in the classroom—where teachers valorise and call on boys and not girls, for instance?

Girls should learn that other girls and women have been agents of change and creative contributors to our heritage. History books rarely feature an equal number of women rulers or scholars as men. Male authors and poets outnumber women in literature text-books and syllabi, with the latter being tagged by gender as “women writers”—suggesting that somehow their gender is the most important feature of their work. When we do oral history interviews, we ask women about their lives and experiences, but they return like homing pigeons to talk about the men in their lives. We have learnt to erase ourselves from the narratives of our own lives. Our daughters should learn that women before them have been scientists, mathematicians, poets, philosophers, artists, film-makers, political scientists, soldiers and even politicians! Neither they nor their problems are unique; but equally, they are not alone in their struggles.

Girls should learn that there are no barriers to learning. This, we demonstrate to them by removing the barriers outside their mind, by guaranteeing easy access to schools, public transportation, scholarships, tutoring as needed and exposure to ideas and experiences outside the syllabus. However, these cannot help if interactions in school and at home reinforce gender stereotypes about potential. For instance, the best school facilities in the world will not make up for a parent who says to a boy, “Such poor marks in Science? Even your sister does better.” The message is really not subtle—girls are hardly smart enough to be able to comprehend science. Instead, what we should be saying to girls and boys is that anyone can learn anything they set out to learn. 

Girls should learn that they can do anything they dream about. Education should give them confidence. The best gift my parents gave me, perhaps differently from many of my peers, was that they never once said to me that something was not possible. Any ambition or aspiration of mine was fine and feasible; life itself made some minor adjustments but my parents never did. To paint on a limitless canvas is the right of every human being, and teachers and parents can enable that work of art. It is one thing for tired adults to debate whether women can have it all or not; it is absolutely essential that girls and young women believe that they can and will.

If we don’t give our daughters the gift of infinite possibility, who will?

Swarna Rajagopalan trained as a political scientist. She is the founder of Prajnya

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The tree-lined road to equality

Published here on October 11, 2013.

“X” built broad roads around the country, with large shady trees on either side.
  • Thanks to “X” generosity, dharamshalas were built along the highways where travellers could rest for the night.
  • In “X”’s kingdom, an old woman could walk on the road at midnight with a pot of gold on her head and be unharmed.
Who was “X”? The problem with this as a quiz question is that in the narrative of South Asian history, “X” was any king commonly considered exemplary—Sher Shah, Harsha, the Kings of Kandy in Sri Lanka, any good king. As a student, if you had a broad sense of the reputation of the king, these were elements of a safe exam answer. For us, as we ponder governance, these are indicators we have always considered available, accessible, usable and well-maintained infrastructure a measure of quality.

Good, broad, well-lit roads, with large, shady trees on either side immediately make you feel good and dispose you well towards the powers that be (especially if you don’t live in such a place). In India, sometimes driving from one constituency into another, you can feel the difference in the roads—and sense the difference in how much local representatives care about their voters. When you travel from a congested city with narrow, crowded roads to a modern planned city like Chandigarh or parts of New Delhi, that exclamation, “Great roads!” is always accompanied by a little envy, “Lucky people!” 

A good road and the ability to travel on it have always been important constituents of gender equality.
Although tradition and patriarchy (are they the same?) dictate that a woman’s place is at home, the fact is that home-related responsibilities always take women outside. Till date, women go out to collect water—from rivers, from wells, from tanks and from the local tap which gets water at midnight on alternate nights. Paths are made by feet walking up and down to collect water. Making potable water available to everyone in their homes is good governance, but making it possible and safe to go out to collect water is also important. So paving and lighting that path, building steps where necessary and creating transport options should be on the agenda of government.
Lighting the stove to boil the water to make it potable also requires a long hike for women in many communities, as they have to walk to the nearby forest area to gather firewood. Clean, easily available, renewable sources of fuel for cooking are also an appropriate governance priority.

Electricity, not something that Samudragupta and Sher Shah had to worry about, has become a necessity today. There are two important reasons why a steady supply of electricity is a gender issue. First, good lighting is critical for women’s safety. Well-lit roads, well-lit public bathrooms and roads to bathrooms, well-lit homes, well-lit compounds, parking lots, stairwells and landings—all make a huge difference to how safe women feel. The fear of what lurks in the dark is hard to shake off, and even if lighting will not stop a determined assailant, it does dissuade opportunists.

Second, given the number of women who run small and/or home-based enterprises, the kind of power shortages that states like Tamil Nadu have lived with, hit them hardest. When you cannot work or run your equipment for most hours of the day, and your income does not extend to spending on diesel for a generator, power shortages must force a decline in living standards, often to the brink of poverty. Also, it is harder for young girls to sit alone and study under a street lamp, so prolonged power cuts will at some point hit their access to education. And this brings us back to the question of well-lit roads—that allow girls to attend evening classes and night-school and early morning sports.

For some distances, roads are not enough. In Tamil Nadu, a few decades ago, teaching women to cycle and giving them bicycles was found to improve their mobility, their education and livelihood prospects, their sense of confidence and empowerment. Buses may be necessary, with either mixed or segregated seating, but always with well-lit and clean bus-stands that perhaps have a security monitor or an emergency phone. In large cities, rail-based transit systems make a difference; but they make a difference only if the subways to the stations, the station platforms themselves and the trains are safe. A government that is serious about women’s equality is a government that invests in public transportation that is reliable, safe and accessible. I grew up long ago in a Bombay that was safe for women; and one important piece of that was surely that the city had safe and reliable public transportation. Growing up in such a place gave me the confidence that I could do anything I wanted; no matter where life led, there would be a bus to take me there and back safely!

For women, public toilets are a vital element of infrastructural development—and not the kind whose location you can smell two kilometres away. Chennai, for instance, has only 714 public toilets for a city its size, a local research organization found, and most of these were in terrible shape. And Chennai is not unusual. In a country which is trying to get people to build toilets in their homes, clean and usable public toilets may be too much to ask. But that woman who sells coconut water all day near your office would have to do without a toilet all day. And the woman sales executive who sells detergent from door to door has no access to a toilet, so that must limit the number of days she can work. That men should have access to public toilets is also important to women who, in many areas, cannot walk down a road that is not lined by urinating men. (We have come such a long way in terms of what lines our roads.) Can you imagine what it is like for adolescent girls to walk past that sight on the way to school or back?

An easy conclusion for this article would be that governments should pay attention to infrastructure issues, but to my mind, each of these instances makes the case for infrastructure to be taken on more explicitly as a feminist issue. The women’s movement talks about access to public spaces in the context of safety. We also talk about it in the context of livelihoods. Some of us make the case that women are as entitled to enjoying public spaces as others are. But what we need to see and hear more of is feminists engaging in research and advocacy on infrastructural issues, town-planning and urban design. Women need to develop both technical expertise and advocacy skills in these areas. These women already exist, but we need to create high profile platforms for their work.

Equality in social and political relations depends on equality of access to educational, livelihood and other opportunity, and access depends largely on the quality of infrastructure. Being able to count on good infrastructure frees individuals up to lead creative and productive lives. Women, who are usually saddled with responsibility for water, food, fuel and other domestic support and supplies, bear the brunt of poor infrastructure, forever limited by its constraints and fearful of its consequences. A government’s lack of commitment to women’s rights may be obscured by its verbiage, but can clearly be read in the quality and quantity of its infrastructural investments. Which roads are being built; which facilities are being created and how accessible they are to women; whether public transportation systems are being imagined and how; whether public toilets are merely the subject of competitive polemics—are clear indicators of where female citizens stand. And so far, where we stand is nowhere.

Swarna Rajagopalan trained as a political scientist, works as an independent scholar and runs Prajnya.