Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Feminist Filters for the 2014 Elections

Exasperated with simplistic solutions for achieving gender inclusivity, feminists critique approaches to development and social change that just “add women and stir.” In India, we have had enough women in positions of power to know that their presence offers a powerful role model and an impressive point of departure, but that is all. In most cases, just having women in positions of power does not equal a transformed society. For that, women need to be active and represented at all levels and in all spheres of the political process. And even more important, “women’s issues” should be everybody’s issues—especially in an election year.

For those of us who talk about women’s participation and about gender sensitivity in policy-making, one challenge is that women are automatically associated with care-related or domestic concerns. Thus, those forming a Cabinet will appoint women to Women and Child Development, Health, even Education and Social Welfare, and maybe at a stretch to Information and Broadcasting, but rarely to Defence, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Home or even Industry. Gender stereotyping continues at this level. But even more lasting damage is done when those addressing women do not talk to them of these issues. A candidate campaigning door-to-door expects to find only women at home and to talk to them about gas cylinder prices and not peace talks with our neighbour. It is not as if all men hold strategic studies or MBA degrees or five years of corporate or army experience; it is an unfounded assumption about women’s interests and abilities that determines the agenda. Women internalise this and feel that without additional training, the portfolios of care-giving and domesticity are their natural domain.

The other challenge is that women in politics are not necessarily sensitized to think about gender issues. Political activity is structured around the way that most men live in patriarchal societies, with someone else taking care of their families and life-maintenance work. This option is usually not available to women and while balancing these responsibilities is a challenge in most careers, it is particularly so in politics. Women have to enter, survive and make their way up the ladder in this very inhospitable environment. Moreover, it is a system that does not reward specialists, male or female. Survival requires that women neither advocate nor antagonize, and being women’s rights advocates would marginalize them in those early stages. Political parties in India do not encourage issue expertise, and they do not encourage independent issue-based advocacy or coalition across party lines. Therefore, we can and do have women in legislatures who are not necessarily gender-sensitive and women in power for whom women’s rights are not necessarily a priority.

Women’s participation in politics and better representation at every level is intrinsically important. However, it must be accompanied by an integration of gender concerns in the thinking and rhetoric of the political class. This, we would look for in party manifestos but perhaps more meaningfully, in the track record and speeches of political candidates and leaders. Setting aside our habitual cynicism, were we to seriously evaluate political parties and candidates on their gender rights credentials, what would we want to see? For me, the two most important issues would be sexual and gender-based violence and women’s participation. I also consider women’s economic rights and livelihood issues important, and I would like to see political parties take cognizance of militarization as a problem but for today, these two issues are enough to serve as a gender sensitivity filter.

Today, in India, violence is the first issue that comes to people’s minds when “women” or “gender” are mentioned. Indeed, discussion on women’s status begins and ends at violence, although there is much more to women’s lives than this ever-present threat. Having said that, in 2014, a political party whose manifesto and main campaigners do not seriously talk about sexual and gender-based violence is probably not worth considering seriously.

First on my checklist would be to see if the party has nominated or given tickets to politicians charged or convicted for sexual or gender-based violence. It’s a very straightforward criterion. Second, I would reject a party that continues to back members who have expressed views that are sexist and misogynistic. Is sexism a part of their style—jokes about women peppering their speech, for instance? If members of a party have gone un-reprimanded for saying women invite rape, I would not want to vote for them.

Third, I would look at the track record of politicians from a given party on laws relating to gender-based violence. How have they voted? Did they even bother to attend Parliament on the days when recent laws were passed? If I heard that a particular party or politician had sought the opportunity to consult with women from their constituency or with women’s groups, I would be inclined to vote for them. It would signal to me that they were sincere in their commitment to ending violence.

Finally, what is the track record of a particular party in the states where it has been in power? One way to measure this is by looking at National Crime Records Bureau numbers. But even without the statistics, we can now search newspaper archives online or ask around for a pretty clear idea of how women in that state feel. For instance, when groups that support moral policing surface, how does the state respond? What is an administration’s response to a particular incident or piece of information on gender-based violence?

To me, enabling women’s participation is an important issue. Where has a particular party stood on the question of the Women’s Representation Bill? Most parties and politicians oppose the Bill for various reasons, and so that is in itself a quick filter. A second measure might be to see whether the Panchayat reservations for women have yielded a new cadre of young women leaders from the grassroots. If it has, the party is doing something right. If it hasn’t, then it is nominating ‘token’ women and it is not tapping into the talent that has now come into the public sphere. I would not vote for a party that is not eager to draw talented and experienced women to its fold and encourage them. Related to both of these, I would like to see the track record of various political parties with regard to appointments in states (and at the Centre) when they were in power. How many women did they appoint to various official positions and how many women served as Ministers in their Cabinets, at what ranks and holding which portfolios? Having a woman Chief Minister does not exempt a political party from this test.

Beyond this, given what we have learned recently about how many women remain unregistered as voters, for me, a party that goes out of its way to check the electoral rolls and facilitate registration for women voters would get bonus points. This, of course, cannot be an election season party, but perhaps right after elections, they could undertake such a drive. NGOs are doing this, but do our political parties care enough?

It is perfectly possible that not a single party will meet these criteria in 2014. This presents an opportunity to those who would work for change. Using our disappointment in 2014 as a baseline, feminists and others who care about inclusive democracy could strategize how to use the upcoming five years to bring about a change.

How will I vote if no party meets these criteria? I do not know; but vote, I will. Inadvertently then, this time I will give people a chance who have no commitment to gender equality or justice. That unpleasant prospect will motivate me (and you?) to work very hard in the five years to come. We must; who else will?

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and the founder of Prajnya. Gender-based violence and women's participation are central to both her work and Prajnya's.

Women on the 2014 Ballot

This was published as "Why more women must participate in the 2014 elections" on February 5, 2014.

In the run-up to the last round of Assembly elections in 2013, a Gender Manifesto was released by women’s organizations setting out a series of priorities across demographic groups and economic sectors. It is safe to assume that no political party or candidate engaged with this list and made it a part of their campaign. The only gender issue that featured was safety in Delhi, with the incumbents on the defensive. But there is more to a feminist agenda than safety, and women’s participation is high on that agenda.

That the participation of women was desirable was axiomatic for many streams of the anti-colonial struggle. Gandhian marches and prayer-meetings drew thousands of women, who would finish their daily chores and walk miles just to be in his presence. Women worked in the Seva Dal, marched to both Dandi and Vedaranyam, learnt Hindi and spun and wore khadi. The Indian National Army also had a women’s regiment, led by Captain Laxmi. At meetings, we hear that women donated their jewellery to support both the Gandhian movement and the INA. Major armed attacks against the British Empire also involved women revolutionary activists. And in the first years of Independence, stalwart women were appointed to important positions, with no hint that these were token appointments.

The Indian constitution recognizes gender equality as a fundamental right and places no barriers to women’s citizenship, including eligibility for the highest offices. The 73rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution expanded Panchayati Raj institutions, introducing reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and for women (one-third) both within those quotas and in the general category of seats. Leadership at the local level was also to rotate so that it was sometimes held by women and others. Moreover, women candidates would face direct election, so that the reservation meant that many women had to contest election too. The 33% quota has been increased to 50% in many places. The 108th Amendment Bill, also known as the Women’s Reservation Bill, which introduces reserved seats in Parliament and in the state assemblies, only managed to get through the Rajya Sabha and that after many years of being introduced.

Perhaps the lessons of the Panchayat experiment are actually intimidating to male politicians. Although a large number of women who initially entered the Panchayats were “proxy” candidates, over time, this has changed in two ways. First, political experience has encouraged even the “proxy” women to speak up, act independently and show initiative. They do not remain “proxy” forever. Second, their example has brought other women into the political sphere. In rural India, the entry of large numbers of women is beginning to alter not just the political but also the social sphere. It is reported that women are less inclined to put up with violence and injustice in their homes after the experience of autonomy and agency in the public sphere.

The good news is that legislative and constitutional quotas are not the only way to get women into Parliament. Political party quotas may actually be the best way, because they are voluntary, and they signal a shift in attitudes that we should be calling for more vigorously. Political parties would commit to and deliver on including a certain percentage or number of women in their list of candidates. To illustrate, if a certain party is going to contest in 30 constituencies, they might commit to fielding at least 10 or 15 or another specific number of women candidates. Just as important, the party commits to seriously backing and supporting the women candidates, and not just fielding them in “lost causes” constituencies. Similarly where there is a list of candidates, women should not lumped together at the bottom, fated to lose in a run-off situation.

While technically women make up about half the population (without taking into account declining sex ratios, for instance), quotas tend to range between 30 percent and 50 percent. A 50 percent quota serves both men and women in a gender neutral way, but it creates a ceiling for women. Committing to a critical mass of say, 40%, assures a large number of women of entry, without limiting access to them alone.

The experience of post-conflict states like Nepal and Rwanda shows that quotas can make a huge difference very quickly to increasing the number of women in public life. But Nepal’s experience, closer home in every way, suggests that just getting women into the Assembly is not enough. Women members of the Nepal Constituent Assembly talk about not being taken seriously by their senior male colleagues. Social barriers don’t come down as fast as institutional and political barriers might.

Another long-standing challenge for women remains what Mrinal Gore once described to me as “money power and muscle power.” It is hard for most women to raise money and to gather around them the army of volunteers (forget the thugs and political violence for now!) that election work takes. Without the 300% percent visible and vocal backing of the party’s most important leaders, even support from party colleagues is likely to be half-hearted. This is not a problem unique to India. In the US, women have found a way to start changing this. Emily’s List was founded in 1985 by Ellen Malcolm and other women to help women who held a particular set of views get elected to office. They find suitable women and train them; they raise funds for them and help them campaign; they get women to show up and vote and they also work to hold others accountable in election season.

Thus, beyond quotas, there are two areas in which civil society organizations—women’s organizations in particular—must work. The first is the long-term work of changing attitudes at every level—from schools to neighbourhoods to the workplace and beyond—about women’s leadership. It is our responsibility to create a hospitable climate for the quotas we advocate. The second is the short-term task of answering the question the political elite like to ask, “But even if we wanted to nominate them, where are the women?” and to help their campaigns, even if only as a way to create an incentive for political parties. Enough complaining from the outside, can we get the women who want to be in politics on to the political radar and help them stay there?

It is in the intermediate term, though, that the most important work lies. This is the work of giving women confidence to enter, inhabit and work in the public sphere. While it is unfair that questions about competence and suitability never appear to limit men’s opportunities, the hidden advantage here for women is that all the effort that goes into building their capacity also builds their confidence. Women meet and interact with others with similar ideas and aspirations, they connect and make friends, they learn from each other, and the content of the programmes also probably gives them better skills than their male counterparts possess.

Just a week ago, we learned that “women’s empowerment” was literally the answer to every question. Especially if that is so, in 2014, the question should be: are political parties going to commit to nominating an equal number or a substantial number of women candidates for Lok Sabha and other seats? Which is going to be the first party to declare this and walk the talk by delivering a gender-equitable list, with large numbers of women candidates, solidly backed by the leadership? Forget the short, intermediate and long-term, my friends, creating pressure for this is the task at hand now. And political parties, please note, there is a vote in my undecided hand waiting to go to the party with the most unequivocal, tangible commitment to inclusivity and gender justice. Does this vote belong to you?

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training and the founder of Prajnya. Documenting women's work in the public sphere is central to Prajnya's vision. 

Why women campaign against guns

This was published on January 24, 2014 here.

Last week, the Indian Ordinance Factory, Kanpur announced that it had designed and manufactured a .32 bore lightweight revolver for women, to be sold in “specially designed boxes lined with velvet to make them more attractive.” The gun was evocatively named “Nirbheek.” Commentators have pointed out that guns rarely make anyone safe and that the guns which cost over Rs. 1 lakh will secure those who can already afford security. Moreover, a gun will not protect someone from violence within the home. Women’s groups usually prefer to put guns away in the interests of safety rather than pull them out and put women indoors; this is an opportunity to reflect on their activism to this end.

Simplified ideas about womanhood correlate femininity with motherhood and assume that all women being (or potentially being or feeling mainly like) mothers, must abhor violence and bloodshed. Therefore, it is “natural” for women to favour gentler modes of human interaction and to oppose (in a motherly way) the use of landmines, small and large weapons and weapons of mass destruction. To rehearse that view would be to caricature over a century of peace activism by women and decades of feminist scholarship on conflict and violence.

Having said that, it is true that motherhood is often a pivot around which women mobilize for peace work. Motherhood offers an easy entry point into the public sphere despite patriarchal ideas about women belonging to the private sphere. And for individual women, it has often been concern about male family members that has motivated them to step outside the home. Disappearances, whether in conflict or under dictatorship, have usually been the prompt. Mothers’ organizations were formed in Argentina and Chile, and later in El Salvador, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay; their objective was to draw attention to their children who had disappeared during the years of authoritarian rule in these countries. The official figures remain much lower than the Mothers’ estimations, and even now, their struggle continues. Closer home, Parveena Ahangar’s Association Of Parents Of Disappeared Persons in Kashmir and Visaka Dharmadasa’s Association of War Affected Women and Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action are examples of mothers taking the political lead to locate conflict’s missing people.

In Nagaland, we also have the example of the Naga Mothers’Association (NMA). With “Shed No More Blood” as a motto, the association which is open to every Naga woman who is a mother, has worked on the ground to defuse tensions as they rise. They approach and speak to leaders on all sides, asking that violence be avoided. The NMA has also built bridges within the Naga groups. Motherhood has outweighed gender to provide women with access and agency that formal political and peace processes deny.

But women’s groups do not oppose arms because they are mothers or might be motherly. It is their lived reality that governs their opposition to the proliferation of weapons and to militarization, in general.

The International Action Network on Small Arms reports from research by IANSA members across the world to say that guns or access to guns are used routinely to threaten, intimidate or facilitate violence against women. Women’s organizations support arms control and disarmament programmes because small arms and light weapons are often used to facilitate sexual and gender-based violence but during and outside conflict contexts. Research shows that when there are guns handy, they are likely to be used also in domestic violence. In the American context, where there is a constitutional right to bear arms, the presence of a gun in the home was found to increase the risk of suicide among women fivefold and the risk of homicidal violence against them threefold. If acts of sexual and gender-based violence are a leading cause of death among women, the proliferation of small arms has been seen to contribute to making them more fatal.

In post-conflict settings or in highly militarized contexts, where violence is the lingua franca of politics, the habit of brutality carries over into homes. Rehn and Sirleaf’s now-classic assessment on “Women, War and Peace” drew out these connections clearly. Demobilized soldiers and surrendered militants, for instance, can be violent in their private interactions. If demobilization is not accompanied by disarmament, this means they keep weapons that can be used against family members or others in the community. Given the challenges of reintegrating them into society and helping them find a livelihood, if disarmament does not accompany demobilization, then these former soldiers are available to organized crime, can take to random thuggery and for political violence. (Demobilized women soldiers have other problems that we can discuss in another column.)

Militarized settings—which include areas where police or army action is common and they are a visible presence or where non-state armed groups are active—build this violence into the very fabric of everyday actions and interactions. Neighbours become informers, and trips to buy tomatoes end in death. It is not just sexual and gender-based violence that women’s organizations worry about but also the long-term implications of living with anxiety about the safety of one’s family, of strategizing every excursion and limiting one’s movements outside, of limiting one’s life-chances because of safety concerns and of living with increasingly severe and violently imposed moral policing. The guns, literally and metaphorically, change the quality of life drastically in such places. Everything is fragile. Men are more likely to lose their lives in these situations, and women who are left to rebuild the peace become very invested in ending violence. The ManipurWomen Gun Survivors Network is an example of women’s activism motivated by such experiences.

Women oppose the proliferation of guns and light weapons not because they have motherly instincts but because they see that easy access to these has a negative impact on everyday life. They present an increasing risk and fear of violence and intimidation as a result of which educational, livelihood and quality of life are affected in the moment and in the future. Living with injury, trauma and bereavement are hard; to find yourself responsible for your household without any means and without the freedom to step out for fear of violence is an impossible situation. Small weapons bring that risk of violence into the home, into service spaces (like hospitals and schools) and into the workplace. And at the end of it, these weapons do not secure lives, in the public or the private sphere.

Do guns cause violence? Of course not, people use guns to cause violence. However, the easy availability of guns makes it possible for anyone to use them without much thought. In an age where we oscillate between seeking excuses for violence and bloodthirsty outrage, the commercial availability of another small weapon cannot be good news for anyone—even if it comes packaged in an attractive velvet-lined box.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training and writes on gender, peace and security issues. She is also the founder of Prajnya.

Three steps to safety

This was published on January 7, 2014 as "3 steps to make your city safer."

2013 has been a year in which we have talked again and again about safety. There is a standard structure to what we say—we review a recent incident, we are outraged that it occurred and we assign blame, usually to the government. For me, there is a fourth component: what could I have done and what can I now do? After all, citizenship also comes with duties. Over the years, I have learnt that I can take charge of my own safety in at least three ways.

The Women’s Safety Audit is a tool that was first developed in Toronto, Canada in 1989. The idea is very simple: neighbours survey their locality and determine its safety. The premise is that people who live in an area are the best-placed to tell you if it is safe or not. They are also the best to identify what makes it safe or unsafe, and how something can be remedied.

Residents walk around an area, mapping it for actual use—not just streets and landmarks, but also perhaps, where there are street vendors, where lots of bikes are parked or where there is a makeshift temple under a pipal tree. They also carry a questionnaire or checklist that asks about practical, physical amenities—streetlights, for instance. They write down details like whether there is anyone at the police chowki structure at the end of the road and at what times, someone is likely to be stationed there. They make a note of when various vendors set up their stalls and how long they keep them open, what they can see from where they sit; for instance, how early does the ironing shop open, when does it close and when does she not come to work. The exercise makes them truly familiar with their surroundings. It should also open up conversations that might not otherwise happen. At the end of the safety audit, residents have a very practical list of things that can be fixed in their area. (Here is an example of the report from a very simple audit exercise.)

This is only one part, and the easy part, of the audit process. What do you do with this information? Someone—you or I—needs to make this information available to those who can fix problems like the streetlight bulbs or broken signage. Safety audits are thus an excellent project for neighbourhood or resident welfare associations. Once a team (ideally, mostly made of women, visible minorities and maybe, persons with disabilities) has completed the audit exercise, then someone needs to draft the letters and emails and make the phone calls that it will take to convey the information. Perhaps one option is to organize a meeting with the local councillor and police officials where you can share the findings of the audit. There are also new mobile applications that permit individuals to enter information into an accessible, virtual database. 

2. Bystander intervention

Bystander intervention” is when you or I see some act of violence take place and choose to step in to stop it. If you have watched the BellBajao videos, those are excellent examples of bystander interventions—someone hears violent fighting, goes upstairs, rings the bell and uses a simple (if dubious) excuse to break that moment of violence.

Organizations worldwide are developing their own training schemas on bystander intervention. They have the following common elements. First, you make an assessment of the situation—what do you think is happening? If you feel something is not right but are not sure, it’s still better to intervene rather than not to do so. If indeed there is a problem, the benefit of the doubt will not benefit the victim—whether it is street sexual harassment or office harassment or domestic violence. After all, you can keep your intervention very low-key. One very common tactic is to simply distract the aggressor in some way—this is the function of the doorbell in those videos. That simple act gives the victim time to regroup and makes it hard for the aggressor to return to the same level of violent fury. If you feel like it would not be safe for you if you intervened, you can also seek the help of others. Don’t go into a situation on your own if you are afraid. In certain settings, getting a person in authority involved may also work. For instance, if students in a college are picking on a first-year student and you feel helpless to intervene on your own, you could go to the principal or a professor.

Finally, if you think something is amiss, someone is looking unduly upset, there’s no harm in saying to a stranger, “Are you okay?” Maybe they will snap at you and say, “Yes.” But you will feel better for having shown you care. And should that person tell you, “Something is wrong, someone groped me,” make sure you know what to tell them: Don’t judge, don’t advise (you shouldn’t have taken that bus) but offer useful information. This means that you should also teach yourself about what that person’s options are: What numbers to call? Who offers support services? Who would know what to do? How does one file an FIR? Lots of NGOs make that information available on their websites. Take a moment now to find out.

It does not take heroism for a bystander to intervene. All it takes is the resolve to intervene when you see something wrong.  Alertness, presence of mind and concern are what it requires. Anyone can do it, and if each of us does, the world will be a safer place.

3. Choosing to feel invincible

We are surrounded by stories of bullying and cruelty and the world sometimes seems like a really horrible place. Most acts of violence, including sexual violence, come from the same place as bullying—the need to demonstrate that you have power and control over someone else. A bully is likely to pick on someone who looks and feels powerless.

We could respond to this by cowering and choosing to be in the world very little. This is the path that the well-meaning but paternalistic person would choose for us: Keep “our” women safe; keep them separate and maybe covered from head to toe and indoors (and never talk about what goes on indoors). There is a harder, longer road: the one that teaches girls (and boys) to grow up confident. Treating our daughters (and sons) as individual human beings, with minds and hearts, and with views of their own, is one way to do that. Another is to encourage them to play sports and be physically active so that they have confidence in their reflexes and their stamina. This is one of the things that a good self-defence instructor promotes.

Of course, people with incredible courage and confidence do experience violence. What I want to say is this: Invincibility can be a choice we make, a choice that is underscored by the civic activism of safety audits and that reinforces our resolve not to be passive onlookers in the face of violence and injustice. The more I think about violence and safety, the more I am convinced that it is up to us to make this change in our world, and these are three practical (not easy) ways to get started today.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training who spends time doing gender violence awareness work for Prajnya. Many of Prajnya’s activities, including Community Caf├ęs, promote bystander intervention.

Looking back, looking ahead

(This was published as "Women in South Asia: Looking back at 2013, and ahead to 2014" on December 30, 2012)

The pace of change seems to pick up with every passing moment. Years spin by us, and we can scarcely keep track of what has shifted in our world.

What has 2013 been like for women in this part of the world?

In India, the image we will all carry forward from 2013 is undoubtedly drawn from the protests after the December 2012 gang-rape in New Delhi. They brought to a head decades of women’s activism around sexual violence, and brought sexual and gender-based violence into everyday conversation in a way that none of us had managed to achieve. The work of the Justice Verma Commission—and the way the Commission worked—lent a new hope that maybe India could yet turn around what appeared to be a rising tide of violence against women. The passage of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 spoke to the Indian middle class’ faith in legal solutions to social problems. High-profile incidents of sexual violence and allegations of sexual harassment have opened up conversations about legal compliance that were hard to initiate just a year or two ago. Sometimes it is hard to grasp that so much seems to have changed in one year.

The protests in India were mirrored in Nepal by Occupy Baluwatar. The youth-led movement took up five unresolved cases of violence against women, seeking to beyond advocacy to create a sense of urgency in society and among the political leadership around this issue.

In 2010, the International Crimes Tribunal was set up by the Bangladesh Government to try individuals and organizations that had committed war crimes in the course of the 1971 war of independence. For almost a year, in 1971, stories about army massacres and widespread sexual violence came out of East Pakistan along with the thousands of refugees that poured across borders. There are many controversial aspects to the ICT’s work and verdicts, including the question of partisanship and the award of capital punishment to one of the accused. What is truly significant for all of us though is that it is Southasia’s first official acknowledgment that justice for what happens during a war is also important and must be delivered, however late.

The Maldives witnessed a political transition, with the completion of an election process that reaffirmed those the February 2012 brought to power. Women were active in protesting the coup, as they had been in the democratisation campaign that brought the Maldivian Democratic Party to power. The new government is likely to back conservative elements, and this means that women in this traditionally matriarchal and liberal society, will have to contend with moral policing, a shrinking of the public space and increased levels of violence.

In Sri Lanka, questions about accountability for actions during the last months of the war remain unanswered. This is unlikely to change in the present political climate, and militarization of the north and east are only going to limit the access and mobility of women more, while typically creating a climate where violence is normal. As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, stated in her parting observations, she said, “…although the fighting is over, the suffering is not.” And they are likely to increase with militarization and the unresolved humanitarian issues of the last round of war.

2013 was the year that the example of Malala Yousafzai underscored to the world how different kinds of extremism are depriving girls of basic human rights such as security, education and health. Even as the diplomatic world debates itself on the pros and cons of negotiating with the Taliban—and those who think like them in other settings—the question that women in Afghanistan and Pakistan are taking into the new year is whether their rights and safety will ever matter in the world of realpolitik.

What might 2014 hold?

This is the question that women in Afghanistan most want answered. With the prospects of a US withdrawal and a deal with the Taliban, the hard-won gains of the last ten years look imperiled. Elections are also scheduled for this year. Already, in recent years, mounting insecurity has effectively curtailed women’s ability to leave their homes and avail of basic services—leave alone their political rights. Those who took great risks during the Taliban years to continue their work as professionals, human rights activists or development workers, have now been working in the public arena, and their names and addresses are familiar. What will happen to them if this power transition happens? And if these prominent activists are at grave risk, is there any hope for the young schoolgirl in rural Afghanistan who may not be able to finish her schooling or the battered young bride who cannot seek access to justice?

Pakistan too must have similar questions in the shadow of a changed Afghanistan. The hyphenation of their fates is new but not their symbiotic history. The changes that follow will also have consequences for Pakistan’s women, especially in border and conflict areas. Indeed, what happens in Afghanistan in 2014 is going to be important to most of us in this region.

For India, 2014 brings the prospect of elections. It would be truly wonderful if the Indian women’s movement is able to organize itself to put women’s rights (and not just safety) and gender issues on the election agenda in a very serious way. This could take the form of pressing for women candidates; building their capacity (although we abandon men to their incompetence quite charitably); raising funds and campaigning actively for women who share feminist values and working the media to frame election debates to take cognizance of gender. When we force candidates to speak up on gender, can we teach them well enough, so that they do not speak about “protecting our women” but about “sharing work and sharing freedom”?

Bangladesh is also looking forward to elections in 2014, and what changes that will bring for the work of the Tribunal remain to be seen. Nepal still waits to see how the mandated quota of women members of the Constituent Assembly will be made up following the 2013 election. Whether this quota will ensure a more gender just and gender-inclusive polity, and whether this will be reflected in the new Nepali Constitution, we will find out.

Indeed, across Southasia, in 2014, we will (and must) see that democracy and gender equality are closely related. True democracy—or peace—cannot exist without women’s rights and gender justice. Whether the leadership of these states will recognize this, and what it will take for them to do so, is something we need to think about. 

New Year Ruminations

Changes are afoot around us, and yet, so much remains the same, so many questions remain the same as we enter the Gregorian New Year.

Are narratives about women doomed to hover around the question of violence? Can we talk about women without talking about violence? It seems to me sometimes that our newly raised consciousness about gender-based violence makes it hard for us to talk about anything else when it comes to women. The challenge is to now push this further, to widen the conversation to include other dimensions of gender justice and equality.

And where are the stories of agency and achievement? And what are the stories we are celebrating? It is not just the stories of famous women, but the actions and choices of women in our lives that we must learn to notice and celebrate. The story of your grandmother’s first day in a new school where she did not know the language; of the woman who works in your home and how she came to choose this particular type of work; of the person who founded your college; of the woman who comes to your door with vegetables. These are the stories that off-set those of violence that mire us in outrage and gloom.

These are the stories that will take our anger and turn it into agency. Especially when we see our lives as interconnected—so that the girl in rural Afghanistan, the young woman travelling across the India-Nepal border, the former woman combatant in Sri Lanka, the forgotten gang-raped Dalit girl in an Indian village, are a part of our own story.  And if we don’t, we must search for ways that so expand our sense of identity.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training and the founder of Prajnya.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Immunity, Impunity and the Gender Factor

(This was published on December 19, 2013 as "India-US diplomat row: Immunity, impunity and the gender factor")

This week, the object of our collective outrage is the way in which local law enforcement in New York has handled the case of the IFS officer who allegedly underpaid her domestic help and also committed visa fraud. This is not the first incident  in which a diplomat’s behaviour has raised questions about whether immunity has come to mean impunity for a rangeof offences  from unpaid parking tickets to disorderly behaviour to domestic violence to child sexual abuse.

What is diplomatic immunity? A select group of foreign officials and representatives are exempt from the jurisdiction of local government and laws. Diplomatic immunity would protect the channels of communication-which diplomats fashion and facilitate—from interference and insecurity. The government that posts them can waive immunity and the government that hosts them can simply declare them ‘persona non grata’ (an unwelcome person) so there is nothing sacrosanct about that status. None of this is contentious; what is usually the problem is how the two governments view the alleged offence.

Two years ago, news broke about a domestic violence case involving one of the senior-most members of India’s London mission. The police had intervened following reports of screaming and fighting from the diplomat’s home. The ‘he said, she said’ that followed was fairly typical of domestic violence cases, but the difference was that the London police had to seek a waiver of diplomatic immunity which India refused. The official Indian response was painfully paternalistic and predictable: This is a personal, sensitive family matter. The diplomat was recalled. (See this  and this.)

And after that, none of us read much about the case. Indeed, this was one of the concerns articulated at the time—that in India, the victim would never really get justice as the case would get swept under the carpet. Research for this article showed that the diplomat has returned to his cadre, had two short postings before heading out for training abroad. He has not been debarred from central deputation or from foreign training. Life goes on.

With this New York case, the reports of the diplomat being handcuffed and strip-searched have obfuscated the original allegations of labour exploitation and visa fraud. India’s multi-dimensional (and disproportionate?) response has been to transfer the diplomat to the UN Mission where she will enjoy full immunity. (See this US Department of State guide on Diplomatic Immunity.) There is virtually no aspect of this news story that is not attracting commentary.

I want to write here about the story behind these stories. It is a story about women in the world of international relations. Not just the women at summit meetings (still alarmingly few) or the women in the foreign ministry or the women who report foreign affairs. The world of international relations is still mostly male and relationships—work and personal—are still largely set up in a patriarchal mode. The men (and now women in those work roles) go out and do the grand work of foreign relations (from brokering peace deals, rarely, to processing visa applications, everyday). The trappings that surround their work include entertaining and hospitality in modes that presume an army of domestic support services—from within the family and without.

Higher up in the diplomatic hierarchy (as in military hierarchies), spouses—mainly wives—play an important role to supplement and complement the official outreach by their husbands. This may include ceremonial attendance or social work or return hospitality. At the bottom, this includes a range of invisible support tasks that include cleaning the chancery, answering phones, making the tea (and cleaning the tea-service), clerical and secretarial assistance, cooking, domestic help and teaching the local language. Diplomatic spouses also mediate between the person with the important job and all these facilitating service providers. Without all this support, even in this day and age, it would be hard for a diplomat to function because of the way their profession operates. Diplomatic immunity does cover families (presumably up to a point); but does concern for diplomatic staff and their families extend to the many who make their work possible and to their working conditions.

This is where the inside-outside, private-public distinction in patriarchal politics really kicks in. Reproducing patriarchy’s gender hierarchies in interpersonal relationships and in work, we tell ourselves that we cannot be concerned beyond a point. Diplomatic work, or any official work for a government, belongs to the public sphere—the sphere where we still mostly expect to see men. (And if you have ever sought a usable women’s toilet in a public building, you will have seen the evidence for this.) Women remain interlopers even when they come to occupy important offices. Their true sphere is (assumed to be) the home and in facilitating a supportive environment for public work. Domestic violence, child sexual abuse, labour exploitation and disorderly conduct belong to this private sphere. When we learn about them, we are disoriented. We are not supposed to be reading or discussing in the public sphere, what happens in the private sphere of a public person or public servant’s home. Our reactions are mixed because it sullies our lofty notions of work in the public sphere and hits very close to home, making us ask uncomfortable questions about our own practices.

And then in this New York case, there is the matter of the diplomat being a woman. Some questions to which I do not know the answers but which I cannot ignore: We hear that the way the visa paperwork was handled is not unusual; then why is the first person to be hauled over the coals a female diplomat? The Manhattan attorney states that the diplomat was not handcuffed and strip-searches are standard operating procedure. However, the idea that a female Indian diplomat was strip-searched—that someone who is not just an official representative of India but also like all women embodies community honour—surely has affected India’s response? Both the complainant and the accused are women here; and both (should) embody national or community honour. But then because we value work outside the home (associated with men) more than household work (associated with women), the work done by these two women creates a hierarchy between them. Men or women may do the work or inhabit these roles, but it is the work and the roles that are gendered as male and female, and therefore, more and less important respectively.

When you start looking at the world through a gender lens, then things that appear to be straightforward and simple turn out to be a complete mess—like turning around a length of perfect-looking embroidery to see the tangle of knotted colour threads on the underside. Diplomatic immunity is a professional convenience and protection; questions about justice, especially gender justice, are sometimes utterly inconvenient. Pressed, diplomatic immunity looks like a front for impunity—which was really never the intention. With mostly privileged men usually making decisions about immunity, it is the kind of battle that anyone on the wrong side of gender, class and caste equations will always be likely to lose.

In the long run, social justice is served by re-thinking professional practices and lifestyles that are built on privilege (of gender, race, class and caste, for instance) so that the foundations of our work are democratic and humane. But today offers a teachable moment to critically examine how different kinds of hierarchies and privileges reinforce each other, and force us to react in ways that we might ourselves eschew in their absence.

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist who writes about gender and international relations. She is also the founder of ThePrajnya Trust

In our hands, the courage to change

(Published on December 16, 2013 here)

Some dates become watersheds; December 16th is now one of them. In years to come, what happened on this date will occupy one sentence—a “fill in the blank” or a one line answer—while reams will be written on what followed.

What happened touched a raw nerve and young people, old people… people poured out into the streets to protest. Like statues suddenly come alive, they reacted to this gang-rape as if it were the first time such an atrocity had occurred. And in the ferocity of their response, they did what decades of activism could not do—forced discussion of sexual violence onto the Indian political mainstream agenda. Everyone was discussing the law; everyone was an expert on the different kinds of punishments; and everyone was very, very angry. The Justice Verma Commission’s invitation to the public to share their views and their very speedy drafting of recommendations signalled that something had changed. In the months that followed, we saw new laws, new rules and the affirmation of new resolve to deal with the challenge of sexual violence.

All this is good. But the more some things change, the more others remain the same.

First, for a nation of almost compulsive rule-benders and law-breakers, we remain obsessed with the law. We want stricter laws for everything and more stringent punishments. We believe in strong deterrents and exemplary punishments. When someone points out that we have some good laws on the books but dowry, sex-selective abortion and domestic violence persist, we point to law enforcement. The police need to be sensitized and police reforms are a must, we say. Moreover, if the judiciary would process cases more efficiently, and convict more accused, then we are sure the laws would work and exemplary punishment would deter criminals.

Second, we continue to expect the state to solve all our problems. When something happens in public spaces, we rail against the state’s inability to provide security on the streets, at stations and bus terminals and in public transport. Of course, this is the state’s job. But we too contribute to safety by staying alert, by speaking up and by intervening when there seems to be a problem. Mumbai and Kolkata have been considered safe for women because bystanders in these two cities have had a reputation for intervening when there is a problem. We also contribute to safety by following the rules; like not using tinted glass when the rules say we shouldn’t.

Third, conversations about patriarchy remain confined to certain settings. Much of our discourse on sexual and gender-based violence is still couched in terms of protection of “our” women, “our” daughters” and “our” wives and mothers. The problem with this sentiment is that it stops us from reaching to the root of the problem. Why is it possible for violence to become a language of interaction between people? This language seeks to communicate ownership and control; the perpetrator of violence asserts power over the person targeted. But we are not talking about why some people (often men and boys) grow up with a sense of entitlement—something identified by the recent UN study as the most common reason why men raped women. The sense of entitlement begins with the largest piece of dessert and ends with access with or without consent to women’s bodies—but it remains outside everyday discussions.  

Fourth, we want society to change and we talk about changing mindsets but we have no patience for the process of change. In the rush to get a law in quick or to draft rules fast, we’re not doing enough to have the quiet discussions at home, over lunch at work or with friends about what it is in our lives that makes violence seem acceptable. There is also little patience to deal with structural issues like the planning and maintenance of public spaces. For instance, when street lights go out in our neighbourhood, do we get them fixed, or let darkness engulf the neighbourhood?

It takes a lot of work to create a world in which people are free from violence—work that goes beyond outrage and blaming, to taking responsibility through learning, speaking up, volunteering with and supporting the work of change.

Nirbhaya. This name celebrated one girl’s determination to survive violence, to tell her tale bravely and to seek justice for herself. But today it should remind us that the world we seek to build is not a world where people are safe because they are protected or policed but a world in which they are not afraid—not any longer.

Being unafraid has three dimensions. The first is being fearless and brave—in any circumstances. The second is being assured that one is safe—and this is the assurance we seek repeatedly from law and policing. The last dimension comes from belonging to a society whose culture makes fear obsolete.

Children seem fearless to me. They accept people and experiences as they come for the most part, rarely anticipating hurt. They are open, adventurous and curious. We teach them caution. We show them that we judge people and differentiate between them. They internalize our teachings and examples as fear and they begin to limit themselves, anticipating not just danger but also failure. To teach caution or discernment without imparting fear or impairing confidence—that is the parent or teacher’s challenge. Courageous adults fight back, speak up, speak out and intervene when something goes wrong. A cost-benefit analysis might inform but does not determine their actions. Courage is armour, because violence is also bullying, and bullies do not pick on the strong. And courage affirms to a person who has experienced violence that it is not their fault. How do we teach and reinforce courage? I am beginning to think this is a very important component of the violence-free world we want.

The second dimension of being assured safety is the one we dwell on most and the only thing I would re-state here is that this assurance also comes from our belief that people will step in to help. Beyond the law and the police, then, the values that people in a community hold and the relationships of trust within that community build courage. In situations of protracted conflict, one of the casualties is that trust—not knowing who is an informer, who will turn assailant, who will use intimate knowledge as survival currency. Courage is underpinned by a culture of safety defined by relationships of mutual support and trust in a community. So beyond lobbying for laws and police reform, how do we turn our housing societies and colonies into such communities?

To be honest, I can barely imagine the third dimension. It would have to be a society without the structural hierarchies and power equations of patriarchy, class or caste. It would have to be a culture of equality and without normative diktats about everything. Dialogue would resolve conflict and communication lines would be open. Violence would be redundant in such a society, I think. I don’t know for sure how to get from here to there. I suspect though that the journey has to start with reflection and asking hard questions of ourselves—fearlessly.

Whatever the stands we have taken in the last year, whatever our paths might be today, it is very important that we do not give up for any reason. Unusually, fuelled by other incidents of violence, the outrage that was expressed one year ago has not been forgotten. Thus we have a rare opportunity to re-commit ourselves to staying the course and working for lasting change—not just in a few laws, but in the way we are, at home and outside, as a society, and not just episodically, but every single day of our lives. 

Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training but founder of Prajnya (, which just completed the 2013 edition of its annual 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence.