When I started writing, still quite fresh out of graduate school, trying to understand where home would be, I did so to find an outlet for my thoughts. This is probably the reason why most writers write. But the thoughts in my head from very early on were on injustice. So I could feel, even before I knew where my writing destiny would take me that my activism would be through pieces I pen.
From short stories to satires to op-eds, with all of my pieces, that is what I was doing. And then, Delhi 2012 happened. I was pregnant with my daughter at the time, and like many, couldn’t sleep for nights. I was there in Delhi, just a few days prior. Jyoti Pandey was doing all the things we are advised to do. She wasn’t out too late, didn’t wear provocative clothes, wasn’t alone, took public transportation, and yet — died the most horrific death possible. I stayed up and wondered what kind of a world I would be bringing a girl child into? I wondered, if indeed, the US where I had chosen to make a life for freedom more than anything else, would be much different for my daughter. I wondered if anywhere in the world would be. As is often mentioned, Nirbhaya — as Jyoti’s rape and murder is commonly referred to — was India’s MeToo. India’s gender revolution.
In my quest to understand women’s issues and the reasons behind them, I started realising that such revolutions have happened again and again in India. For example, the movement sparked by Mathura and other custodial rapes. Why do the revolutions die then? Why watershed moments, as we call them, do not yield change? India doesn’t lack laws that protect women. However, incidents have again and again caused incitements, but gender has consistently fallen second to class, caste, and corruption. And this is not unique to India. What is happening with race vs gender dialogues for example, where the importance (and the extreme need indeed) for intersectional consideration is often turning divisive — dividing the gender statement into white women vs women of colour in which other identities and associations take precedence over a unified fight for women, is the same issue. Historically, this has happened again and again — from the suffrage movement in the US to women’s movements under British rule in India.
Why do we keep repeating history then? Is it because we don’t remember? Or is it because beyond academic circles or tabloid op-eds, in the middle space on gender (or even MeToo — an otherwise highly written about topic), there is a void? I started feeling a deep need to fill this void. I didn’t think if I, a scientist and engineer with no formal gender training beyond a non-profit that I started to fight gender violence and the learnings I got through partner organisations and activists, would be the right person to take up such a task. I thought, if not me, then who? I have a comparatively privileged life, all the resources and interest I need to learn... even if I did a terrible job at this, I have always believed it’s better to take a step than to wait for the perfect attempt.
I could never understand, let alone accept, how could a girl child have lesser rights? The absurdity of it will become quite apparent to you when a child asks you this (like my now eight-year-old often does).
Why is it that boys can go wherever they want, study whatever, play as they like, work as they choose, but girls can’t? The argument placed to me growing up, whenever I asked my otherwise quite progressive family, was that it was for our own good. For safety that is. So, from a very early age, it was quite apparent to me that a woman’s safety is the foundation for her socio-economic prosperity and for that of society. But why couldn’t such an apparent matter be achieved then? Is this an issue of certain societies stifling under gender roles and patriarchal boundaries? Where did such boundaries come from and how? Is India — infamously marked by Reuters as the worst for women’s safety — really so? What happens to perpetrators in other nations? According to the World Economic Forum report (2015), 59 countries, pre-MeToo, had no laws against sexual harassment at work and only 18 countries out of the hundreds, have no laws that disadvantage women. Why is it, that the US and Europe don’t have equal pay yet for men and women? Why is the Equal Rights Amendment still not passed in the US? And most importantly, how are all these connected? We need to know, and we need to talk. I believe that is the way to keep “revolutions” from dying until we don’t need them anymore.
(The author has just published Beyond #MeToo: Ushering Women’s Era or Just
Noise? with SAGE Publications India.)