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Why PM Modi's March 8 event is a lesson on how not to celebrate women empowerment

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The March 8 event in Rajasthan's Jhunjhunu to mark the third anniversary of the government's Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme, which coincided with Women's Day and where the PM addressed about 200 women, was probably the worst example of any celebration of women's empowerment India has ever witnessed.

On the other hand, it was the best example of mansplaining and patriarchy at work in the guise of feminism.

Women wearing black dupattas and scarves were turned away from the event by security guards. Photo: Twitter

Observers on the ground reported how women wearing black dupattas and scarves were turned away from the event by security guards. Toilet facilities were shockingly inadequate, without doors, men/women signages or flushes that worked.

Nothing new. Any woman taking a road trip through India knows how grossly under-equipped women's toilets in roadside dhabas and resthouses in the small towns and countryside are, on the rare occasions you can find them.

How many feminists of substance, or social medicine and community health experts spoke at the venue? Priests were directed to include an "athwan phera" as a pledge for Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao to renounce sex selection in Sikar. What were priests doing there and why was a Hindu marriage rite referenced, patriarchal in its very nature, where the bride follows the bridegroom submissively around a fire, thereby subtracting the very idea of agency?

There were, however, various "selfie points" distributed over the grounds, where one could take selfies with cutouts of the PM and the CM.

It will help to understand the traditionalist underpinnings of such programmes if one understands the orthodox mindset behind them. In 2014, while addressing a rally in Varanasi's Jayapur, the PM said: "If we kill a girl child in the mother's womb, then what will happen to the world? If only 800 boys are born against 1,000 boys, then 200 boys will remain unmarried."

The fact that boys would have to go through the inconvenience of remaining unmarried if female infanticide continued was indeed a crucial concern for Modi, but is perhaps not the ideal way to address the issue. Of course, by now, everybody knows about the advice to farmers to plant trees that could come in useful for their daughter's dowries when both the trees and the daughters came of age.

There is an enormous blind spot that blocks the views of Indians when they approach or discuss anything to do with feminism. This is why they cannot ever talk about women's rights without referencing mother-sister-daughter relationships or "lakshman rekhas" where the male arrogates the right to himself to act as protector.

This is true of both men and women in India's long history of heavily laden misogynist comments from its leaders of all stripes and colours. The most negative reflection of Modi's views on women came with the stalking scandal of 2013. The Gujarat government was accused of illegally following a woman, a charge that the BJP accepted with a peculiar explanation - that the woman's father asked Modi to do it.

The patriarchal assumption that a woman is a man's "property", to be monitored and "safeguarded" by any means, fair or foul, was blatantly made and accepted without batting an eyelid.

The day before this, in an event organised in Jaipur, the Rajasthan Women's Commission chairperson Suman Sharma wondered how "today's men in their baggy jeans protect sisters when they can't even handle their trousers." She said that "broad-chested men", with "thick chest hair" were better suited for the job.

We will never know whether Sharma had anyone particular in mind, but the point to be noted is that the former National Women's Commission chairperson, Mamta Sharma, who was the former Rajasthan Mahila Congress president, held views which were not very progressive either.

According to her: "If a girl is passing by and there are four boys and they call her "sexy", it is not to be considered offensive because the word is used to denote "charming or beautiful".

The furious BJP women's wing in Rajasthan had called for her resignation at that time.

Suman Sharma reflecting RSS Sarangchalak Mohan Bhagwat's views on "feminus domesticus" also went ahead to say that women, "in the name of freedom", should not feel so "unbound" that any "imbalance" in family or society is created.

How and why would women make such sexist comments that reinforce exploitative patriarchal stereotypes?

Misogyny is endemic in our society, an all-pervasive force that no woman can escape - whether she is rendered powerless because of it or she has privileges that allow her to internalise it and project it onto her sisters.

Kirthi Jayakumar, prominent women's rights activist and the founder of The Red Elephant Foundation, says that by calling a woman, "mother" or "sister", a nexus is created with men.

"That takes away the humanisation of a woman as an individual. She can only be humanised when seen in relation to a man. The struggle that women have faced has been completely disregarded and they are only referenced to as property of men in some manner. What's more, men are made the ultimate breadwinners who are responsible for these women and cannot have other aspirations.

The way we think about women's bodies is centering the male gaze. Everything we do revolves around how desirable we are to them. Women are taught the more desired they are by men, the more valuable they are as people. Women are taught their bodies are here to be consumed rather than be lived in, and so that's why everything that a woman does about her body somehow centers men and makes her a possession."

It is well worth looking at how our laws are framed.

Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)

"Adultery. Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall be punishable as an abettor."

Consider the words "without the consent or connivance of that man".

This assumes that a woman's husband is her owner, and you are wronging him by sleeping with her - even if she consents, which would be a crime on her part.

Another law from the IPC

"Section 498. Enticing or taking away or detaining with criminal intent a married woman.

Whoever takes or entices away any woman who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of any other man, from that man, or from any person having the care of her on behalf of that man, with intent that she may have illicit intercourse with any person, or conceals or detains with that intent any such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both."

Again, the woman's consent doesn't matter, as per this law. Two consenting adults could have sex, and it would qualify as a crime on the woman's husband. (Not the man's wife, showing that it is not marriage that is the issue here, but gender.)

This misogyny is common in our laws, but one could argue that the IPC is a Victorian relic. That is simply not true. Treating women as property is an old Indian tradition, and finds reflection in our epics.

In the Mahabharata, for example, Yudhishthir gambles Draupadi away, as if she is not an autonomous human being but his possession. The fates of Gandhari, Kunti and Panchali were never in their own hands. Let us not get into Ramayana, and Ram's treatment of Sita.

A few years ago on television in Rakhi Sawant's Rakhi Ka Swayamwar, we saw the worst kind of prejudices and self-righteous sexist views being aired by her "prospective mothers-in-law" chosen with scientific deliberation from the most backward areas of India.

Remember a dissipated looking Rahul Mahajan (in another TV show) - a complete nonentity with a dubious background - giving cheesy smiles that turn the stomach - and asking girls to marry him? The "ugh" factor, perfected.

Cornell philosophy professor Kate Manne in her book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, argues that misogyny is not about male hostility or hatred towards women - instead, it's about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don't.

It is very likely impossible to find a man who hates all women: Most men love their daughters or wives or mothers; they love women, Manne argues, who act as givers (emotionally or otherwise) - gender roles doled out by misogyny and naturalised by sexism.

As long as women act in service of those giving roles, all is fine. When they don't, however, misogyny arms itself with "down girl moves" in order to sustain what it has determined to be the natural way of things.

Internalised misogyny of the kind displayed by the Suman Sharmas of the world is the "involuntary internalisation by women of the sexist messages that are present in their societies and culture".

That means that women hold misogynistic ideas themselves, even though they are women. The systemic and inherent sexism that is present in our culture is taught to us through socialisation - learning culture through social interaction - a process women don't have much say in. So are our pockets of privilege.

Until there is a broader understanding of gender exploitation contextual to race, social and economic iniquity, class differences, prejudice against minorities of all kinds, helping us go beyond the ambits of our privilege, the understanding of feminism will not go beyond the wife-sister-daughter tropes.

Courtesy: Gautam Benegal, Award winning filmmaker, author and social commentator

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