Saturday, 1 June 2013

My opinion piece on how Delhi treats its women, especially women from the northeast for The Thumbprint, 1 June 2013

The Thumbprint (www.thethumbprintmag.com)

Unfriendly City

JUANITA KAKOTY observes a particular unfairness of Delhites towards people of the northeast, especially women

India’s capital city is putting up a very bad case. Reingamphi Awungshi, a 21 year old girl from the Northeast, was found dead in Delhi on May 29 and the police has casually dismissed it as suicide or in case of an assault, the nature of her work responsible. The city’s favorite rhetoric about northeastern women’s dressing sense attracting untoward attention has now been supplemented with an emerging logic – “girls from northeast work in spas and that’s why these incidents happen”.

If that is the case, then what of the young woman pursuing Masters in Jamia Milia Islamia waylaid and molested by a group of school boys while she was returning home from the University in 2009? What of the medical student gang-raped in a moving bus in December 2012? What of the rape and murder of an eight year old tribal girl at Mahipalpur in 2009 or the rape of a five year old in April 2013? Does the city hold these girls responsible as well? There can be no protection of the assailant under the pretext of the victim’s dress or work! A crime is a crime; and it is the crime that has to be addressed not the individual details of the victim with suppositions that the details might have caused the crime in the first place.

When we are talking about violence physically or through words against women, this violence should be seen as a crime. And if Delhi has had a bad track record vis-à-vis crime against women, then it better pull up its socks. Legal affirmative action is required to make the city safer for women, but most of all, the urgency lies in changing mindsets. Society should learn to respect women.

A couple of years ago, as university students, we were asked to conduct field studies in the nearby Munirka village as a part of our coursework. We visited households in groups and noticed that the womenfolk of the house would serve water to the male researchers first then to the men of their family and finally to the women researchers. The primary socialization of those we met appalled us, especially the women researchers who held equal qualifications as their male counterparts.

Unfortunately, India’s capital city does nurture a bias against women even though it can boast of several high-rung female professionals and gender activists who are an inspiration the nation-over. And sadly, in over 15 years in Delhi, I have observed a particular unfairness towards people of the northeast, especially women. And I can only think of apathy as the root of this unfairness.

Only last year, I had accompanied a singer friend of mine, who along with her sisters have brought Naga folk music to a national and international audience, to one of their performances in Delhi. They are beautiful Naga girls doing great music, but I was shocked to see how, in the midst of the appreciating audience, there were a few distinguished souls who exchanged mocking looks at each other. They of course didn’t get the music; but the sad part was, they didn’t even try. It wasn’t mainstream, and therefore, Greek Latin Hebrew etc. to them even though people say music has no language!    

I have often been mistaken for a Malaysian or a Nepalese (and I take that as a compliment because I find them very pretty) but when a woman from Old Delhi at a friend’s place claimed what my staple diet was, her ignorance stunned me. “So you are from Assam?” she said, “Do you eat roti?” “Yes, we do,” I replied, “Not always though.” “Yes yes,” she said, “Like how we have your Chinese noodles and soups once in a while.” But what shocked me further was her sermon on how women from the northeast wear “revealing” clothes and seduce rich north Indian men! It was a different matter that she didn’t marry any of her boyfriends and settled for an arranged match, as my friend later informed, but she had a whole lot to say about how “liberal” northeastern women were.

It turned out Delhi Police did not have a much different perspective. They brought out a booklet in 2007 titled “Security tips for Northeast students/visitors in Delhi”. It is supposed to be in the interest of northeastern women’s safety and includes security tips like “revealing dress to be avoided”, “avoid lonely road/bylane when dressed scantily”, “dress according to sensitivity of the local population”, etc. With such security tips and rapes of minors still happening in the city, you might wonder, where did the police go wrong! The booklet also mentions, “Bamboo shoot, Akhuni and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighbourhood”.

If this is not apathy, then what is? And, to come back to Reingamphi Awungshi, if you think northeastern women working in spas make a good case for assault then you need to be condemned for the respect you lack for a woman seeking her own livelihood.  

Juanita Kakoty is a freelance writer and journalist based in New Delhi. She writes regularly on art, culture, travel and people for Deccan Herald. Her stories have also been published in India Todayand The Assam Tribune. She holds an M.Phil degree in Sociology from JNU and taught the subject at Gauhati University and Jamia Milia Islamia University before doing projects with the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex and a European Union consortium on ICTs for Development. At present, she is taking a break from academics and concentrating on feature stories and photo-documentation.

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