A few years ago I was involved in the making of a short film called “Panchaiti”. Panchaiti is a word for an informal justice mechanism, where a group of self-appointed and exclusively male village elders meet and pronounce diktats. The film recounted the true story of a woman who had been literally exiled for falling in love with the relative of a prominent local politician. She had been escorted (dragged, beaten and put on a bus) to the border, ordered never to return to Nepal, and live instead with her abusive Indian ex-husband.
Apart from the sheer brutality, the story was remarkable for several reasons: a local dalit journalist had covered it for a national newspaper when others had balked; the Nepali daily ran it as the sole cover story for six days straight until it garnered attention from organizations and constitutional bodies formed to deal with such issues; some political cadres saw it befitting to protest against the victim and activists, while a representative of a reputed international human rights organization called it an “internal matter”; and lastly, the local police, misguidedly and perhaps criminally, attempted to resolve the dispute through “mila-patra”. Despite these efforts, what the victim achieved can barely be called justice.
But the most remarkable part was the courage and conviction of the woman (who eventually starred in the film as herself). To me, also remarkable was the dedication of several people—activists, journalists and ordinary citizens alike—who saw to it that one poor and barely literate woman had access to justice (even if the judicial system would not adequately deliver it). Just access; the rest was not within their powers.
So when outrage began to be vented about the robbery and rape of Sita Rai, my first response was directed at those complaining at the apparent absence of women’s rights activists. No, I argued, there are many gender activists scattered all over the country, earning a pitiful salary but nevertheless braving extraordinary dangers beyond the glare of the media. They are doing everything in their capacity to provide medical assistance, rehabilitation services, and judicial remedy to victims. And then, this sudden outpour seemed to be curiously related to the Delhi movement against the rape of “Damini”. These were, of course, the concerns of a cynical “armchair activist”.
The “Occupy Baluwatar” movement has now coalesced into a substantial movement, and I am happy to say that my ire was misdirected. Regardless of the initial belittling of the efforts of gender activists, what is important is that a group of young people and professionals have succeeded in creating an apolitical movement centered on the most basic rights: justice and redress.
The “Occupy Baluwatar” movement has already made remarkable gains, but also raised important questions. First, the government has shed its apathy to form a committee to investigate several incidents. This raises questions about our judicial system’s capacity to investigate and persecute such cases, as well as, disconcertingly, about the government’s initial apathy. Then there is the sudden surge in the coverage of these incidents in national media which begs the question: why was this previously less important than the pronouncements of political leaders?
When I was growing up in Nepal, befriending people from the opposite sex was frowned upon. Peers, teachers and guardians discouraged co-mingling as if it was indicative of hormonal deficiencies, abnormal sexuality or waywardness. On the other hand, the “boys will be boys” mentality was pervasive. Eve-teasing (a septic term for an abusive act) was disapproved of, but not chastised. When a girl was confronted with it, the tendency was to shield herself rather than confront the perpetrator.
Such individual and familial attitudes are then manifested in the social and public spheres. There is the glorified objectification of women in music videos, movies, and even news (I remember a titillating stock picture on a piece about rape).
A popular news channel thought it not only justifiable but in fact righteous to show schoolgirls at a club being harassed by bystanders (absent were abuses hurled at the schoolboys, not that it would be any more acceptable). We obsess about how public parks are hubs for prostitution rather than how unsafe they are for women. We give greater attention to the incivility of fellow audiences whistling at certain scenes during a movie, than to how uncomfortable a woman feels just being in the theater.
Our priorities are skewed, precisely because we have failed to stare down at the misogyny in our culture. Public spaces are oppressive for women, yet we tend to resolve it by having male relatives accompany the women, or asking our women to come home early. Masculinity is displayed by protecting your own female relatives while abusing (if “only” verbally) others.
Things are different now. One Indian novelist tweeted, “Every time I see these kids protesting on the street, I want to fast forward into the future to see how they will change India.” The same, I believe, is true for Nepal. Many gender barriers have been broken at the individual and the familial levels, but there are still fundamental changes to make at the public level, for example, in the political sector.
Recently, I heard the writer Sanjeev Uprety speaking on gender insensitivity in our political discourse. Frequently, politicians use terms like “napunshak”, “hijada”, and phrases like “chura lagayeko”, etc. This apart from the violence in their speeches: “galhatyaunu” (drag them by their necks), “laat hanera nikalunu” (kick them out, literally). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those making such statements are all privileged males.
We have created a society where denigrating women is okay —in private, public, and politics. Our machismo is determined not by protecting others, but by protecting “our women folks” while harming those of others. We still live in a world where Nietzsche’s morality applies, where we take pleasure, like Conan the Barbarian, in “hearing the lamentations of your women”. It is at this level that we need fundamental changes. And some laws.
Will the Occupy Baluwatar protests fizzle out like the Occupy movements in the US—both claiming to be spontaneous and organic, i.e. without specifically articulated demands? Is the resolution of these cause célèbres enough? I am afraid that if the movement will not, cannot, articulate itself in demands for structural changes (mostly legal), the energies of the protestors will be spent, and it will take a long time to galvanize ordinary citizens to reimagine a more equitable society, a path this movement has jumpstarted.