September 2013: The public display of machismo at festivals leaves little space for women’s enjoyment.
Janmashtami heralds the start of the unrelenting festive season—from now until the end of the year, the spate of festivals includes Ganesh Chaturti and the multiple Visarjan days, the Navratris, Dusshera, Diwali, Eid, Christmas and New Years (and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few). Though I look upon the impending traffic snarls, deafening cacophony of music and crackers, and bursting crowds with cerebral distaste, I understand the enormous sociocultural and economic importance of festivals beyond their religious significance—for people less fortunate than us, they provide a break in the monotony of dreary everyday life, a reason to celebrate and let it all hang lose.
What they also seem to provide is an anarchical free-for-all for men and their desires. For one, male enjoyment seems to be inextricably linked with intoxication, the religious origins of the festivals be damned. Put a group of sex-complexed boys and men with diminished social inhibitions and bristling boisterousness on the road, past what would ordinarily have been their bedtime, and there is bound to be trouble—just yesterday, three drunk boys emerged from an under-construction Ganesha Pandal at 1 AM and chased our car down a narrow Mumbai road hurling abuses (until they hurtled in to a stationary rickshaw). Put multiple such groups on the road and there, you have it, a drunken mob.
Mobs dynamics are difficult for anyone to negotiate, but they pose a particular problem for women. For one, there is the cloak of anonymity the mob provides. The Gainesville serial killer Danny Rolling points out in his autobiography that when dozens of male university students were asked if they would rape a beautiful girl if they could get away with it, the majority answered yes. Although this is an American statistic and I don’t believe all men are rapists-denied-opportunity, it explains why this anonymity is so dangerous to female sexuality. Mob mentality is contagious, and sexually reprehensible behaviour can spread through a mob like wildfire. The 40-50 men who molested the two NRIs outside the Marriott on New Year’s Eve 2007 didn’t all know each other. Neither did all the men/groups of men who molested the girls who were walking to Wankhede Stadium to see the victorious team of IPL 2007; they each just, literally, grabbed the opportunity to do what everyone else was. And let’s not even talk about Holi, the most intrusive of all festivals. There’s power in numbers—and bravado that comes from believing in ones collective invincibility.
As always, the onus of self-preservation falls on the woman. No, no, no! This is not to say that women shouldn’t be careful, more than men need to be: while we all hope for a utopic society free from sexual violence, there will always be evil in man, and evil men. But we seem to be breeding mobs of rapists-in-waiting as opposed to a few rotten eggs.
The least one can expect is that there be a much more favourable, infinitely fairer balance of places/clothes/times of day/activities that it is ‘safe’ for women to be in/wear/be out/be doing. When my friend Ruchi, a 25-year-old animal activist, told a cop that she was being hassled on the road during a festival day last year, he told her, “Ghar jao. Aaj tumhe bahar aane ki kya zaroorat hai?” Public celebrations should not be so riddled with gender injustice that make them a wanton, rambunctious, anything-goes experience for one gender; a cautious, fear-inducing (if not worse) experience for the other.
There are no new solutions to offer on this matter other than the ones we’ve already heard—bettering law enforcement and developing a culture that is gender-sensitive. We need a better policemen-to-public ratio, more efficient policing and prosecution, etc. And as much as we crib about dry days, preventing men from accessing liquor during festivals and voting is an important governance tool to maintain peace.
Our men need to be taught to respect women and their space, of course, but also about inherent standards of conduct. That drunken groups in topless trucks, who hoot at every passing woman, are carrying Ganesha-the-God home or going around breaking haandis à la Lord Krishna, is laughably ironic. It is telling that both the govindas who lost their lives this year, did so in bike accidents. Neither the need to reassert our collective selves in a post-colonial world, nor the sense of entitlement of the aggrandised Indian man should result in such anarchy. We need to grow beyond equating fun and freedom with rowdiness, rash driving and free cop-a-feels. We need to grow up.
An edited version of this column appeared in Governance Now in September 2013.