This is a piece I'd written for the Hindustan Times last October. News of a taxi service with only women drivers in Mumbai reminded me of it. Oh, and remember the recent Taslima incident in Hyderabad? And the new thing about women not being allowed to become bartenders in Delhi?:
There is a project called the Blank Noise Project being run by a few people in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. It seeks to establish that eve teasing is a sexual crime, and is unacceptable. I recently sat in on a meeting of this project’s volunteers in a café in Delhi.
It was a very small gathering. There were three people. The two women, who were part of the project, began by trying to decide on their course of action for the day. They had planned an ‘intervention’ in Connaught Place that would consist of them pasting posters against street sexual harassment in small shops in the area, and stenciling similar messages on the pavement. However, the thin turnout deterred them, so they ended up talking about what could be done to sensitise Delhi’s men to the fact that leching, groping and passing remarks is not the best way to win girlfriends and influence people.
One of them said she could not understand why men behaved in this manner. What joy does it give them, she asked? What pleasure is there in making a lewd remark or grinding an elbow into someone’s breast?
I told her I do not know why men behave in this manner, but I am certain this behavior is driven by the gonads rather than the brains, because it makes no sense. I can recall boys in college getting in groups to stare at girls and pass remarks. They did seem to feel good doing it. Almost none of them ever tried it when they were alone, or when there were possibilities of repercussions like a date with the police.
The fellows that do these things do them because they get away with it. They know very well that what they are doing is not right. No culture or society promotes such behaviour.
So what can be done to prevent such incidents? That is a difficult question. In fact, it is possibly the most important question in the world today.
The Blank Noise Project seeks, in my understanding, to alter men’s thinking so that none of them reacts with whistles and comments to women wearing skirts or low-waist jeans. Its stated aims include reclaiming public spaces for women, so that men do not react with excitement to the sight of a woman walking alone in a park at night.
These aims are based on the principle of equality of men and women. Its adherents ask why men can do these perfectly innocuous things – like wearing the clothes they want, and then going for an evening walk – whereas women do not have the liberty to do so unmolested. The entire liberal, Westernised world would be on the side of the Blank Noise Project women on this.
There is, however, the other camp. This lot would say that women should learn to behave in a manner that does not excite the unwanted attention of men. They should walk with eyes lowered, and refrain from wearing revealing clothes or going out alone in public places. They should not try and do all the things men do, because they are not men.
Most of the Islamic world, and conservative Hindus and Sikhs, among others, are on this side.
It is a difference of opinion that divides the world.
In its March-April 2003 issue, Foreign Policy magazine had published an article by US professors Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris. The article was called “The True Clash of Civilisations”. It was based on the cumulative results of the World Values Survey (WVS), conducted in 1995–96 and 2000–2002. The authors wrote that, “Based on questionnaires that explore values and beliefs in more than 70 countries, the WVS is an investigation of socio-cultural and political change that encompasses over 80 percent of the world’s population.”
This is what they found:
“A comparison of the data yielded by these surveys in Muslim and non-Muslim societies around the globe confirms the first claim in (Samuel) Huntington’s thesis. Culture does matter—indeed, it matters a lot. Historical religious traditions have left an enduring imprint on contemporary values. However, Huntington is mistaken in assuming that the core clash between the West and Islam is over political values. At this point in history, societies throughout the world (Muslim and Judeo-Christian alike) see democracy as the best form of government. Instead, the real fault line between the West and Islam, which Huntington’s theory completely overlooks, concerns gender equality and sexual liberalization. In other words, the values separating the two cultures have much more to do with eros than demos. As younger generations in the West have gradually become more liberal on these issues, Muslim nations have remained the most traditional societies in the world.”
The current controversy over the use of the veil in Britain, and the earlier one concerning headscarves in France, highlight this clash. The Blank Noise Project in India is also, in my opinion, a small example of the same phenomenon. Professors Inglehart and Norris would probably find that Hindu, Muslim and Sikh India are all ‘traditional societies’ that largely favour democracy and economic growth, which means the market, but, to different extents, mostly oppose sexual liberalization.
It would be easy and tempting to conclude that these traditional societies are in urgent need of modernization, and therefore, that liberal ideas and views must be taught to the people who hold that men and women are not equal.
However, to do so would be to forget the conclusions set out by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty. Mill wrote that:
“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”
The opinion that men and women are not equal is derived from the view that gender follows naturally from sex. In other words, a man is masculine by birth and a woman is feminine. There are obvious flaws in this logic – as the growing numbers of gay men and lesbian women show – but it is likely that this opinion does contain “a portion of the truth”. Even if our genes do not determine sexual orientation, as some scientists claim, the fact is that for the vast majority of the world’s population, feminine and masculine traits do match their sexes.
There is certainly need for greater gender equality and sexual liberalization in certain societies. For example, every person should have equal rights to education, regardless of whether they are male or female, or for that matter, rich or poor, Dalit or Brahmin. Similarly, every person should have equal freedom to pursue a career or hold a job, and that includes driving taxis, selling paan and fighting wars. Anywhere that it is okay for a man to go about in his chuddies, it should be equally okay for a woman to do so.
You might agree with this, but the question is, would you want a ‘clash of civilisations’ to universalize this worldview?