Why violence is not news

BY Manjula Lal| IN Media Practice | 11/12/2004
The common woman has good reason not to get worked up about the issue of violence against women. A response to Ammu Joseph`s article.

Manjula Lal

Heartaching about rising levels of female foeticide and about increasing violence against women is becoming so repetitive, so ineffective, so irrelevant. The only people who seem to be worried are the researchers and NGO activists, and this finds its occasional echo in the media, but makes no real dent in the phenomenon. So we get articles like Ammu Joseph¿s in www.thehoot.org describing how a woman¿s violent death by burning, probably a dowry death, did not get due coverage.

Frankly, the common woman has good reason not to get worked up about the issue of violence against women, because she does not even define it in such terms. The term `violence against women¿ is anyway an NGO invention, and is supposed to cover acts both within and outside families (whereas Indian society thinks there is a world of difference between what strange men do to you and your own men do). It is being increasingly drummed into our heads by civil society that this is a human rights issue. But the common woman is light years away from identifying the issues as such, so could they please stop this litany? Well, they can carry on if they want, that¿s their freedom of speech, but it is only when we let the silences of ordinary people take over, will the truth become evident.

Female foeticide is often seen by women themselves, at least the doctors and patients involved in it, not as a crime, but as an unfortunate bowing to reality. Housewives who would have, 20 years ago, regarded the use of rat poison or the `putting to sleep¿ of stray dogs as a `sin¿ are today bowing to the dictates of their men and unhappily, submissively, aborting female fetuses. If you talked to them, they would say it¿s a man¿s world, and there¿s no point bringing a girl into the world and subjecting her to all kinds of tortures.

Let¿s stop awhile and look at these tortures. Overwhelmingly, it is the fear in the hearts of parents, circa 1930 or circa 2004, that the little girl will be molested. Or that some man will do something to her which will bring `shame¿ to the family - yes, I know the concept of shame is itself a sick construct, but we are right now listening to the silent majority. Besides the huge parental burden of guarding a young life every moment of the next 20 years, is `the curse¿. Puberty now starts at a much younger age, 9 or 10 or 11 instead of 13-15. Among the poor, families which do not even have a secure roof over their heads, or a toilet to go to, have to deal with a problem that cannot even be spoken about.

And what of the boys? They have carefree childhoods, with complete freedom of movement sanctioned by adults, and no embarrassing personal hygiene problems. Which gender should a parent prefer? For reasons of its very own survival, the media does not want to acknowledge that its commodification of women, the worst manifestation of which are music videos on TV made by unscrupulous women themselves, is itself a root cause of men not wanting daughters. One typical north Indian male told me, ?I know how men look at girls. If I had a daughter, I would be constantly worrying about who was looking at her in that way.? 

There you have it, in a crux. The media, if one includes TV, is going amuck. The `Left¿ that dominates TV and press discourses (I wonder where they get their `Left¿ tag from, no ideological justification for such an attitude ever occurs to me despite a Marxist orientation) says it¿s all about freedom of speech. It cries itself hoarse that Censorship is some right-wing conspiracy originating in the BJP. It says those unscrupulous girls who flaunt indecency on screen (my description) have a right to express themselves the way they want. They also have a right (so goes the thinking, I imagine) to make some money, because money is empowering.

I don¿t think it would be too harsh to say that the freedom the media enjoys and misuses to flaunt female bodies in various states of undress is itself the problem. Where in our normal, city/village, office/home lives do we dress/behave like that? The entire `modern woman¿ image we see through exploitative camera angles is a creation of the media. Don¿t expect, then, that things will get better. Men from even prosperous families can¿t bear to bring a baby girl into such a world. Why blame the poor, who don¿t really have anything to offer their girls, and on top of all the hardships have to pay huge dowries at the time of marriage? First create a less materialistic/exploitative world, and then expect the milk of human kindness to flow to baby girls. 

Manjula Lal works for the Financial Express. Contact: manjulalal@hotmail.com

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