It is a curious paradox how we regard the selfhood and safety of women in India: situating vulnerability in the female body, ensuring women’s safety is often seen as a task that requires shielding them from untoward glances and attention from potential (male) ‘violators’—a feat that ironically involves society keeping a constant eye on them. Women’s selfhood is therefore limited to their objectification under the gaze of various others, be it ‘protectors’ or perpetrators. If this isn’t bad enough, it seems now that the preventive surveillance and policing of women’s movements and behaviours is set to become a lot more literal—all in the name of safety, of course.
On Monday, Madhya Pradesh Police inaugurated ‘Samman,’ a fortnight-long outreach programme aimed at creating awareness about crimes against women. Speaking at the occasion, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan mentioned ushering in a new system where women moving out of their homes for work will register themselves with the local police, who will—amongst other things—track them in order to keep them safe. The logic behind such a move is simple, and it is far removed from the abstract idea of ‘safety’: it is, in simple words, about control.
For one, the women in question—like anyone under surveillance—are unlikely to have control over how the data regarding their whereabouts, actions, and interactions will be collected or used by the police. There already exists a profound lack of confidence in the law enforcement system when crimes against women are concerned, given the apathy, victim-blaming, and general lack of gender sensitisation with which complainants and witnesses are treated. Further, for many women—especially trans women and sex workers—the police itself is a source of sexual and gendered harassment, a problem such a system can potentially make worse. Given the predominantly cis-male composition of the police forces in India (despite the 33% threshold recommended by the Center, women make for only 6.11% of the total), the idea of them knowing one’s every move is not quite reassuring—it makes one feel the opposite of safe.
A common line of argument is that women do have the ‘choice’ to not register themselves for such a service—it is likely to be presented, in the best case, as completely voluntary. However, this also means that unregistered women who face assault and/or harassment could further be subject to blame for it, since they did not allow the police to protect them. It is unclear how tracking women could prevent them from being attacked or help in the event of an inquiry to bring them justice, but the existence of such a mechanism is bound to act as a loophole for the police deflect their own failure to control crime as a fault of the victims.
Especially worrying here is the extent of control such forms of ‘preventive surveillance’ allows the police and state to exercise over women’s bodies. The basic logic of this provision already underlies such common practices as night curfews for women, which have long been implemented within most patriarchal familial and institutional structures that seek to prevent sexual crimes and harassment by keeping women under watch and lock and key. Thus, leaving their homes to work is the only time most women are allowed certain kinds of freedom. Subjecting them to monitoring can therefore be severely limiting—especially in the case of women from marginalised class, caste, religious and professional backgrounds, or those with marginalised gender and/or sexual orientations—given as they would be forced to act in accordance with the moral codes of the police personnel tracking them, who could otherwise share sensitive information about their whereabouts and activities with their families or other persons known to them.
Further, the implementation of Chouhan’s proposal would most definitely have alarming consequences for women’s autonomy in context of the rising vitriol of the politics of “love jihad”—the Hindutva mob’s campaign against interfaith couples—legislation regarding which already exist in four Indian states, including Madhya Pradesh. It is important here to remember that the idea of ‘love jihad’ is premised on the same basic idea as the proposed safety mechanism, which is that women are naïve, easy to attack or deceive, and can therefore not be trusted to make their own decisions.
Whereas Hindutva groups currently rely on informal information networks through courts, tehsil offices, marriage registration offices, social media and local volunteers to monitor and intercept interfaith couples; a preventive surveillance system such as this would make the police liable to make their own interventions, thereby imposing both the police and the state’s ideas of ‘safety’ onto women. It would, moreover, set precedent for similar systems to be rolled out elsewhere, effectively empowering the state machinery over individual women’s rights to live autonomously and with full control over their bodies.
What makes this all the more concerning is that such degrading, patriarchal lines of thought are even being endorsed by those who are meant to protect and promote women’s interests at the apex: while the chairperson of the National Commission for Women is known to have echoed the ruling party’s concerns about rise in love jihad cases at the expense of women’s autonomy, yet another member recently commented on the Badaun rape case, saying it could have been prevented had the woman not ventured out at night.
Indeed, it is evident that such ideas about women’s safety are often predicated on larger political agendas—in this case, the Hindutvawadi right wing’s need to control ‘their’ women’s bodies as tokens of pride (note how the name of the campaign regarding awareness around crimes against women in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh literally translates into “honour,” and that the party’s election campaign in Muzaffarnagar—the site of violent communal riots—made sexual violence into a political tool, also based on the notion of women’s honour). It is for the same reason—avenging honour—that lawmakers keep insisting on laws that seek death the penalty for rapists despite the many feminist arguments about capital punishment only making such crimes worse.
If we are to take women’s safety seriously, it is not only our bodies that need to be protected but also our rights to asserting selfhood. If the motive is to prevent crimes against women, it is perhaps the violators that we should be paying attention to. And if the violators are to be dealt with, the very first move is to dismantle the idea of samman itself.
Featured Image Source: epw.in