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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

To Indian women: Forget freedom, follow rules

Anyone looking for stories of outrages committed against women in India this month doesn’t need to look far. Just after an attack on a woman in the northeast city of Guwahati, and a plea by an Islamist group in Jammu & Kashmir for female tourists to dress more conservatively, a group of village elders in Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh has released some new rules to ensure that women stay safe. The only loss they’ll suffer is individual freedom:

- Women cannot use mobile phones in public
- Women under the age of 40 cannot go outside without a male relative to accompany them.
- Women should cover their heads in public.
- Village boys cannot play songs or music on their mobile phones in public.

The village elders, known as a khap panchayat, took the actions, they said, to prevent sexual harassment. The result, of course, is to punish women pre-emptively by restricting their liberties in the name of protecting them from men who cannot be trusted to restrain themselves.

The Uttar Pradesh government said that the panchayat has no legal authority to enforce such rules, and that people should report attempts to do so. When the police tried to step in, a crowd of people beat them up.

On the same day, a row over attending classes in hijab (headscarf) sprung up in Mangalore when some female students belonging to the Muslim community boycotted classes in Sri Ramkunjeshwara First Grade College, Ramkunja. They were protesting the management’s decision to ban the hijab as a part of their dress code.

The management argued that the institution does not permit students to dress according to their faith. The college administration said it told parents and students about the dress code when they applied, so they should know about the rules already.

Countries that have taken similar action, such as France and the Netherlands, have argued that veils and other kinds of primarily Islamic clothing are repressive for women. But wouldn’t a progressive government allow people to choose what they want to wear? In India, this seems like a priority, given the country’s promise of equal rights to citizens regardless of their religion.

People who assign themselves the protectors of other people’s morality seem to always find a way to enforce their will on women. The idea is that you must:

- restrict their movements so they don’t harm themselves
- restrict their freedom to be equal to men lest they arouse the passions that men are powerless to control

The conclusion is always the same: it’s the woman’s fault. Look at the Guwahati incident, at the claims that surfaced here and there that if the victim weren’t drinking in a bar and doing other morally suspect things, this wouldn’t have happened.

Nobody in India, or many other countries for that matter, would have said this about a man. Where does that leave a country like ours? How do you change the thinking of millions of people? The most common methods so far — legislation, shouting about it online, protests — don’t seem to have much effect. Now what, India?