Unspeakable Inequalities: Everyday Sexism at the Workplace

by Anand Philip

We know that sexual harassment is rampant in the Indian workplace. While we are constantly made aware of these forms of gender violence, it’s rarely that we hear anything about the commonest kind- the everyday sexism of the workplace.

Here’s a list of various contexts and types of sexism faced by women in the workplace in India, curated from emails to me and tweets when i curated @genderlog a few weeks back.

This is in no way comprehensive, and the headings are just patterns I’ve noticed.


Shamita writes

In a couple of organizations I’ve worked with, I have observed that there are casual remarks made by male co-workers in my direction and sometimes in the direction of other female colleagues about how there are “no hot, young chicks in this company.” Like the reason we exist in the organization is just so we can be eye-candy for the men we work with.

In a recent conference about masculinities in South Asia organized by Prajnya, I saw films specifically shot to throw light on masculinity. One thing that stood out, from all of them was how South Asian male seems to have a sense of entitlement when it comes to women’s bodies and lives. There’s a belief that it’s the man who owns the woman, and that the woman needs a lifelong parent to make decisions for her. This is used to explain away things from who cooks, to physical violence.

Shamita continues
“Comments are made also in the direction of married women (like 30 years and above) about how they’re so old and like that is such a bad thing.”
This free for all scrutiny, as if it’s men’s birthright to make such comments about women’s bodies, and lives, and as if women owe it to men to be more attractive while at the work place. I wonder if such conversations exist about men, not that it would make this right.

Only men allowed

From my experience in medical colleges, there’s a clear bias against women doing what are considered the “manly” specializations. The entire orthopedic department of my college had two women doctors. Both of them were constantly talked about as being one of the boys. This was also observed and confirmed by others

Rohini, an IT professional writes

Some of this is paternalistic – Hard work is for the men, or don’t put women in ‘dangerous’ industries. Hidden in the language of being practical and caring, of course.

Some of it comes from workplaces never having been designed for women- by default everything’s designed for men, and with the entry of women into the previously men-only workforces, everybody’s got to confirm to that ideal male behaviour.


Self explanatory tweets, I think. From blue’s for boys and pink’s for girls, to Gynecology is for girls and surgery is for boys, there are large and small stereotypes that are used to discourage, and make boundaries for women at the workplace.

Moral Policing

It goes by many names. Protecting women, protecting culture, safety, real-life considerations etc. but it’s all aimed at others owning the choices that women should be making for themselves.


A particularly common form of sexism in which women, assumed less smarter, are spoken to like Sumi describes;

I routinely have men I interact with regarding academics state the blindingly obvious, beginning their diatribes with “Please try to understand…” or some such, and occasionally suggest that I refer to my own writing for further information. Of course, the reference material is never acknowledged to be mine, and, if it’s my blog, I’m generally given its URL. I assume that this is some form of mansplaining, although I’m not certain. I don’t always clarify, and the few times I have done so, I’ve not received an apology.

No one will marry you!

The worth of a woman, and her most important role is assumed to be that of a home maker, of mother and wife. She is expected to do as the society asks her to, because otherwise, she wont be able to fulfill her role, her greatest desire and achievement.

Suchi writes

House hunting: I was asked by almost every house owner for details of my marital status….Almost every house owner expressed doubts about my ability to pay rent without a husband in tow. Presumably because women are not expected to be financially
Job hunting: I was asked far more often about my plans relating to marriage, pregnancy and how I planned to handle child care than I was about academics, experience or competence; I’m reasonably certain that the same would not have happened to a man.

If there are a number of young-ish people in a store, and I show up wearing a saree on my way back from work, I usually wind up jumping the queue (against my will), with the shopkeeper explaining to everyone in earshot that I need to go home and cook. I’ve never made this claim to anyone. Also, this only happens when I’m in a saree.

A more detailed account of many of these can be found at the storify – http://storify.com/genderlogindia/everyday-sexism-at-workplace-india-edition

and as an offshoot of this tweet https://twitter.com/genderlogindia/statuses/406111048844853248

In summary, everyday sexism is a product of beliefs and systems that are so pervasive, we usually overlook them or explain them away as normal. But they are neither normal, nor to be taken lightly. The beliefs that lead to rape take root in the beliefs that lead us to mansplain, police and sterotype. It’s a spectrum, from “soft” sexism to physical violence, and it needs to be challenged right at the start.


Dr. Anand Philip’s Twitter bio describes him as “Your friendly neighbourhood GP.”

Unspeakable Inequalities: Blog Symposium Index of Links

This is an index of posts that belong to the blog symposium, Unspeakable Inequalities, which looked at linkages between different kinds of structural inequalities and gender-based violence. The categories included here are space use and design; caste; and disability. This post will be updated as we continue to receive contributions.

Unspeakable Inequalities: சாதியும் பெண்களும் (Caste and women)

கவின் மலர்
Kavin Malar

(Caste and patriarchy intersect and manifest as violence in practices like rape, honour killings, custodial torture and forced marriage.)

இந்தியாவைப் பொறுத்தவரை பெண்கள் எப்போதும் தங்கள் சாதியுடன் தொடர்புடையவர்கள். பெண் எனும் பிள்ளை பெறும் எந்திரம் தன் சாதிக்கு பிள்ளை பெற்று சாதியின் மக்கள்தொகையை வளர்க்கவேண்டும்.. தன் சாதிப் பெருமை பேச பறைசாற்ற இன்னுமொரு உயிரை ஈன்றெடுக்கும் பெண் எனும் மனித உயிருக்கு இந்திய சமூகத்தில் என்ன மரியாதை உள்ளது என்று பார்த்தால் பூஜ்ஜியம்தான்.

பெண்ணின் உடல் எப்படி பார்க்கப்படுகிறது? அது ஒரு பண்டம். ஆண்களுக்கான ஒரு நுகர்வுபொருள் அது. அந்த நுகர்வு பொருளை ஆண் எப்படி வேண்டுமானாலும் பயன்படுத்த அவனுக்கு உரிமை இருப்பதாக நினைத்துக்கொள்கிறான். ‘இது இன்னொரு உடல், இன்னொரு ஜீவனுடைய உடல்’ என்கிற உணர்வின்றி பேருந்துக்களிலும், பொது இடங்களிலும் காம வேட்கையுடன் பெண்களை பார்ப்பதும், அவர்களை சீண்டுவதுமாக ஆண்கள் செய்பவற்றிற்கு அவர்களின் காமவேட்கை மட்டும்தான் காரணமா? காமம் கண்ணை மறைக்கிறது என்றால் தன் வீட்டுப்பெண்களான தாய் அல்லது சகோதரியிடம் இப்படி நடந்துகொள்வதில்லை. அவர்களிடத்தில் இந்த காம இச்சை தோன்றுவதில்லை. ஒரு சில விதிவிலக்குகள் இருக்கலாம். நாம் பெரும்பான்மை குறித்துப்பேசுவோம். இத்தகைய ஆண்கள் பெண்கள் தொந்தரவுக்குள்ளாகும்படி பார்வையால் அல்லது கைகளால் சீண்டுவதும் அத்துமீறுவதுமான செயல்களில் ஈடுபடுவதன் பின்னாலுள்ள உளவியல் யோசிக்கப்படவேண்டியது. பிற பெண்கள் அனைவருமே தன்னுடையை உடைமைகள் என்கிற மனோபாவம் அது. இன்னொருவருடைய பொருள் என்றால் எடுத்து பயன்படுத்த தயங்கும் கைகள் தன்னுடையது என்றால் உரிமையுடன் எடுப்பதுபோல, எல்லா பெண்களின் உடலும் தன் சுகிப்புக்குரியது என்று எண்ணும் ஆண்தனம்தான் ஓர் ஆணை அடுத்தவர் உடலென்றால் பெண்ணை தீண்டவும் முறைக்கவும் உற்றுப் பார்க்கவும் வைக்கிறது. பெண் என்பவள் ஒரு தனியான ஜீவன். அவள் உடல் அவளுக்குத்தான் சொந்தம் என்கிற உணர்வும் புரிதலும் எள்ளளவும் இங்கே இல்லை.

பிறந்தவுடன் பெண்ணின் உடல் பெற்றோருக்கு சொந்தம். அந்த உடல் எங்கே செல்ல வேண்டும், செல்லக்கூடாது, அந்த உடலை யார் பார்க்கவேண்டும், யாருடன் அந்த உடல் உறவுகொள்ளவேண்டும் என்பதையும் பெற்றோரே நிர்ணயிக்க எண்ணுகிறார்கள். வீட்டில் சகோதர சகோதரியர் உட்பட மூத்தவர்கள் இருந்தால், பெண் உடல் குறித்த இந்த கண்காணிப்பில் மொத்த குடும்பமும் ஈடுபடும். உறவினர்களும் கூட. உறவினர்கள் என்பதும் குடும்பம் என்பதும் இங்கே இந்தியாவில் சாதிச்சமூகம்தான். சாதிக்காரர்களுக்கு இங்கே பல பெயர்கள் உண்டு. சித்தப்பா, பெரியப்பா, பெரியம்மா, சித்தி, அத்தை, மாமா என்பதிலிருந்து கொஞ்சம் யோசித்தால் கூடப்பிறந்த அண்ணன், அக்கா, அம்மா, அப்பா என்று எல்லோருமே சாதிக்காரர்் கள்தான். ஆக உரிமை என்கிற பெயரிலோ அல்லது பாசம் என்கிற பெயரிலோ பெண்ணின் உடல் தன் சாதியைச் சேர்ந்த ஒருவன் அனுபவிக்கவே இருக்கிறது. என்கிற எண்ணத்தை அழுத்தமாகக் கொண்டிருக்கின்றனர். பெண்ணுடல் குறித்து இவர்கள் வகுத்துக்கொண்ட விதிமுறைகள் எல்லாமே சாதியின் பெயரால் இருந்தாலும் வெளியில் அப்படித் தெரிவதில்லை. அப்படி சொல்லிக்கொள்வதுமில்லை. ‘அவளுக்கு எது நல்லதென்று எங்களுக்குத் தெரியாதா?’ என்றோ, ’அவளுக்கு என்ன தெரியும்? பெரியவர்கள் பார்த்துக்கொள்வோம்’ என்றோ ‘என் பெண்ணை பொத்திப் பொத்தி வளர்த்தேன். அத்தனை செல்லம்’ என்றோ சொல்கிறார்கள். ஒன்று பெண்ணுக்கு ஒன்றும் தெரியாது. அவளால் தன் துணையை தான் தேட முடியாது என்கிற கருத்தோ அல்லது எங்கள் பெண்ணுக்கு நாங்கள்தான் துணை தேடுவோம் என்கிற இறுமாப்போ வெளிப்படுகிறது. அதன்பின்னால் சாதிதான் தன் கோர முகத்தை மறைத்துக்கொண்டு அந்தஸ்து,, பாசம், பற்று, கௌரவம் என்கிற வெவ்வேறு பெயர்களின் வாழ்கிறது.

பெண்ணை ஏன் ’பொத்திப் பொத்தி’ வளர்க்கவேண்டும்? எந்த ஆணையும் பொத்தி வளர்த்ததாக பெற்றோர் சொல்லி கேட்டிருப்போமா? ‘கிளியை வளர்த்து பூனை கையில் கொடுத்தேன்’ என்று கண்ணீர் வடிக்கையில் அந்தக் கிளியை எப்படி வளர்த்தோம் என்பதையாவது எண்ணிப் பார்ப்பதுண்டா? சுதந்திரமாக பறக்கவேண்டிய கிளியை கூண்டில் அடைத்துவிட்டீர்கள். கிளி பறந்தாலும் மாலையில் கூடு அடைய வந்துவிடும் என்கிற நம்பிக்கை இல்லாமல் வேறு சாதிக்கிளியோடு பறந்துவிடுமோ என்கிற பயத்தில்தானே கூண்டில் அடைக்கப்படுகிறது. அதை அதன்போக்கில் விட்டிருந்தால் இன்னொரு கிளிக்காவது துணையாய் இருந்திருக்கும். ஆனால் நீங்களோ ஒன்றுசேரவே முடியாத பூனையின் கையில் சாதியின் பெயரால் ஒப்படைக்கிறீர்கள். பெரும்பாலான கிளிகளுக்குத் தெரியும்; முதல் பார்வையிலேயே இது கிளியல்ல..பூனை என்று. சில சமயங்களில் கிளிகளும் சாதியை நம்பி பூனைகளை கிளிகள் என்றெண்ணி ஏமாறுவதும் உண்டு. இப்படி ஏமாறுவதைத்தான் அகமண முறை என்கின்றனர். தன் சாதிக்குள் மணம் செய்துகொள்ளவேண்டும் என்பது ஒவ்வொரு பெண்ணின் விருப்பம் அல்ல. எல்லா பெண்களும் அவரவர் பருவத்தில் எவர் மீதேனும் மையல் கொண்டிருக்கக் கூடும். அதற்கான வாய்ப்புகள் அதிகம். அந்த மையல் காதலாக கனியாமல் சாதி குறுக்கே விழுந்து தடுத்துவிடுகிறது. பல பெண்கள் தங்களை காதலிப்பவர்களை பிடித்திருந்தாலும் ஏற்றுக்கொள்ளாமல் போவதற்கும், காதலைச் சொல்லாமல் மறைத்துக்கொள்வதற்கும், அப்படியே பிடித்து, ஒப்புக்கொண்டு காதலித்தாலும் அது பாதியில் முடிந்துபோவதற்கும் பின்னால் சாதி அல்லது மதம் இயங்குகிறது. ஆண்கள் காதல் தோல்வியில் கவிதை எழுதுவதோ தாடி வளர்ப்பதோ வெளியுலகுக்குத் தெரிகிறது. ஆனால் பெண்களின் மனம் மௌனமாய் கண்ணீர் வடிப்பது எத்தனை பேருக்குத் தெரியும்? இன்னொரு கிளியைத் தேடிய மனம் தெரிந்தே பூனைக்கு துணையாவது இப்படித்தான். ஆனால் ஆண்கள் நிறைந்த இவ்வுலகில் இலக்கியம், சினிமா, கதை, கவிதை என்று எல்லா வடிவங்களையும் கைப்பற்றி கோலோச்சும் ஆண்கள் பெரும்பாலும் பெண்கள் குறித்து ஏமாற்றுபவர்கள், தன்னைக் காதலித்துவிட்டு இன்னொருவனை மணம் செய்துகொள்பவர்கள் என்று சித்தரிக்கின்றனர். இந்தியாவில் இப்படியான சித்தரிப்புகளால் இகழப்படுபவர்கள் பெண்களாக இருந்தாலும் மறைமுகமாக அங்கே இகழப்படுவது சாதியோ அல்லது மதமோதான். ஆனால் பெரும்பாலான ஆண்களுக்கு தன்னைவிட்டுச் சென்ற பெண்ணை குறைசொல்லாமல், அவளை அதற்கு நிர்பந்தப்படுத்திய சாதியையோ மதத்தையோ வெளிப்படையாக குற்றம் சொல்ல முடியவில்லை. இது குறித்தெல்லாம் பேசாமால் மேம்போக்காக பெண்ணை குறைசொல்லிக்கொண்டிருப்பது அவர்களுக்கு மிகவும் வசதியாய் இருக்கிறது. அப்போதுதான் இன்னொரு திருமணத்தை சாதிக்குள்ளேயே செய்துகொண்டு தான் பெற்றெடுக்கும் பெண்ணுக்கும் தான் காதலித்த பெண்ணுக்கு அவள் வீட்டார் செய்ததையே தானும் செய்யலாம்.

எல்லாம் சரி. ஏன் பெண்கள் தைரியமாக சாதிய வட்டத்தையோ மத நிர்பந்தத்தையோ தாண்டி வரலாமே? ஏன் வருவதில்லை? நம் வீடுகளில் பெண்களின் வளர்ப்பு அப்படி. இயல்பிலேயே ஆணுக்கும் பெண்ணுக்கும் இடையே ஒரு கோடு போட்டு வளர்த்து பெண்கள் இதை மட்டும்தான் செய்யவேண்டும் இதைச் செய்யக்கூடாது என்கிற கட்டுப்பாட்டுக்குள்தான் அவர்கள் வளர்க்கப்படுகிறார்கள். பெற்றோரையோ அல்லது வீட்டையோ மீறும் துணிவு அவர்களுக்கு இல்லை என்பதற்கு அவர்கள் காரணம் இல்லை. ஏனெனில் அவர்கள் அப்படித்தான் வளர்க்கப்படுகிறார்கள். துணையின்றி வெளியே செல்வதற்குக் கூட அனுமதிக்கப்படாத பெரும்பாலான பெண்களுக்கு அச்சம் மடம் நாணம் பயிர்ப்பு என்று நாய்கட்கு இருக்கவேண்டியவற்றை பெண்ணின் இயல்பாக மாற்றிக் காட்டியுள்ள நம் சமூகத்தின் பெண்கள் எதிர்நீச்சல் போடவும் எதிர்த்து நிற்கவும் அனுமதிக்கப்படுவதில்லை. அப்படி எதிர்த்து நிற்பவர்களே கௌரவக் கொலைகள் என்கிற பெயரில் உயிர் பறிக்கப்படுகின்றனர்.

எவிடென்ஸ் அமைப்பு நடத்திய அண்மை ஆய்வுகளில் இந்த ஆண்டு மட்டும் 17 கௌரவக் கொலைகள் தமிழகத்தில் நடந்திருப்பதாக அறிகிறோம். இவை கணக்கில் வந்த, வழக்கு பதியப்பட்ட கொலைகள். வெளியில் தெரியாமல் எத்தனை நடக்கிறதோ யாருக்குத் தெரியும்? பல கொலைகள் தற்கொலை என்கிற பெயர் பெறுகின்றன. ‘வயிற்றுவலியால் தற்கொலை’ என்றே பல வழக்குகள் மூடப்படுகின்றன. கௌரவக் கொலைகளில் கொலை செய்பவர்கள் குடும்பத்தாராக இருப்பதால், புகார் கொடுக்கவும், வழக்கு தொடுக்கவும் யார் இருப்பார்கள் என்பது கேள்விக்குறி. இப்படித்தான் பல கௌரவக்கொலைகள் மூடி மறைக்கப்படுகின்றன.

படிநிலையில் தன் சாதியைவிட கீழ் உள்ள சாதியிலிருந்து ஒரு ஆணை பெண் காதலித்துவிட்டால், அந்தப் பெண் கொல்லப்படுகிறாள். குறிப்பாக அந்த ஆண் தலித்தாக இருந்தால் ஒன்று அந்தப் பெண் ஊரைவிட்டு வெளியேறி கண்காணாத இடத்தில் வாழவேண்டும். அல்லது கொலையுண்டு சாகவேண்டும் என்பதே தமிழகத்தின் தற்போதைய நிலைமை. அதிலும் தர்மபுரி சாதிய வன்முறைகளுக்குப் பின் தமிழகத்தில் நடைபெறும் சாதிய அரசியலும், மக்களை தலித், தலித் அல்லாதோர் என்று பிரித்து வைப்பதுமாக மிகவும் முனைப்புடன் நடந்து வரும் முயற்சிகள் மக்கள் மனங்களை மேலும் சாதியத்துக்குள் அமிழ்த்துவிட்டிருக்கின்றன.

தஞ்சை மாவட்டம் ஒரத்தநாடு அருகே சூரக்கோட்டையில் மாரிமுத்து என்கிற தலித் இளைஞரை மணம் செய்துகொண்ட அபிராமி இன்று கணவனை கோரமான கொலையின் மூலம் இழந்து, கைக்குழந்தையுடன் நிராதரவாக நிற்கிறார். காரணம் சாதி. ஆதிக்க சாதி வெறி. விழுப்புரத்தைச் சேர்ந்த கோகிலா என்கிற பறையர் பெண் கார்த்திகேயன் என்கிற அருந்த்திய இன இளைஞரை மணந்ததற்காக கொல்லப்பட்டார். காந்தளவாடியைச் சேர்ந்த பிரியா என்கிற பறையர் இனப்பெண் தன் தலித் இனத்தைச் சேர்ந்த பையனும் வன்னிய இனத்தைச் சேர்ந்த பெண்ணும் ஊரைவிட்டு வெளியேறி திருமணம் செய்துகொண்டபின், அவர்களுக்கு தோழி என்கிற காரணத்தாலேயே கொல்லப்பட்டார். காரணம் சாதி. சிட்டாம்பூண்டி என்கிற கிராமத்தில் ஒரு வன்னிய இளைஞரை கைபிடித்த காவேரியை சாதிப்பெயர் சொல்லித் திட்டி, பிறந்தவீட்டுக்குப் போக்க்கூடாது என்று தடுத்து சித்தரவதை செய்த்தில் அவர் இறந்தார். அது கொலையா தற்கொலையா என்று வழக்கு நடக்கிறது. காரணம் சாதிவெறி. தஞ்சை மாவட்டம் ஆம்பலாப்பட்டுகிராமத்தைச் சேர்ந்த சத்யா டேனியல் செல்வகுமார் என்கிற தலித் இளைஞரை மணந்ததால் சாதுரியமாகப் பேசி கிராமத்துக்கு அவரை வரவைத்து அவருடைய காதில் விஷம் ஊற்றிக் கொன்றதன் காரணம்…? சாதிவெறி. இப்படி பட்டியல் போட்டால் போட்டுக்கொண்டே போகலாம். இத்தனை பெண்களின் கொலைகளுக்கும் காரணம் சாதிவெறி.. பெற்றோரின் சாதிவெறி இப்படி ஆதிக்க சாதிப்பெண்களைக்கொல்கிறது என்றால், ஆதிக்கசாதி ஆண்களின் சாதிவெறி தலித் பெண்களைக் கொல்கிறது.

சென்ற ஆண்டு கடலூரில் ஒரு போட்டோ ஸ்டுடியோவில் பணியாற்றிய சந்தியாவை ஆதிக்கசாதி ஆண்கள் பாலியல் வல்லுறவுக்கு ஆளாக்கினார்கள். எங்கெங்கே சாதிக் கலவரங்களும் வன்முறைகளும் ஒங்குகிறதோ அங்கெல்லாம் ஆதிக்க சாதிக்கு இரையாவது தலித் பெண்களின் உடல்கள்தாம். மன்னர் காலத்திலிருந்தே இன்னொரு நாட்டுக்குப் படையெடுத்துப் போகும் வீர்ர்கள் எதிரி நாட்டுப் பெண்களை பாலியல் வன்முறைக்கு ஆளாக்குவதைப் வரலாற்றில் வாசித்திருக்கிறோம். சமகாலத்திலும் இந்திய அமைதிப்படை இலங்கைக்குச் சென்றபோது அங்கே பெண்களுக்கெதிராக பாலியல் வன்முறைகளில் ஈடுபட்ட்தை ஈழத்துப்பெண்கள் வாய்மொழியாகச் சொல்லவும் இலக்கியங்களிலும் பதிவு செய்யப் பார்க்கிறோம். இப்படி பெண்களின் உடல் மீது ஆண்கள் ஆதிக்கம் செலுத்த நினைப்பது என்பது அவர்களின் ஆணாதிக்கம் மட்டுமல்லாமல் பணத்திலோ பொருளாதாரத்திலோ அதிகாரத்திலோ உயர்ந்திருப்பதனாலும்கூட. இது உலகம் முழுவதும் உள்ள பொதுத்தன்மை. சாதியால் தான் உயர்ந்தவன் என்று தன்னைக் கருதிக்கொள்பவர்களுக்கும் இந்த ஆதிக்கத் தன்மை கடத்தப்படுகிறது. ஏற்கனவே தான் ஓர் ஆண் என்பதில் இருக்கும் ஆதிக்க உணர்வும் உடமை உணர்வும், அந்தப் பெண் ஒரு தலித் பெண் அல்லது மநுஸ்மிருதியின்படி தனக்குக் கீழுள்ள சாதியில் பிறந்தவள் என்றால் ஆணாதிக்கத்துடன் சாதி ஆதிக்கமும் வெறியும் இணைந்துகொள்ள அப்பெண்ணின் வயிற்றில் தன் கருவை வளரவிடுவதில்தான் தன் சாதிப்பெருமை அடங்கி இருப்பதாக நம்பும் வன்முறையாளன் பெண்களை பாலியல் வல்லாங்கு செய்கிறான். ஆனால் ஒரு சாதிக் கலவரத்தில், சாதிய வன்முறையில் மட்டும் தலித் பெண்ணின் உடல் தீண்டத்தக்கதாகிவிடுகிறது. அதாவது இந்தியாவில் பார்ப்பனியம் வளர்த்த புனிதம் தீட்டு என்கிற வகைப்பாட்டுக்குள் அடக்கிவிடும் மனித உயிர்களுள் தீட்டு என்று ஒதுக்கிவைக்கப்பட்டவர்களின் சாதியில் பிறந்த பெண்களின் உடல் வன்முறையாய் புணரும்போது களங்கப்படுவதாக ஆதிக்கசாதி ஆண்மனம் எண்ணுகிறது. இதுவரை ஆதிக்கசாதிக்கு மட்டும் தீட்டாயிருந்த பெண்ணுடல் இனி அனைவருக்கும் தீட்டானதாக களங்கப்பட்டதாக மாறிவிடுவதாக அவன் நம்புகிறான். அதற்கான திட்டமே பாலியல் வல்லாங்கு.. சாதிய வன்முறையில் பாலியல் வன்முறை என்பதன் அடிப்படை களங்கப்படுத்தும் நோக்கமே இங்கே பிரதானம். பாலியல் விழைவோ இச்சையோ இரண்டாம்பட்சம்தான். ஆக பெண்ணுடல் இங்கே தன் வேட்கைக்காகவும், சாதிப்பெருமையை பறைசாற்றுவதற்காகவும் சிறுமைப்படுத்தப்படுகிறது. இதுவே கயர்லாஞ்சியில் பிரியங்காவுக்கு நடந்தது. சாதிமோதல், சாதிக்கலவரம் எதுவுமே இல்லாமல் வெறுமனே அதிகாரம் மட்டுமேயானாலும் கூட அதற்கும் தலித் பெண்களின் உடல்கள் இரையாகும் கொடூரத்தின் சாட்சிகளாய் நாம் இருக்கிறோம். வாச்சாத்தியில் பழங்குடியின பெண்களுக்கு நடந்தது என்ன? வனத்துறையும் காவல்துறையும் இணைந்து பெண்ணுடலில் பாலியல் சித்திரவதை செய்தன. அரச அதிகாரம், காக்கிச்சட்டை என்கிற அதிகாரம் என்கிற இரட்டை அதிகாரத்துடன் ஆண் என்கிற அதிகாரமும் இணைய, அதிகாரமில்லாத தலித் பழங்குடியினப் பெண்கள் அச்சப்படுவார்கள் வெளியில் சொல்லமாட்டார்கள், மிரட்டி வைக்கலாம் என்று அவர்களிடம் அத்துமீறி பாலியல் வன்புணர்ச்சிகளுக்குப் பின்னால் சாதியுணர்வு இல்லை என்று சொல்ல முடியாது. இங்கே வன்புணர்ச்சியாளர்களின் சாதிகள் நமக்குத் தெரியாது. ஆனால் நிச்சயம் அவர்கள் பழங்குடியினர் அல்ல. வல்லாங்கு செய்தது அரச அதிகாரம் மட்டுமல்ல, சாதிய மனமும் சேர்ந்துதான்.

Unspeakable Inequalities: Understanding the cycle of structural violence: A case of women with disabilities

by Anita Ghai

As a child I dreamt being a doctor. I inherited this dream from my mother’s aspiration. However this dream was problematic, as I had polio at the age of two.   Thanks to my caring parents, I thought I was very lucky because we found a school in my locality.  The experience in school was enjoyable.  Gratefully, I also found a Rickshaw to drop me home from school as my father would drop me to school.

The guy was helpful and protective. Life was going fine. However the usual guy fell ill and he sent his brother to pick me up from school.  I observed that he was helpful; however, suddenly I felt that that he was trying to hold me powerfully, too powerfully!

While I sat on the seat, I felt his hands along my body. Later on I felt his hands at places where they were not supposed to be at all. When I tried  to push him away, he told me that I was ungrateful as he was helping.  At first I could not tell my mother what happened. I was scared to death of going to school.  I used several excuses such as illness to avoid going to school. After about a week, my mother became suspicious.  It was only then that I was relieved of guilt.

My parents took extra care after that and my mother started picking me up from school. However the fear of this man has stayed with me, all along. The fear was instrumental in creating a persona, which had nothing to do with intimacy and sexuality issues.

Vulnerability of disabled women

Violence and abuse of anyone regardless of gender, age, caste or any constituency is never permissible. Yet, there are many realities that defy articulation. I recall a feminist working on issues of sexuality in early 1980, was surprised that I was underscoring the issues of violence against women with disabilities. She was shocked as to why anyone would ‘want to assault a disabled woman’.

Over the years, I have understood that silence really is complicity — because we are all affected, we are all related and we do not accept the violence that affects women with disabilities. The fact is that girls and women with disabilities are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The fact is that they are considered as soft targets with the perpetrators assuming that they can get away easily. Since disabilities are multiple, many women are unable to comprehend or communicate about such acts of violence or assault they face in the family, neighborhood and society.

Structural Violence

On account of many submissions to Justice Verma Committee, it is clear that women and girls with disabilities in India are more vulnerable to violence; almost 80 per cent of women with disabilities are victims of violence and they are four times more likely to be victims. Disabled women are exposed to a higher incidence of violence compared to the population average.  In 2013, the latest CEDAW meeting describes women with disabilities as disadvantaged, despite a very clear understanding of women with disabilities who face violence and abuse, which is invisible to the society.

Though an understanding of direct violence is still somewhat recognizable, but structural violence is not understood by society. To me, structural violence can be understood in terms of absence of equitable life opportunities for the disabled — with specific reference to voices of the disabled women.

The stories reveal the many assumptions and inequities that contribute to their marginalization. Structural violence, according to Johan Galtung, exists when some groups, classes, genders, nationalities, etc are assumed to have, and in fact do have, more access to goods, resources, and opportunities. This unequal advantage is built into the very social, political and economic systems that govern societies, states and the world.

Women with disabilities are marginalised in a patriarchal society in India. This social and cultural apartheid is sustained by the existence of a built environment, which lacks amenities for the disabled and solely caters to the needs of the more complete and able-bodied ‘Other’. This social disregard coupled with experiences of social, economic and political subjugation deny the disabled a voice, a space, and even power, to disrupt these deeply entrenched normative ideals that deprive them of their social presence and any semblance of identity.

To survive as a disabled person in such a blinkered social environment has meant coming to terms with unequal power relationships. This is reflected most clearly by socio-economic status, health issues, gender, has been confirmed by a range of studies that show that disabled adults are likely to have low earnings or be unemployed.  Critical is the fact that the disabled woman faces a hostile environment designed for “able-bodied’ society, enhancing the subtle violence.

Lack of access to communication, be it in the form of availability of Braille materials, augmentative measures or sign language training, heightens the oppression experienced by disabled women specifically in reporting abusive experiences.

To my mind, disability does imply broken persons, as an inadequate society is neatly tuned to the workings of normative structure serving political and economic ends. Such disregard results in an ignoring of pertinent issues with regard to disability from the point of view of both active social struggle as well as contemporary academic discourse. Unfortunately such incipient stigmatisation against those who carry the insidious label of ‘disability’ with them results in an exclusion that creates both a sense of despair and distress, often leading to a suppression and non- recognition of the ‘lack’ that marks them initially as different.

Thus violence is not a direct act of any decision or action made by a particular person but a result of an unequal distribution of resource creating a lack of agency that can fight the inhumane society. Structural violence has the effect of denying disabled people significant rights such as economic opportunity, social and political equality, a sense of satisfaction and self-esteem.  When disabled people experience starvation, have serious issues of sanitation and basic requirements such as toilets, and are locked in their houses, violence is taking place. Similarly, when disabled women suffer for reproductive rights and have diseases that could be prevented, when they are denied a decent education, housing, an opportunity to play, to grow, to work, to raise a family, to express themselves spontaneously, a kind of violence is occurring — even if bullets or landmines are not used! Violence happens when optimum potential enhancement of a disabled woman is denied.

Institutional Violence

I believe we need to understand “institutional violence” too. “Institutional violence” and structural violence are not synonymous as the former includes violence that is perpetrated by families, neighborhood, schools, health centers, universities, and recreational organisations, as opposed to individuals.

In India, 59% of unmarried women have experienced violence from their natal family members, friends, and neighbours, and 54% of the ever-married women had faced violence from family members, natal family members and friends. Also, 78% of the women who faced violence had experienced severe mental distress as a result of violence.

Another area of concern is the possibility of disabled women experiencing subtle abuse and being controlled, rather than being in control of caring relationships. Most of the women who have shared their experiences with me feared abuse and violence more from the extended family and acquaintances. In this sense, though the family is directly responsible, it does lead to a ‘fear psychosis’ as many of their accounts are treated as overactive imagination.

As she recounted this to me, Neelima repressed her disgust. “I tried telling my mother about my uncle. She had such a look of disbelief as she said to me, ‘Arre who tumhe kyon tang karega? Usko ladki ki kami hai? Tumne kabhi apne aap to shishe mein dekha hai?’ (Why would he be interested you? Is he short of girls outside? Have you ever seen yourself in the mirror?)”

Thus women with disabilities are especially vulnerable; being less able to defend themselves as the risk of assault and rape from acquaintances is generally greater than that from strangers.

As an institution family tends to infantilize and patronize women with disabilities, and don’t consider them seriously; their choices are not respected — thus, denial is not respected as “denial”.  Women fear that they may not be seen as dependable — thus reporting abuse may not be believed; they also face damaging social values of being ‘inferior’ or ‘throwaway’, which can lead offenders to believe that the abuse is permitted. Many fellow disabled women report instances of male family members fondling a female’s breasts each time they touch them. Verbal abuses are also prevalent, such as “you are a burden to society” and “we are so unfortunate. We cannot even kill you”.

Violence by caregivers

Further, the relationship between the caregiver and care recipients is problematic as the creation of dependency is linked to the  ‘burden’ caused by the disabled person. One of the primary reasons for under-reporting is the fact that 99% of the perpetrators are family, friends and/or caretakers (such as residential staff like maids, drivers etc.) Perpetrators often use threats, such as deprivation of food, charger of the wheel chair, social activity or personal care in order to force the person with a disability to submit to the abuse.

It’s also important to note that though the women would like to report abuse, they often lack the resources or information to do so.

I have noticed when women with disabilities have reached the hospital, they find venereal diseases or bruises all over their bodies, and yet the doctors, too, overlook the abuse. Even in hospitals, women often hear the staff hurling abuse such as “one who can’t wipe her own shit has no right to be concerned about her hair, so let me chop off your damn hair”.

I feel that there is a close alliance between direct, structural and cultural violence, as subtle forms of violence include unfair intimate relationships, social exclusion, circumscribed autonomy and a higher tolerance for ill-treatment within segregated settings, affecting the daily experiences of disabled women. For instance many mothers request for hysterectomies. On inquiring, they say they want to control the menstrual hygiene; they also fear that sexual abuse might lead to pregnancy.  The tragic part is that since the systems do not support the mothers of disabled daughters, they consider abuse as legitimate abuse.

My understanding is that mainstream research on violence indicates a lack of understanding about issues of abuse of women with disabilities. As secure, accessible and protective accommodations for disabled women are available, I protest the label of being ‘vulnerable’. My contention is that the issues of women with disabilities should be understood structurally. As a myriad political, economic, legal and social forces are instrumental to the ongoing likelihood of violence and conflict, unless the underlying inequalities are solved, the violence will continue to appear.

Asexualisation of disabled women

Finally, I would like to point to the politics of control, which gets activated through the nature of the ‘gaze’ and violence. Gaze has been historically established, pervasive, powerful, gendered and engendering structure of control and dominance in a given culture. My contention is that in case of the disabled women, it is not only the male gaze, but also an able bodied gaze, which has to be encountered. In my interviews with disabled women, the most difficult discussions are around a culture where any deviation from a norm is seen as a marked deviation, and the impaired body becomes a symbol of imperfection. The myth of the beautiful body defines the impaired female body as unfeminine and unacceptable. The ramifications of such historical rendering are to be found in the North Indian Punjabi culture, where, for instance, girls — though allowed to interact with their male cousins — are not allowed to sleep in the same room. Disabled girls, on the other hand, are under no such prohibitions, as they are considered sexually safe, or asexual (Ghai, 2002c). The assumption is that they will not perceive any of the interaction as a ‘come on signal’, nor invite a sexual encounter. It is almost as if a disabled girl is perceived not like other girls but ‘above all that’, which has the effect of freeing the other to imitate any action, which in more cases than not turns out to be exploitative.

As the personal narrative of Simi reveals, “When I was young, I would be thrilled at being allowed to sleep in the same room as Vipin, who was my first cousin. However, as I grew up, I realised that this benevolent gesture of my family was to be understood as a complete de-sexualization of my body. Later that same cousin proposed to me and said that he was willing to satisfy my sexual desires, if I promised to keep quiet and not publicise the illicit liaison.”

Thus ‘asexual objectification’ highlights the disregard of the dangers of sexual violation to which disabled girls are exposed. Although never reaching the headlines, there are enough instances, where their own fathers and uncles have sexually abused disabled girls. As one of my informants, whose sister has cerebral palsy revealed: “My sister always had problems in communicating because of speech problems. However after her school gave argumentative aids to her, she shared with me an experience, which was absolutely horrifying. At first, I did not believe her, yet her tears finally convinced me. My Dad’s younger brother took advantage of the fact that both my mother and I had to leave town for work and college. As there was no school that would accept her after the age of 13, we had to leave her at home. He stayed with us for a month, and my sister became a wreck during that time. However, as she could not communicate, we attributed her agitation to her disability. It was only later that we came to know how he raped her everyday for a month or so. The maid who was to take care of her also cooperated with him for money. Even after this episode, my father refused to break his relationship with his brother. After being threatened that we all would commit suicide, he stopped visiting our house.”   (Quoted in Ghai, 2003, p.  )

Thus violence against women with disabilities needs to be understood in terms of the relationship to gendered power relations and the historical, social and material conditions that perpetuate and reinforce violence. Violence not only includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as in hitting, rape and verbal abuse, but also incorporates other forms of violence, for example medical exploitation, institutional abuse and structural violence.

Even though some positive answers have come in the form of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, some problems like the gender neutral definition of the perpetrator in sexual offences, as is currently the case, is not in the interest of disabled women. Also, the committee was much more sensitive to the issues, but the ordinance has given the “bare minimum”.

My submission is that ‘personal is political’ is still a slogan that we must internalize.  Disabled women have to be a part of all the possible consultations that create disable friendly structures. More important, we need to share our lived realities, so that specter of violence and abuse can be eliminated.  We need to tell ourselves that we are entitled not only to the citizenship rights, but to connect with the “able” society so that a safe world can be created.

To quote Thích Nhất HạnhLiving Buddha, Living Christ,

“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds — our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from us and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come. ”


Dr. Anita Ghai is an associate professor in the department of Psychology, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. She is a disability rights activist in the areas of education, health, sexuality and gender.  She is the author of (Dis)Embodied Form: Issues of Disabled Women (2003) and has also co-authored The Mentally Handicapped with Anima Sen.

Unspeakable Inequalities: Debarred from Full Citizenship

by Amba Salelkar

I am, by no means, an expert in disability rights and policy, though this is my area of work. The experiences of persons with disabilities have been much better documented by my peers who have decades of experience in the field. That said, my previous avatar as a criminal trial lawyer exposed me to a subject which concerns persons with disabilities greatly – the use of violence, and the threat of violence.

Violence is of many kinds, and in this blogpost I hope to point out some of the challenges which are faced when it comes to women with disabilities.

I’ll start with sexual assault, because it is the most topical. It was hard to have our voices heard during the Justice Verma recommendations and the surrounding outrage on rape and sexual assault. I believe that this was because the sexual assault of women with disabilities falls so far away from the popular cultural notions of rape – conventionally attractive, delicate victims who are made the victims of lust by savage rapists, lurking on the fringes of society. While the media seems appalled with violence against women, the fact is that the most “talked about” cases fall within this stereotype – stranger rape – which makes for only a small percentage of the actual rapes that are at least reported in this Country. Women with disabilities don’t have to worry about dressing provocatively, going out late at night, or their own economic empowerment being the reasons for their being targeted – these are relative luxuries, and often impossibilities for them. Most public service announcements and campaigns don’t concern them, even though it is estimated that 8 out of 10 women with disabilities will undergo sexual assault in their lifetime.

So where does this assault and abuse take place? Let’s start with the home, where women with disabilities, disempowered from the start, are left at the mercy of caregivers, family members, neighbours with easy access to the house. The level of dependency is such that they could be very well be subject to abuse from the one person that they depend on to make that call to the Police Station. Or by the one person who should be obligated to teach them the difference between a “good touch” and a “bad touch”. Some of these women are institutionalized from a very young age, in places with no monitoring mechanisms, and where gruesomeness comes to light often when it is too late.

I want to, however, make one thing clear here: women with disabilities have as much right to a happy and fulfilling sexual relationship as any other person, and calls for treating sexual contact with a person with disability as “statutory rape” are nonsensical. The problem here is awareness and access to justice, and denying legal capacity in this manner is not solving any problems whatsoever.

Closely tied to sexual violence is the violence committed upon women with disability and reproductive rights. Women with disabilities, particularly women in institutions, are routinely given hysterectomies on the grounds of hygiene – that they are unable to manage menstruation and hence they should be relieved of this monthly occurrence “for their own good”. Some Governments also upheld this view. Besides the blatant falsehood that backs such a view, it also leaves women with disabilities at higher risk for sexual assault, because sadly enough, the only way in which such instances ever actually come to light was when inmates of institutions become pregnant.

Institutions for women with disabilities are rife with instances of abuse beyond what has been described above – the process begins as an act of abuse, where women with psychosocial/intellectual disabilities are abandoned by family members, or run away on account of abuse. Obviously, because such information is inaccessible to them, they have no idea on what to do. On the streets, abusers further victimize these women, and it is not uncommon for women to be found by NGO workers with clear signs of having been abused. Since community based rehabilitation is not an option in most cities, women with disabilities are remanded to institutions, even against their will, from which they can never leave, because provisions of the Mental Health Act in India have resulted in the position that a person with psychosocial disability can only be released from a Mental Health Institution after someone comes forth willing to stand surety. The other option is that an inmate applies from within the institution for release upon recovery – however this is an option which is seldom exercised, mainly on account of a lack of access to justice for women in institutions. Institutionalization is perhaps better regulated under the Mental Health Act than say the Beggary Acts which allow for indefinite incarceration of “incurably helpless” beggars – mostly persons with disabilities.

Let’s not forget the abuse and violence that happens on account of legitimate medical treatment of women with disabilities – particularly women with psychosocial disabilities. This includes unmodified ECT, psychosurgery and even sterilization as a method of treatment – all administered against the will and without the consent of the patient, and perfectly legal under present Indian Law0.

For women with disabilities who are not institutionalized, there are more silent forms of abuse which happen, behind closed doors, for which Indian Law is ambiguous. This may include deprivation of medication or food and other basic necessities. The victim can take theoretically take recourse to the Domestic Violence Law, though the definition of “domestic violence” does not consider the needs and vulnerabilities of women with disabilities. Time and again, however, it has been the experience that caregivers of persons with disabilities have more sympathy in such accusations, and that derogatory treatment may not be taken seriously by a judiciary which may not be able to empathize fully with the disabled.

What is also dangerous however, is the violence which can be inflicted on women with disabilities that is entirely State sanctioned – by enforcing guardianship under the National Trusts Act and the Mental Health Act, the State is promoting “civil death”, a term propagated by the Mental Disability Advocacy Centre, and to which I am inclined to agree. Women with psychosocial disabilities, developmental and intellectual disabilities are at serious risk of losing their right to property and independent control of financial resources merely on account of their disability. Right now, for example, the Reserve Bank of India insists that a bank account being opened by persons who fall under the National Trusts Act – persons with cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disabilities and multiple disabilities – must be done so with a guardian. Without financial independence and control over assets, women with disabilities are at extreme risk of violence and neglect at the hands of family members and caregivers.

How do we solve these issues? As I stated in the beginning, the major concern is that of a lack of information to women and girls with disabilities. For girls who manage to get to schools, proper information on what violence is, what sexual assault is, and how to seek redressal and make complaints must be given in an age appropriate and accessible manner. As for girls and women who remain at home, a great deal of assistance can be got from compulsory registration of disabilities by local governments. Women and girls with disabilities can be reached out to, and given adequate information, and in the event that they can make a complaint to the officer administering the information, adequate protection can be given.

Legal reform is very important. We need to move to an empowerment model, as envisaged by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and bring our legislation up to International Standards. This includes removal of all impediments to exercise of legal capacity and promotion of assisted decision making instead of guardianship. The Special Rapporteur has held, time and again, that. Involuntary institutionalization is violative of the UNCRPD, yet it persists in our draft Mental Health Care Bill. Mental health care professionals, guided by the WHO frame of reference, have been gatekeepers of persons with psychosocial disabilities, and have set irreconcilable inequality between these and other health care patients; worse, continuing methods of ‘treatment’ which the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel Inhuman and Degrading Punishment has termed as “torture” (note: India hasn’t ratified the Torture Convention, but that’s a story for another blogpost).

Thirdly, accessibility is an absolute necessity to empowerment. I’m not just talking about accessible complaint making mechanisms and judicial processes. That is a given. I also mean accessible roads, transport systems, offices, schools, appliances and equipment made in line with universal design – all of this plays an important role in empowering women with disabilities, and helping them be self reliant and more importantly, lead a dignified life, because ultimately, it is these barriers that make a person disabled. To quote this brilliant write up, “…physical and social barriers that create disability are as fundamental as the structural disadvantages that have made (and continue to make) women second-class citizens.”

It seems like a lot of work ahead, but voices from around the world are claiming the same thing. Ratification of Conventions is easy – it’s making them into a reality that is the challenge and is something that we all have to make sure the Indian Government does. I am hopeful, and here I will quote my late colleague Rahul Cherian, (who apparently still manages to get the last word on everything I do).

“When people are demanding their basic rights, no power in the world is strong enough to stop them getting what they want.” 


Amba Salelkar works for the Inclusive Planet Centre for Disability Law and Policy started by lawyer Rahul Cherian, as a social network platform for people with disabilities. The group looks at upcoming legislation from the perspective of the disabled and presses for inclusive measures. A graduate of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, Salelkar is a lawyer with 6 years of experience in litigation. She has presented research papers both nationally and internationally, and has also been teaching and writing in her spare time. Her area of expertise includes Criminal Law, Family Law, Constitutional and Media Law.

Unspeakable Inequalities: Dangerous Freedoms: Some thoughts on Gender, Caste and Development in India

by K. Kalpana    

Gender violence cannot exist on the scale it does in India unless there is endorsement and social sanction for it or at least for the conditions that breed violence against women. To understand better the idea of social sanction, I suggest we see gender violence, not only as the horrific acts of sexual assault, rape and torture that seize public attention and evoke visible protests and outrage, but as a spectrum, a continuum of everyday practices that are part of the ‘normal’, the ‘routine’ and the ‘taken-for-granted’ as we experience it. Take, for instance, the pervasive tolerance for street sexual harassment or ‘eve teasing’, its rationalization or indulgence even as a form of masculine sport associated with the young (vaaliba vilayattu, in Tamil), an upsurge of ‘young hot blood’ or a legitimate exercise of manhood. Or take the condoning of ‘domestic’ violence or violence within households. There is a very popular Tamil song ‘adikkira kai thaan anaikkum’ that has a drunk man alternatively beat and embrace his wife who sobs and weeps her way through the song even as she supports her staggering husband! The notion that women are fully human autonomous actors is a radical idea that simply does not find purchase in many parts of India. But how do we account for the failure of this idea to take root and flourish in India more than sixty years into the life of the Indian republic? Perhaps some of the answers might be sought in the nature of development and of capitalist modernity in India and in the paradoxes and contradictions they have spawned for Indian women.

Social science research shows us that when state-sponsored development interventions/projects intersect with community and household patriarchies and ‘commonsense’ notions about the proper place of women in society, the outcomes are complex and unpredictable. They do not follow linear trajectories of modernity and progress. Take the case of the agrarian households in several parts of India that have gained a measure of economic prosperity due to developmental policies that include infrastructure growth (new roads and highways), the promotion of agricultural production, support prices for crops or access to new markets. These households signal their upward economic mobility through the withdrawal of women from the workforce and their seclusion within the household. The women partake in the relative affluence of their households, but experience a trade-off in terms of the loss of economic independence and autonomy and the socially valued and visible status of paid workers. Even where women have won the right to higher education and to participate in paid employment, what choices does this translate to for them? In a paper written in the late 1990s, the economist Nirmala Banerjee points to an emergent and growing class differentiation amongst women, given that a minority of women, belonging to the upper middle and upper classes have secured professional education and experienced an expansion of their life-worlds. She asks, provocatively, if the class-derived differences amongst women are more apparent than real, given the enormous social anxieties there are across classes to contain young women’s sexualities within the ‘safety’ of family-arranged marriages.

Banerjee’s poser is particularly resonant when we consider the ‘choices’ that were available to Divya, a young woman from the Vanniyar caste of Dharmapuri district who fell in love and eloped with a young Dalit, Ilavarasan. Divya, who had clearly enjoyed some degree of personal mobility and professional education as a nursing student, discovered to her cost and that of the man she chose, that her freedoms did not include the right to love, or to choose a partner across caste lines. What Divya’s case illustrates is that men act as intermediaries/brokers between the women of their households and caste groups and their constitutionally guaranteed rights. They decide what rights women may access and where the lines must be drawn. And the stakes have always been high. Lest we forget, the sexual control of women of the dominant castes and land-owning classes – the enforcement of their sexual ‘purity’ – has, historically, been indispensable to the transmission of property from father to son (to patrilineage) and, equally, the purity of the bloodline (and therefore of caste). Indeed, this control is central to reproducing caste and class dominance and is a vital ingredient, one of the building blocks as it were, of a deeply stratified social order. As the historian Uma Chakravarty shows through her scholarship on the making of patriarchy in Ancient India, if women could have moved easily between and across caste lines, the boundaries of caste (or lineage) could not have been maintained at all.

The continuing control of women’s mobility and sexual and reproductive lives and choices in post-independence India is thus hardly incidental. What is interesting is how this imperative to (re)-establish clan, caste and community control over women has come to be seen as urgent and pressing in the face of new developmental trajectories that offer the possibilities of challenge to the status quo, of resistance and defiance by subaltern groups and by women. For instance, researchers situate the growing intolerance of the dominant and intermediate backward castes to ‘love’ marriages and cross-caste elopements in Tamil Nadu with reference to the shifting patterns of labour and livelihoods, the increased migration of the young in search of employment, the diversification of jobs that make it possible for the Dalit poor to refuse degrading agricultural labour on farms and fields and the growing caste mobility of young Dalit men. The objection of the Khap Panchayats in the Northern states of India to the use of mobile phones by young women, amongst other things for instance, likewise hints at the enormous anxieties that are at play. These include the fear that the new technologies and the new public spaces outside the household that women have come to inhabit may foster dangerous liaisons and connections that imperil an existing social order. In the face of the severe and ongoing backlash against women who seek to exercise dangerous freedoms, we might ask, following Banerjee, if the emancipatory possibilities opened up by higher education and employment are more apparent than real for women, more specter than substance.

The state is not a neutral spectator to any of the developments discussed here. The signals it sends out to social actors and entities on the question of women’s right to an autonomous existence and to identities not defined by male kin or household-based relationships are incredibly important. For instance, women were not granted an independent status by economic development programmes for over three decades after independence. India’s famous Green Revolution targeted its package of seeds, fertilizers and bank credit to men, re-instating men in their ‘natural’ role as household head and disregarding the overwhelming evidence of women’s work in agriculture on family-owned or leased land. The distribution of land to the landless poor, as the economist Bina Agarwal has persistently argued, invariably meant titling men. Independent land titles for women in their own names (and not as joint patta holders) is seen as a dangerous demand as it gives women the means to quit unhappy marriages and abusive partners and sends out the message that women’s interests and identities cannot be subsumed within family and household interests. More recently, the state’s categorical refusal to legislate on marital rape following the recommendations of the Justice Verma committee report may be construed as sending a socially retrogressive, nevertheless unmissable signal to household, kin and community patriarchies that their suzerainty over the bodies of married women is quite right and may continue undisturbed.

States might act in ways that shore up patriarchy and state developmentalism may have the effect of exacerbating the inter-locking inequities of gender, caste and class, rather than dismantling these. But what of progressive social and political movements and parties wedded to inclusive notions of social justice and anti-caste politics? Even when they have condemned the attacks on cross-caste marriages and espoused support for the right of the young to fall in love, equally strident calls for women’s emancipation or the denunciation of patriarchal control over women’s life-choices and sexualities have not been forthcoming. And this is disappointing indeed. For the writing on the wall stares us in the face. To parcel out and ration women’s democratic rights and to permit some entitlements while proscribing others will simply not cut it any more.


Agarwal, Bina (1994) A field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, Cambridge University Press

Anandhi, S and Vijayabaskar, M ‘Where buying a motorcycle can spark a riot’, The Hindu, January 7, 2013

Banerjee, Nirmala (2002) ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Sea: Shrinking Options for Women in Contemporary India’ in Karin Kapadia (ed) The Violence of Development: The Political Economy of Gender, Palgrave Macmillan

Bardhan, Kalpana (1985), ‘Women’s Work, Welfare and Status: Forces of Tradition and Change in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 20(51/52), 21-28 December

Chakravarti, Uma (2003) Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, Stree.


Dr. Kalpana Karunakaran was with the Tamil Nadu Science Forum (TNSF) for a number of years, part of its rural microcredit and community health initiatives. Impelled by her interest in poverty and gender issues, she then went for a PhD at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, and is currently an Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT-Madras.

Unspeakable Inequalities: Between the Street and the Door

by Katheeja Talha

With the exception of the half an hour in the morning she leaves the house to collect fodder, Tamiben Wankh is confined within the walls of her homestead plot. She cooks, she cleans, she embroiders, washes, takes care of her children and her father in law within this admittedly generous piece of land. Ghunghat firmly in place, she opens the high gate of her house, heads down the street, then takes a parallel lane to avoid the paan shop where all the men sit and walks to the farm. When asked if she was satisfied with the new village, she says that ‘they’ didn’t rebuilt the village, only houses.

Ask her about the old village and her anecdotes are never ending. From the construction of her former home and her neighbours scandals to the functioning of the temple body, she has an informed opinion on everything. There her responsibilities extended beyond the household. She would meet her relatives in their community chowk, perform her daily pooja at the kuldevi mandir and end the day by singing bhajans in the temple chowk.

In highly stratified society in rural Gujarat, Tamiben could afford this limited participation because of the porosity of the boundaries between house and verandah, verandah and chowkchowk and  neighbourhood.

The normative values of the society might relegate the woman within her house. But when privacy is so layered, in reality most women learn to negotiate between them and find a space for their own. In reconstructed villages, especially relocated villages, these nuances of space, the gradual transformation from  inside to outside, private to public, between the house and the street are lost and along with it, the opportunity to push the boundaries of what is accepted. The village is then reduced to the house and the street separated by a wall.

While this absurd reduction might be seen simply as careless planning, the official statement of the agency reveals this as an attempt to discourage the formation of caste based neighbourhoods. This was supported by the lottery system of allotting houses – a random unbiased process that would slowly tackle the problem of caste. (Villagers later exchanged their houses to recreate those very neighbourhoods even before they moved in and eventually the Dalits chose to move back to the old village.)

The United Nations has recognized the opportunity that lies in reconstructing settlements to change historic patterns of inequity, to ‘build back better’. But without a careful, dedicated understanding of the forces at play, the structures that exist and the manner in which patriarchy and caste hierarchy reasserts itself, many efforts undertaken by agencies can become failures.

These failures are seen in reconstructed villages across the country where active, well intentioned policies and methods have increased the disparity rather than dispelling them. Bringing in piped water connections and sanitary latrines to every household is a considerate necessary proposal to reduce the problem of having to leave the house for essential activities. But they also deny women two reasons to go into the wilderness and enjoy unsupervised time with her peers and friends. In a few villages, the toilets remain unused even after a decade.

In one of the very few public roles assigned to them in Gujarat, women were responsible for performing the daily pujas in their local kuldevi mandirs. This task legitimized their presence in public space and was often the only means of engaging with the physical village and its public chowks. With new settlements relocated away from the often permanent locations of temples, this role too has become a man’s responsibility.

In coastal Tamil Nadu, the imposition of ‘no building zones’ have  increased the density of  most  settlements. This could only be achieved through the felling of thousands of trees whose shade and produce are of monumental importance to the socio-economic, mental and physical well being of women. The space surrounding a homestead plot was shaded and demarcated by trees. These were the communal spaces that replaced the chowks of agricultural settlements. Without the thresholds of trees, the village here is again reduced to the house and the street.

The problems do not only arise with the use of space, but begins with the construction of space.  Industrial building materials and technology that are oft employed by various governmental and non governmental agencies do not require the periodic and labour intensive maintenance of a mud plaster, thatch roof or a lipan flooring. But those are tasks that often showcase the skill and participation of the woman of the household. Especially in segregated societies where her physical presence may be barred, her work attest to her presence, individuality and in some cases, narrate her personal biography. By using materials and technology that require monetary capital over skill, the construction tasks shifted from a woman’s realm into a man’s domain.  In coastal settlements, where thatch weaving is often a crucial livelihood for elderly women, this shift has severe consequences.

Apart from these are the escalations of other violence – the increase in alcoholism and domestic violence that is consequent of traumatic displacement, the risks of rape and harassment in temporary community shelters, forced land acquisition from widows and their subsequent destitution.

The fluid definitions of patriarchy and tradition permit them to mutate into many forms and manifest themselves in any structure. Which is why the same institution that would shun women’s participation in public life might discontinue them from their studies to send them for work in a factory during a drought or opt for housing and settlement layouts, building materials and technology that reveal aspirations of  an urban, modern identity.

Without the support of an existing or sensitive new institution, the narratives of external agencies have often been appropriated by different forces to reinforce a patriarchal ideal of the community rather than the alternative that was aspired for.

The intent here is not to condemn the aspirations which govern the implementation of such initiatives . Nor is this an attempt to encourage a romantic notion of traditional space making patterns, which are fraught with problems and violence themselves. But by aiming for a specific, rigid and tangible outcome, creativity and real observation and, therefore, sensitivity and compassion are often curbed. The unused ruins that litters the landscapes of reconstructed villages are often relics of definite, radical and ultimately naïve ideas of instant reform.

In a climate of shifting roles and shifting rules, perhaps the answers lie in that grey space of thresholds, in the accommodating breadth of ambiguity.   Transformation needn’t begin with a new paradigm imposed from outside. Maybe it begins with not seeing women as passive victims or beneficiaries and giving ourselves the opportunity to learn from them. By identifying the existing patterns of resistance and participation  and working with the kinks and gaps of the the current paradigm.  Simple things of daily consequence. By strengthening the access to spaces and places where a woman’s presence is tolerated, if not welcomed. By creating institutions for long established activities that demand the resources of the settlement. By creating opportunities of encounters and dialogues, opportunities to linger and meander. By making visible the ‘trivial’ private world in the vast public realm.


Katheeja Talha travels, doodles, writes, laughs, cries, eats, (unfortunately for those around her) sings out loud, loiters and has recently started composting. When she’s not too busy gawking at beautiful walls and spunky women, she works as a researcher in a project, studying the long term impact of post disaster reconstruction in rural settlements.

Unspeakable Inequalities: Building Safer Cities for Women

by Kalpana Viswanath

Creating safety involves much more than just responding to violence. It is important to create the conditions by which women are able to move about safely and without fear of violence or assault. Fear often plays a key role in women’s experience and access to the city. Therefore in order to create greater levels of safety and comfort, both actual violence and the fear of violence need to be addressed. Women’s safety  in the city tends to come to the forefront when there is a particularly horrific and extreme case such as the gang rape in Delhi in December 2012 or the case of molestation in Guwahati or the Shakti mills case. The media highlighting of these in the past few years has  also played a role in this.

Research has shown that many factors play a role in determining women’s access to the city including urban design and planning, community involvement, improved policing, usage of space etc.  For example, use of spaces for a diversity of purposes is often more conducive to the production of safety. Planners and sociologists argue that this diversity ensures that different kinds of people use the space and that it is used through all times of the day. Jane Jacobs (1960) states that the problem of insecurity cannot be solved by getting people off the streets and instead we need to ensure “eyes on the street” as the solution to lack of safety. She advocates for diversity in the use of public spaces as a way to ensure that there are at all times different sets of users of a space thereby ensuring a level of safety and comfort.

The data from the National Crime Records Bureau show that cities with a population of more than one million tend to have a higher rate of crime in general. There was a total of 33,789 cases of crime against women were reported from 53 mega cities out of 2,28,650 cases reported in the country during 2011. Among them, Delhi accounted for 13.3% (4,489) of total such crimes followed by Bengaluru 5.6% (1,890) and Hyderabad 5.5% (1,860). The proportion of IPC crimes committed against women towards total IPC crimes has increased during last 5 years from 8.8 % in the year 2007 to 9.4% during the year 2011. Thus clearly official data shows an increase in the reporting of crimes against women. [1]

But we recognise that reported crime is probably only the tip of the iceberg and violence against women and girls is a much more pervasive phenomenon than demonstrated by crime statistics. Several research studies have been conducted over the past few years to understand women’s experience of violence in public spaces in cities. In Delhi Jagori has conducted several research studies and safety audits to better understand women’s  actual experience and response to urban situations.[2]

In Delhi a 2010 study with over 5000 men and women showed that over 95% of the women had experienced some form of harassment in the past year while a similar percentage of men reported having been witness to sexual harassment. Almost 2 out of 3 women, including girls reported facing incidents of sexual harassment between 2-5 times in the past year. School and college students in the 15-19 age-group and women workers in the unorganized sectors are particularly vulnerable. It was reported that harassment occurs during day and night and in all kinds of public spaces, both secluded and crowded.  Further, the most common forms of harassment reported  were verbal and visual and physical (staring, passing comments, catcalls and touching). Public transport, buses and roadsides were seen as most the vulnerable spaces, thus making the process of everyday life fraught with danger and the possibility of violence. Both witnesses and women respondents agreed that women face maximum harassment while using public transport, bus stops and on the road.  Parks have also been identified as unsafe by women. The experience of women in cities is diverse and determined by the intersection of gender with other identities.

It is important to recognise that cities are sites of production and consumption that are gendered in their very imagination. The gendered nature of cities and urbanisation is visible in the exclusions, lack of opportunities, infrastructure and services which impact women’s every day experience of living and moving around in a city.  In the face of growing urbanisation our cities need to be designed , planned and governed in ways that are inclusive and safe for all.  Through the process of conducting over a hundred safety audits over the past several years in Delhi, and then through partners in Kerala, Kolkata and Mumbai, some of the key elements to building cities that are inclusive, safer and accessible have been delineated including design of public space, social usage, nature of policing and importance of community engagement.

Therefore addressing violence against women cannot be seen only as the responsibility of the police or the women’s ministry only, but has to get onto the agenda of related stakeholders such as urban planning, transport, education, health among others. Responding to violence is  one part of the strategy; equally important is the need to create conditions of safety and inclusion.

In almost all the cities, it was found that public spaces are poorly planned and designed for the usage of the most vulnerable. Women and others in low income areas have  the least access to institutional support and often are faced with bias and even violence.  Recent studies have also shown the increased vulnerability of women in low income settlements to violence because of poor or nonexistent infrastructure and services. A study in two resettlement areas in Delhi demonstrated how the acute lack of essential services such as water and sanitation renders women more vulnerable to violence.[3] Beyond this, for women living in poor neighbourhoods, often productive and reproductive  activities are carried out in the same spaces and cramped homes lead to the blurring of the distinction between private and public spaces, making it therefore important to speak of safety and urban space in a more nuanced manner.

The discourse around safety must be located within a broader framework of rights. Lack of safety in fact prevents women from fully participating in the city. Thus addressing lack of safety or finding solutions also need to be posited within a framework of rights.  Women cannot be told to find their own solutions for their insecurity.  Solutions like carrying pepper sprays or learning self-defense are individualized solutions which are not based on the notion of safety as a right. For women, in fact the right to live, work, move around and participate in the city is premised on the right to safety. The overt and covert forms of violence inflicted on women in cities keep their mobility and freedom perennially curbed. The absence of women in the imagination of the city can only be challenged by their continuous presence in city life and pushing the boundaries that seek to control where and how they may be present.


Kalpana Viswanath is a researcher who has been working on issues of violence against women and safer cities for women for over 20 years. Kalpana has been involved with UN Habitat, UN Women and Plan International in planning safe city programs in Cambodia, Pakistan, Kerala, Mumbai and Kolkata. She is the Chair of the International Advisory Committee of Women in Cities International and has published widely.

[1] NCRB Delhi 2011.

[2] Jagori 2010, Understanding Women’s Safety:  Research Findings;  Jagori & UN Women, 2010a, Safe City Free of Violence: Findings from Baseline Study.

[3] Jagori & WICI, 2011. Gender and Essential Services in Low Income Communities. Delhi.

Unspeakable Inequalities: Revisiting urban design as if women mattered

by Kavitha Selvaraj

Spaces are both public and private and common spaces can be discussed in the context of both urban and rural environments. For the purpose of this article on ‘gender violence’ and ‘space’, the discussion is restricted to the urban public space.

Quite honestly, I have been very interested in the quality of design in the public realm for many years but have not looked at it specifically from the ‘gender’ perspective. It was always about accessibility, mobility, right of the pedestrian etc. But increasingly, with the kind of heinous crimes we hear in the papers against women in public spaces, I now feel this topic merits close attention. While an actual attack is the ultimate form of violence, the feeling of insecurity is no less a threat to our basic freedom.

It is time for those of us living in the Indian Metropolis to call for active design of public spaces keeping all the stakeholders in mind. Today, if you are male, young and able, chances are you will not even know what the fuss is all about. But for the 75% of the population including all women, children, differently abled and senior citizens, life in the Indian city in an obstacle course. These are unspeakable inequalities since no one discusses them and worse, everyone has come to accept it as part of everyday life. It does not enter mainstream debates on basic human rights.

Good design is not panacea that will address the ills of society that stem from various historical inequalities. However, urban living the world over is a leveler, where merit and talent can minimize differences created by background, caste, economic status and gender. If the comfort level of the average women to feel like the city is their home rather than a place to rush through while protecting themselves can be overcome, then it is one less struggle to go through.

Imagine a young woman, just out of college living in the city on her own, with a job. Every decision she makes throughout the day has to take into account how she will get to her destination, who she will travel with, how she will get home. She has to mentally prepare for battle before heading out. One has to wonder – what is the quality of life, if getting from one place to another involves so much mental energy? Not just women, for any citizen safe mobility is the most critical aspect that contributes to their experience of city life.

For those who have no choice but to battle it out every day in public spaces, the inequality is stark.  If one observes how street spaces are used at different time of the day, it will point to how they are dominated by men. They can just hang around anywhere, particularly around tea and food stalls. These establishments, with their sense of impermanence, makes it difficult for women to approach and use.

Even on a well constructed footpath a woman may choose to walk in the middle of the road if there is inadequate lighting. Being visible puts her in a position of seeing and being seen. The fact that one might be hit by a moving vehicle becomes secondary. That is the choice one has to make – in many cases the risk of being to be hit by a car seems better than being groped by a stranger.

From a planning perspective the most critical aspect to safety in the street is the design of the edge, which may be defined as the line where the public space meets the private domain. Tall, long compound walls signal that there will be no activity on the edge and therefore no eyes on the road. Commercial areas, small shops, lots of houses – people moving in an out of the road are all very positive from a safety and planning perspective. The local ironing cart or a coconut vendor, may be “illegally” occupying space, but offers a set of eyes to the public domain and their contribution to the space is not small. If a street is devoid of the familiar neighbourhood support it would feel that much more unsafe. Having said that, it goes without saying that the spaces should be reassigned with adequate area for walking and pockets for some activity as well.

Current trends in urban development in metropolitan areas which may be viewed as desirable signs of “moving towards faster development” are unfortunately not in the best interest of city design. A city block with a large mall in the centre with only parking in the periphery inherently creates a bad edge condition. Likewise a ‘gated community’ offers a ‘secure’ environment only within the premises. What happens when you step outside to connect with the rest of the city? The blank compound wall, albeit designed beautifully with the finest of finishes, with no store fronts, commercial activities, well planned informal activity spaces, is not a signal of safety to the footpath outside.

The best streets and public places have a lot of interest at street level, with a variety of activities at different times of day in addition to attention to basic aspects like walkability and light. These are even more important in places for recreation such as parks, waterfront areas and markets.

Lack of mobility within the city affects every citizen. Safety in public transportation should be guaranteed by the state. One of the solutions has been to segregate within transportation systems. So there are separate buses for women. Trains have “ladies only” coaches. The infrequency of these services may not make it a practical solution for the majority. Often, waiting for the bus or train is a big nuisance. Being stared at by men and having comments made by total strangers is very common. In fact our movie industry ratifies this type of behaviour by equating stalking a girl in public transportation with being in love. Even if we were to assume that a “ladies special” bus were available at frequent intervals it is still only one part of the journey.  At some point we interact with the rest of the city. So when you get off the bus and walk towards your destination what is the surrounding urban environment like? More often than not you will find a wall being used as a public urinal, garbage strewn around and unwalkable footpaths. This makes the last steps towards a destination quite torturous.

The sad news is the level of tolerance we have for accepting the status quo. The Indian women would turn away embarrassed, or assume this is as good as it can get, rather than demand equal status in the right to be comfortable on the road.

So, what does it take to feel comfortable on the road? The key features would be the design of the edges. If there are eyes on the road, some commercial activities, store fronts, verandahs and entrances to buildings, the street automatically feels safer. The next important aspect would be adequate lighting on foot paths. The width should be comfortable for two or three people walking so that they may cross without contact. The footpath should be smooth, without interruptions and able to support a woman with a child in a stroller and a toddler holding one hand.

If every street in every neighbourhood is looked at through the eyes of women we might have different parameters which are used to design. In Indian cities, our design for roads is only to move automobiles and provide access to private properties. But actually, the street is what carries the image of the city. The sensitivity shown towards its design tells us who and what we value as a society.


Architect Kavitha Selvaraj is the Director of CRN, and has worked extensively on building safe and accessible public spaces in Chennai. An alumnus of Anna University, Kavitha also has a Masters in Design from Harvard University, Cambridge and has studied Urban Design at the University of Texas, Austin.

Unspeakable Inequalities: A Blog Symposium

by Nithila Kanagasabai, 2013 Campaign Coordinator

This year, as part of our 16 Day Campaign initiatives, we at Prajnya have curated a ‘blog symposium’ on structural violence. (By ‘blog symposium,’ we mean a collection of perspectives on a given issue, published on our blog.*)

Gender violence and gender inequality result from a complex array of interwoven factors. This violence is often embedded in social customs that allow it to be perpetrated with impunity – in many cases, even without being considered as violence. The potency of embedded violence, ever so often, lies in its unspeakability. It is this cycle of silence that this symposium hopes to break by initiating a conversation on structural violence of various kinds.

The title of the blog symposium is borrowed from postfeminist scholar Rosalind Gill who employs the term ‘unspeakable inequalities’ to refer to inherent inequities in seemingly neutral situations. Using the term while discussing sexism in the media, Gill argues that the potency of the sexism lies in its unspeakability. Similarly, whitewashing deep-rooted differences and biases with a veneer of women’s development and success only silences the many kinds of gender violence that persist and the newer forms of violence that continue to emerge.

Gill also suggests that the best way to study these ever-changing forms of violence is to adopt intersectionality. Intersectionality recognises the multiple identities of a person and the inherent power equations of each of these identities. Gender is not an impermeable identity, unaffected by other subcultures of class, caste, region and religion. On the contrary, all these identities are constantly woven together to produce a complex fabric of selfhood.

We think it important to discuss this because in some ways, the prevalent violence we see (street sexual harassment, domestic violence, etc) are, in reality, manifestations rooted in structural violence. Also, one can never over-emphasise the fact that feminism is for all. Feminism that helps only some of us is no feminism at all.

We invited experts to reflect on four broad areas of structural violence: Space, Disability, Caste, Sexualities and Everyday Sexism. Everyone does so much more than one might reasonably expect of them, that we are entering the campaign period with a fraction of the invited contributions in hand across some of the areas—Space, Disability, Caste and Everyday Sexism. But we know the discussion only begins here and will continue well beyond the campaign period.

We hope that this collection of articles will serve as an online resource for people interested in exploring the various layers of gender-based violence. Therefore, we request you to engage – respond, question, think aloud, discuss and debate – with each of these pieces. Looking forward to a meaningful discussion over the next three weeks!

Reference: Gill, Rosalind. “Sexism Reloaded, or, It’s Time to get Angry Again!” Feminist Media Studies, 2011: 61-71.

*This is Prajnya’s second blog symposium, the first one being Violence on the Page.