Sexual assault – banana leaves and thorns

With the media being cacophonous over the recent gang rape of a young photojournalist in Mumbai it is hard to not just beg for numbness just to escape their empty indignation. Every time such an incident occurs there are debates on fast-track courts, police conduct and consequences in the form of castration or even the death penalty. There are candle light vigils, a few silent protests and then we all go back to our lives making sure the women we know text us the taxi number they get into late night or stay on the phone till our friend reaches back home from the airport.

While it easier to fix the externalities and pretend to solve issues, it seems to be much harder to get people to acknowledge the deep seating misogyny and inequity that lies embedded in our psyche. Of course when one is talking to the press or the media at large or for the sake of an ideological debate the question of “why was that woman in that place after dark anyway?” or “when we know such things happen, the women should just try and keep themselves safe?” would be blasphemous. But walk into a home with daughters and you will hear “Do not go to that place by yourself, its better to be safe than sorry” or “you wear a skirt like that you are asking for trouble” or worse “If someone is staring at you or says something lewd, look away and walk fast to a crowded place. Do not engage in a fight. You do not need to prove anything to a stranger. We all know you are a strong woman.” When I hit puberty, my grandmother told me a pretty graphic story of how if a banana leaf fell over a thorn or a thorn fell over a banana leaf, it is the banana leaf which would tear. Her basic point was to tell me to stay away from boys because whatever happens I am the banana leaf and I would be damaged goods either way.

Yes, I know parents are only trying to protect their daughters and wish for a life without the pain and fear of being molested or assaulted. But what is the message that we are sending out to our children at large. The answers lie below.

The Quality Education Study was commissioned by Wipro Foundation and Education Initiatives first in 2006 and then again in 2011. It was conducted in urban schools considered to be good quality education institutions. In terms of values on equity, diversity and sensitivity, it was observed that there is a deep rooted bias against the girl child even in students from families which probably belong to the educated and higher socio economic strata of the society. This was exhibited by nearly 43% of children in elementary school expressing that if there was a choice to be made, then it is better to educate the boy over the girl because educating the girl in the long run could only be a waste of resources. Also, 15% of girls in 8th standard felt that ‘girls are burdensome to their parents’. Though 15% may seem like a small number, what we need to remember is that this survey was conducted in the better quality urban schools identified for better and sensitive learning environments. This can only lend a perspective on how deeply this bias is ingrained in our social structure itself.

And this, is in urban metropolises like Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and not a small gaon in the northern part of India as stereotypically assumed when discussing steep gaps in gender equity. If we go a step before schooling, right at conception and birth of a child we all know the trend of euphemistically “missing girls of India”.

So where are we heading. We are soon going to have a population of 250 million young adults (as per UN population division prediction for 2025) who will be unemployable. One can only understate the kind of social unrest and issues it would be bring.  There is a statistic which says in 90% of the cases of sexual assault the perpetrator is known to the victim. I believe in the coming years that will change simply because I believe that sexual assault is an assertion of power and dominance. I am not glossing over child sexual abuse or women assaulted in their homes or even assaults that happen to women at work places. But I definitely do see an impending social crisis of “educated” (with enrollment being high and dropouts declining over a period of time, there will be more people who complete the so called schooling experience and believe themselves to be educated and entitled to a job) men who grow up believing and seeing women being treated as second-class citizens, not being employed and feeling the need to compensate their sense of masculine power. This I believe will result in assaults on any woman who is seen to be “overstepping her boundaries” – known or unknown.

The only resolution I see to this is a complete overhaul of the way we project the very idea of man and woman. This needs to begin in schools, in media, in popular cinema and lastly our homes. The reason I put homes at last is because I strongly feel that the ingrained notion of inequity between male and female which has existed for years will not change on its own accord within homes unless represented and explained from the outside.

We need:

  1. A structured program to teach about gender equity in schools which means our teachers need to be trained on this as well. No longer just about health and nutrition and micro financing for girls but about being equal in homes, society and the rights over one’s body. No longer just for girls but for boys also. Not just a passing reference in a Social Studies lesson but structured modules with contextually relevant content and a participatory methodology to implement. We cannot have a male teacher scoffing at the content and chuckling while talking about the idea of women being equal nor can we afford to have a female teacher sighing saying all these are meant for books.
  2. Conscious development of content portraying women as equals which does not mean a woman has to be portrayed like a man to prove the point.
  3. Moving away from gender stereotypes in popular cinema will go a long way in shaping future ideas. This would include removal of lines like “asli mard hai to maar ke dikha” (if you are a real man hit me) or even ideas like “ladkiyan aise hi hoti hain, na ka matlab haan”  ( girls are always like this, when they say no they mean yes) or random acts of the male protagonist slapping the female protagonist to get her to see his point (more on this later)

These changes will not yield results tomorrow or in the next year (for that we need to fix our judicial system, police and enforce consequences) but it is about time we consciously start building the future minds and thought processes not gender neutrally but with appreciation and acceptance of diversity and equality.

P.S: I am not saying all the men in India do not value women or all families are plagued with the differential treatment of boys and girls. I am positive that there are homes where things aren’t this way, there are men who value women and respect them. But I am sorry to say that the scale of the issue sadly does not accommodate for these aberrations.




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4 thoughts on “Sexual assault – banana leaves and thorns

  1. muchnessofd says:

    Completely agree.
    While on the subject of movies we also need to stop showing women falling in love with their stalkers!


  2. radha kannan says:

    very good.. along with educating women.. the fear of punishment, is very essential.. it will be a good deterrent.. below 16, above 16… just 16.. no.. nothing should matter..the rapist..should be dealt with equal or more horrendous punishment.. do it few cases.. fast track court.. punish them..and it will be a good eye opener.. .


    • I wasn’t talking about only educating women. In fact I was talking about educating both boys and girls. I do not believe fear of punishment can be sustained for a long period of time. We do not want a society that does not attack its women for the fear of consequences but rather a society which appreciates and respects both women and men.


  3. […] But we should also acknowledge that the root cause of the issue lies in societal structures, as she rightly points out. And so I’d like to ask the people who write these maudlin posts whether […]


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