At a time when issues of women’s safety and security are sought to be trivialised by the victim-blaming tendency prevalent in a section of society, one would expect a strong and unequivocal stand from those in power. But, unfortunately, Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare Maneka Gandhi’s statement advocating an early night curfew for girls’ hostels to protect them from “hormonal outbursts” reinforces the patriarchal mindset. Her prescription that a “Lakshman rekha” is needed for teenage girls because they are “hormonally very challenged at that age” is outrageous. It is ironic that such a regressive suggestion should be coming from a minister who is responsible for women’s welfare. It is preposterous to equate a natural biological process of maturing into adulthood to being “hormonally challenged” and then to suggest that such a condition would lead the women astray. This patronising mindset is, in fact, the root cause of gender discrimination. Instead of treating women as objects who need to be kept away from the prying eyes of predators, the Minister should have spoken about measures to strengthen security for girls. The real challenge before her Ministry is ensuring safety for women at all places, be it homes, hostels, workplaces or public places. The focus should be on better policing to prevent cases of harassment and inculcating values of gender sensitivity among boys.
In a society where gender bias is deeply ingrained in the culture due to patriarchal upbringing, the offenders will have no fear of consequences or of law. There have been several instances of Khap Panchayats and even political leaders resorting to victim-bashing and blaming provocative western dressing of women for rapes. While women are routinely advised to dress modestly in public so as not to attract attention, no serious attempts are made to look into why some men feel that they have the licence to harass women. India has one of the lowest conviction rates for crimes against women because many cases fall apart due to lack of evidence and the police bias against victims. There should be zero tolerance towards such cases. Instead of reinforcing the perception that women should be locked away to keep them from harm, the government’s focus should be on strengthening the laws dealing with crimes against women. Maneka’s comment amounts to undermining the cause of women’s empowerment because it reinforces an age-old stereotype of viewing gender segregation as the panacea for women’s problems. Compulsory inclusion of gender equality in school curriculum will go a long way in correcting the deep-rooted biases that have unfortunately become part of our cultural narrative. Unless gender equality becomes the acceptable norm at all levels, no amount of symbolic campaigns for women empowerment would be effective.