Dear Ms. Treasurywala,
At the offset, this isn’t retaliation to your open letter (http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/actor-shenaz-treasurywalas-open-letter-to-pm-amitabh-bachchan-srk/1/406410.html). It’s a mere response. Yes, the letter releasing right before your movie feels like a badly timed PR gimmick done with a blatant, ham-handed disregard for timing, and any respect or delicacy that a situation requires. However, that’s a debate on ethics and morality, and one that takes a backseat over the other pressing concerns your rather enthusiastic letter inadvertently highlighted. Yes, you raised pertinent issues, but how you raised them, and the solutions you proposed, expose a deep, deep schism in the understanding of empowerment, equality, autonomy, justice, parity, and feminism as a concept. This is a mere attempt to clarify these issues.
We’re a generation born with a rather firm, but dicey hold on a proverbial trigger. Outrage is a right we have created for ourselves, and cemented with access to social media and the outreach it provides. Everyone has an opinion and everyone has the ability, and the capability to air it. This leads to a lot of half-baked information being circulated and biases cropping up, yes, but it also lends itself to solidarity. That’s where your letter connected with the audience that read it. You spoke of gruesome incidents of sexual assault, yes, but you also spoke of the apparently harmless leching, catcalling, and staring that leave an insidious impact on a woman’s psyche. It was relatable, and your outrage justifiable. Also, your repeated insistence on the fact that it’s not ‘our shame’, was on point. The victim of sexual assault is, truly, never at fault. It’s the perpetrator. However, when you add ‘it’s their shame’, you don’t just blame the perpetrators. You blame men, as a whole.
That being said, the crux of the letter you wrote shifted from the problems of sexual harassment and abuse to how you perceived it, and how you presume these issues could be solved. Worryingly, your perceptions that were allowed to take root and garnered immense support are skewed and very dangerous. Yes, that seems like a hyperbolic choice of words, but when my Facebook and Twitter homepages are flooded with your letter, shared by people my age, accompanied with vociferous agreement in the comments, it points to a deep rooted lack of understanding. Let’s begin with the people you addressed the letter to. The Prime Minister, and a sportsman, an industrialist, and a few top earning actors of this country. Your letter was aimed at the men you believe run India. You ask them to use their power to take charge in ways that would help in, and I quote, ‘SAVING US or PROTECTING US by insisting and protesting for the LAWS TO CHANGE and Rapists and Gropers to BE PUNISHED SEVERELY!’
The idea, and the belief in it you display, are inherently disturbing. According to you, a woman has no agency over her own safety. To use Hindi colloquialisms, a woman is an ‘abala nari’ and a ‘kachhi kali’, who needs to be protected at every turn. She has to maintain a stance of constant vigilance, and hope to have the men in her life act as her guardians and saviors in times of dire need. You go ahead and ask men to ‘SAVE US, Save your mother, daughter, sister please!’ By this understanding, the worth of a woman is tied to her relationship to a man. She has no autonomy over her own existence. The only time a man would, and should stand up in arms against the mistreatment of a woman is when he has a direct stake in her safety and wellbeing. The concept of an egalitarian respect for human dignity seems to escape you, for reasons unknown to me.
I am going to go ahead and bring up the big, bad F word here. Feminism. I can already feel the readers of this letter cringing, for they expect a rant about how women can do everything on their own, without a man’s help. However, there’s a rather lucid definition that would fit in this context. Feminism is simply the radical notion that your sex, gender, skin colour, choices within the legal ambit, social strata, country of origin, and any such subsidiary classification does not exempt you from having access to basic human rights, dignity, and respect. This does not exclude men. It, in fact, actively involves them in the breakdown on patriarchy. This does so, however, in an egalitarian manner. What you propose is, for the lack of a less clichéd wording, the idea of a damsel in distress. You have been indoctrinated (just like all of us) with the idea that a man is, by virtue of being a man, a savior. You forget that men too, are victims of patriarchy. You also forget that women, alongside being victims of patriarchy, are also propagators of the cycle. A prime example being you.
The idea that a man is a perpetrator, and hence also the only one who can be a savior, is a very regressive one. You’re very comfortably handing over the entire burden, of what is a societal structure that has stratified into a toxic standard, to a section of society that does not have the power to destroy it alone. Yes, having ‘powerful’ men on board with the idea of change would be a great help. But would this support have an impact if it were begged for, like the precedent you set? Or would it lead to concrete developments if it were born of an understanding of the concerns?
This, of course, will take time. Prevention of a crime is born out of a systematic deconstruction of long held standards and norms that will happen over years of debate and research. As headways are made into that lane, the idea of justice and recompense are equally important, as you yourself agree. Your rather radical ideas are alarming, to say the least. ‘All I ask for is the -Death Penalty Please. NOW! QUICK! If that’s too hard or will take too long then at least LIFE IMPRISONMENT. Put them away forever.’ In your understanding, making an example out of criminals by punishing them arbitrarily is the best way of preventing future crimes. However, you forget that if that truly worked, the Uber rape case wouldn’t have occurred with Nirbhaya case accused Ram Singh’s suicide in custody. That should have been, as your logic dictates, deterrence enough. In your case, your quantum of punishment is the same as the pinnacle of punishment.
Capital punishment is extremely difficult to defend for a variety of reasons. As Noam Chomsky says, “The death penalty can be tolerated only by extreme statist reactionaries who demand a state that is so powerful that it has the right to kill.” Justice may have a canon it refers to, but it is dispensed by mere mortals given to making errors in judgement. ‘Justice’, although perceived as a gospel truth, depends on a variety of factors included, but not limited to the quality of representation the accused is provided, existing cultural biases, and the amount of pressure on the judiciary, which is unique to each case. These factors lead to arbitrary judgements. An example would be that of Ivan Henry. A victim of legal errors, a careless police investigation relying too heavily on eyewitness evidence, and incompetent legal counsel, he was incarcerated for 27 years for sexual offences he did not commit, before being acquitted. Now, implement your idea of capital punishment here. It would have led to the death of an innocent man, and the state would have been a murderer.
You ask for people to take responsibility. ‘YES, BAN UBER TOO. Make everyone responsible.’, you say. Ignoring the fact that banning a taxi service (for what was definitely a lapse in their administrative functioning) won’t actually change status quo, you seem to forget that the protection that the legal system provides has three components. Firstly, laws. Secondly, implementation of the said laws. And finally, if the first two steps fail, justice, that works on the principles of retribution and recompose, and deterrence. You seem to bypass the most crucial step, namely implementation, altogether. Of what use are harsh, draconian laws, and equally regressive punishments if the gap between them cannot be bridged by tackling the problems of corruption, laxity, and administrative laziness?
These problems, of course, are far too pressing and ingrained for a mere letter to solve them. However, the point is to make sure that you use your considerable influence to create a holistic understanding of the issues. Women don’t need saving. Men don’t have to be saviors. This isn’t a battle of the sexes. Justice isn’t solely retributive. Retribution isn’t the only way to create examples. Yes, a problem exists. But, using that problem as a PR strategy, and harping upon outdated, regressive, and rehashed rhetoric just ends up leading nowhere. Although well intentioned, your letter ended up being a fine example of precisely what you tried to talk about- a complacent attitude that passes the buck on.
I don’t know if you’ll ever read this letter. I also admit to not being an expert in any of the fields I have spoken about. However, I do hope this clarifies a few things, for a few people.
The Indie Guy
P.S.: Try controlling your arbitrary capitalization. It was wholly distracting.