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Opinion: Why women shouldn’t sign up for #MainBhiChowkidar

  • Modi’s 2014 promise to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill lies forgotten
  • Indian women have nothing to gain from the heave-ho of this political tamasha

The ‘Bad Girl’ poster takes a satirical look at the norms women are expected to follow.  
The ‘Bad Girl’ poster takes a satirical look at the norms women are expected to follow.   (Poster by Furqan Jawed, Stuti Kothari, Jaiwant Pradhan, Sparsh Saxena and Roshan Shakeel)

The thing that surprised me most about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s all-guns blazing #MainBhiChowkidar campaign was not that our cabinet ministers obediently added the chowkidar prefix to their Twitter handles or that your WhatsApp Uncle bought the T-shirt and made the #MainBhiChowkidar song his caller tune. What surprised me was that women embraced the idea of policing and signed up to be part of this exercise.

Sure, you see female guards in schools, hospitals, hostels and in factories that largely employ women. Karnataka-based Safe Hands 24x7 Services Pvt. Ltd even says it focuses on hiring women for this profession. The state of Bihar said it would hire transgender security staff in its shelter homes after widely reported sexual assaults on female inmates.

But the private security industry is largely a male preserve. Indian men guarding what belongs to other Indian men—their houses, their cars, their families. Forget equal land and inheritance rights, in many countries around the world, women are still viewed as property, and men, their chowkidars.

Chowkidars, according to the PM’s updated definition, are all citizens who fight corruption, dirt and social evil. Surely all Indian women know to be wary of this tag?

The first thing men want to do when they get carte blanche to fight and guard against “har burai" (every evil)—as the PM exhorted 2.5 million chowkidars last week—is to overpower that most dreaded of social evils: the buri aurat (the bad woman). In other words, the self-aware woman who is political, unpredictable, disobedient and not easy to control.

Enough feminist poets from the subcontinent have sung paeans to this woman. In O Achchi Ladkiyon (O’, Good Girls) by Pratibha Katiyar, the poet urges women to break the patriarchal straitjacket of the good girl and live a little:

Wear one day

The crown of other people’s discontent

And burst forth the illusions of your niceness

O’ you good girls

The more famous Yeh Hum Gunahgar Aurtain Hain, written by Pakistani poet Kishwar Naheed, starts strong:

It is we sinful women

Who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

Who don’t sell our lives

Who don’t bow our heads

Who don’t fold our hands together.

Indian women are all too familiar with attempts to police their bodies and behaviour. We have strict codes about what we should wear (cover up, don’t stand straight), how we should sit (thighs tightly pressed together), whom we should love (within the same sub-caste please), when we should marry (early), what we should study to be (nurse and teacher are preferred nurturing careers) and what our role is vis-à-vis our male counterparts (always subservient).

One 2014 study, published in the open access science journal PLOS ONE, that attempted to find out why we are the only nation where girls have a greater risk of under-5 mortality than boys, reached this stark conclusion: “Indian girls are breastfed for shorter periods than boys and consume less milk." The researchers said future research should investigate “the role of additional factors driving India’s female survival disadvantage". Those of us who don’t have to write academic papers already know the answer.

There are rules about how loudly we should talk/laugh, how much eye contact we should make and how wide our smile can be. Any volume/centimetre deviation from these rules and it’s open season for society to attack us.

Most of us are not allowed the freedom to be angry or the luxury of saying no. The latter always has consequences. Women are routinely doused with acid after they “reject" a stranger’s declaration of “love". A married woman’s no to her partner for sex isn’t recognized as rape by our courts. The bogey of love jihad, or inter-religious love, hit maximum frenzy in the last five years. And if you zoom in to Dalit data points, the horror of being an Indian woman instantly skyrockets.

As for security, protection, chowkidari, beti bachaogiri (the bullying behaviour of people who think it’s their mission to save girls)? There’s a statistic about rapes that never loses its relevance. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data has repeatedly shown that the majority of rapes are committed by close family members (fathers, brothers and uncles) and acquaintances. When the chowkidar is the criminal, a campaign like #MainBhiChowkidar is meaningless to Indian women.

It is precisely because we support such macho, irrelevant campaigns that our male politicians don’t feel the need to cater to our specific demands. One big demand these past few months has been the need to see more women in politics, but if early lists of candidates for the general election are any indication, India’s biggest political parties have shown they have absolutely no inclination to field more women. There were only 36 women in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s first 10 lists of 352 candidates.

Modi’s 2014 promise to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill—which would provide 33% reservation to women in Parliament and state legislatures—lies forgotten. Instead, the PM has carried on a five-year-long campaign which began in the summer of 2014 with the line, “Make me the nation’s chowkidar", and which has reached the frenzied hashtag climax of #MainBhiChowkidar. Indian women have nothing to gain from the heave-ho of this political tamasha. Let’s step away.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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