Being a woman in India is a complicated business. In her latest book, The Silence and the Storm: Narratives of Violence Against Women in India, columnist and author Kalpana Sharma posits: “Violence against women is a theme that persists and is virtually unchanging. The societal structures that perpetuate and even justify this violence have remained the same over the decades.
Laws have been reformed. But mindsets have not.” Drawn from 30 years of reporting on gender issues, this perspective makes an important distinction between things that can be legislated and others that cannot. It belies the efforts of culturists who say that respect for women is an Indian tradition and those of state functionaries who’d have us believe that opening up the economy has led to women’s empowerment.
While the safety of women is a concern, a comprehensive narrative must go beyond rape, domestic violence, child sexual abuse. Taking an anecdotal approach, the author refers to several well-known cases of such brutalities. At the same time, she also gives space to other untold stories that reveal how poor and marginalised women, burdened by the conventional division of labour within homes, endure equally pernicious forms of cruelty on a daily basis because developmental policies ignore their needs such as running water, housing, basic sanitation, affordable and accessible healthcare. The consequences of these deprivations are as long lasting as those of sexual assault. They are exacerbated when factors such as caste, environmental degradation, living in conflict zones and loss of livelihood come into play.
Taking a panoptic view, the book covers the time span between 1985 and 2018, presenting a continuum of violence. Why these three decades? Because they saw important shifts in feminist movements across the country. Women began to campaign for a variety of issues: rights as workers, health and reproductive rights, access to natural resources, negative portrayal and stereotyping in cinema, dowry deaths, use of medical technology to abort female foetuses.
In the new millennium there are new conversations—about women’s bodies and sexual rights, about ‘consent’ and sexual harassment in the workplace—disseminated on social media. Though necessary, they have, in a sense, obscured the fact that pressing economic and developmental issues, still unresolved, have compounded over time. The reason they thrive is that their roots lie in the bedrock of society itself—in patriarchy. Women lack autonomy. Indian males are “accultured to believe that they have a right to demand and get what they want from women—‘their’ women and ‘other’ women”. Oppression being central to patriarchy, violence within homes takes deadly forms, making India a self-predatory society.
The Silence and The Storm by Kalpana Sharma
Price: Rs 599
Strengthened by studies, statistics and stories, the book makes a powerful point: gender violence is not about women but about how society and state have failed them. It is about social justice. Despite increased awareness, reforms and amendments in laws, “the delivery system is unresponsive, kicking in only when pressure mounts”.
The media’s role endorses the hierarchy of violence: only those cases with sufficient drama for middle class audiences are highlighted, everything else is embalmed in silence. Business as usual for some, a nightmare without end for others. Despite the uphill battle, the author suggests that there can be different endings. For that, however, a healthy conversation between genders has to occur. This book provides the perfect opening.