Tracing Inception of Sanctioned Violent Attitudes Towards Women Despite Initiatives for Women Empowerment

Sania Ismailee

In response to flourishing violence against women – South Asia being home to the highest prevalent cases of ‘gender-based violence’ – Tamsin Bradley’s Women and Violence in India promises to trace the reasons behind normalization of violent attitudes towards women despite positive achievements in women empowerment including improved living conditions, access to education, healthcare, job security, etc. 

The cover page of the book expresses this paradox. While on one hand, it displays the picture of the Gulabi Gang (the Pink Gang), an activist organization in India, which epitomizes women empowerment and the spirit to fight against gender oppression; on the other hand, the title suggests the content of the book to be oppression of women. Disturbed by women’s pitiable conditions wrapped in an environment which provides a fillip for prosperity, Bradley’s analysis provides a conceptual framework to analyze similar cases across the globe. Acknowledging this reality, the project looks at individual cases such as rape, dowry, and female genital mutilation, aiming to eradicate violence in the lives of women.

Interestingly, it doesn’t blame the emergence and success of the right-wing in exacerbating the status quo. Instead, it notes the state’s failure to translate acceptance of gender-based violence into effective policy measures and a radical transformation of mind-set as responsible for increased abuse of women and girls. Rejecting patriarchy as a simplistic explanation of this phenomena, the book delineates neoliberalism and consumerist culture as one of the reasons behind the sanctioned attitudes and behavior towards women. Borrowing from Noam Chomsky’s critique of neoliberalism’s operation as a ‘political and cultural system’ (p. 11), one of the major arguments of the book is also how neoliberalism ensures that patriarchy prospers. Bradley asserts patriarchy to be viewed as ‘a defining characteristic of neoliberalism alongside consumer capitalism’ (p. 12).

The book is structured into four parts, consisting of two chapters each. The central argument that runs throughout is that neoliberalism’s promise of economic growth along with promotion of positive values for human rights and social justice are hollow. This strong claim is backed up by the evidence that substantial participation of women in the mainstream workforce has not helped them to overcome the most fundamental oppression faced by them – violence. Moreover, neoliberalism is a political ideology which enables hierarchy and furthers the goals of the elite in power at the cost of social justice and morality. Women’s economic independence is, at most times, resisted through violent backlash by their male counterparts due to the threat posed to traditional gender roles. Bradley dedicates a considerable portion of her book to the politics of ‘voice’ that shapes these discourses. She addresses the peculiarities of various discourses shaping perspectives on women’s lives and whose voice dominates such discourses. One of the strongest arguments put forth is the marginalization of voices that don’t fall into the mainstream. Apart from this, the discussion covering the pusillanimous views of political elites on violence against women – remarks such as ‘boys make mistakes’ or ‘rape is accidental not intentional’ – is comprehensively covered. Attempts of international organizations to suggest universal approaches towards elimination of gender oppression are criticized; instead, more localized strategies are vouched for due to their presentation of a closer picture of reality.

Bradley boldly criticizes the shallow narratives on rape rampant in media, both national and international coverage. While at the national level such reporting lacks insight on explanations behind such catastrophes, the international (specifically western) media views India through colonial lenses thereby brushing it aside as an uncivilized nation. Although international media’s explanation of rape – blaming the ‘subaltern male’ (p. 115) who is a poor low-caste man hailing from a backward town and targeting educated women of big cities – is flawed. Such accounts, where a false representation of the perpetrator is laid out, are no more than an oversimplification of the complex scenario. A weakness in the discussion on rape is its ignorance of the crucial issue of marital rape in India (just mentioned in passing in the conclusion). It focuses only on the aftermath of Nirbhaya case (brutal rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapist in New Delhi which led to her death and drew condemnation from all the sections of society resulting in massive protest against the State’s inability to protect women and police’s inefficiency in tackling sensitive cases).

The role of religious right wing in India (Hindutva organizations) in promoting appropriate behavior of women and disciplining them in case of digression is worrisome. Such ideologies not only thwart women’s independence but jeopardize all available opportunities due to promotion of parochial mind-sets in the family. Neoliberalism aggravates the scenario by facilitating funds from overseas that contribute to the prosperity of such conservative organizations in a bid to immortalize traditions. The major contribution of Bradley’s research to the literature available on gender-based violence is twofold. One, it explores the invisibility of harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation among Bohra Muslims in India. Neoliberal economics has made such practices more accessible with immediate availability of new technology and rising income levels. Interestingly, female genital mutilation has never attracted attention of public activists who fight against gender-based violence in India. This itself testifies how construction of victimhood rests on power hierarchies.

Two, undertaking a detailed exposition and analysis of gender-based violence by focusing on a specific context. Expressing a holistic understanding of ‘violence’, Bradley doesn’t limit her focus on physical abuse and acknowledges psychological and emotional violence as other pertinent forms of abuse. As a result, dowry is discussed as one of the forms of ‘intimate partner violence’. The prominence of dowry in a prosperous state like Kerala comes as a shock given its high literacy rates. Indeed, Bradley confirms that such commodification of women’s bodies results from neoliberal attitude of consumerism whereby a large amount of dowry is symbolic of ‘modern’ lavish lifestyle and family status, apart from the promise of protection against abuse. However, recognizing psychological violence as captured by cases of dowry, Bradley could have devoted a chapter or few pages analyzing the trauma faced by Muslim women at the aftermath of triple talaq (the practice of divorcing one’s wife by verbally uttering talaq thrice and abandoning her; such cases have gathered limelight due to arbitrary divorce through Whatsapp or skype – another case where neoliberalism facilitates technologies such that most people own a smartphone or other android devices) since it is a very hotly debated issue in India, currently.

To conclude, this work is commendable with its analysis of neoliberalism’s impact on violence against women and girls. It is a must read for anyone who is interested in finding a solution to end gender-based violence. Bradley does an excellent job in backing her arguments through statistics to provide an accurate picture of violence against women so that it serves as grounds for its eradication.