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Over Their Dead Bodies

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THE NEW INFORMATION ORDER [image, unknown] Indian press coverage of women's issues

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Over their dead bodies
Women's issues are often big news in India. Front pages bristle with horror stories describing police rapes and housewife murders. Feminists should approve - or should they? Amrita Chachi argues that such press coverage can itself be nothing more than a continuation of women's oppression.

TWO EVENTS stand out in the history of the women's movement in India: in June 1979 two hundred women marched through the streets of Delhi in protest against the husband and in-laws of Tarvinder Kaur - newly married and burnt to death because she brought an inadequate dowry. In March 1980 on International Women's Day, 1500 women demonstrated against the decision by the Supreme Court to acquit the policemen accused of raping a 16-year-old tribal girl, Mathura, in spite of overwhelming evidence against them.

From two lines in the local news columns, dowry deaths became front page stories, and anti-dowry demonstrations, seminars and discussions on dowries began to be fully reported. The press responded in a similar way to the rape issue and it was primarily due to the newspapers that the Mathura case became a national focus for the anti-rape campaign.

But if you glance through the headlines in India over the last two years, you get an uneasy feeling - something difficult to pin down:

'Bring scooter or you die, wife told...' 'Bride burnt to death. . .' 'Housewife found burnt to death'.. . 'Women's organisation demands reopening of Mathura case' . . . 'Rapists should be whipped'.. .'Raj Narain goes on fast for honour of women'.. . 'Maya Tyagi stripped and paraded naked in the street'. . .

It was publicity the women's movement wanted, and publicity it got. Yet the question arises - is sensationalism the only way in which such issues can be raised? And is there a connection between the dowries and rapes and a family structure which oppresses women? Why were such connections so absent from the stories of gory dowry deaths or mass rape, and from the speeches made by the big names in government?

The press campaign was against the burning of brides whose families could not pay the full dowry promised to her husband's family. It was not against dowries themselves. Yet the demands of young mens' families for ever-increasing dowries must be linked to the growing consumerism in India. Nowadays, banks give loans for a daughter's wedding; bicycles and refrigerators are promoted as useful parts of the dowry - and all this is advertised openly despite dowries being legally abolished in 1961. Not once does the press go further to analyse the reason for this spate of dowry deaths. It is no coincidence that almost all such deaths occur in families where the newly married couple have to move into the husband's family home, or that most of these families are Punjabis, recently moved into towns and needing capital from their dowries to start their own business. A nouveau riche culture fuelled by advertising and traditional patriarchal ideas about the
dispensibility of women is responsible for the ease with which young brides are killed and husbands marry again.

Looking askance at treatment of women's issues. Photo: Claude Sauvageot
Looking askance at treatment of women's issues.
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

Only in one article have I seen an attempt made to link dowries with oppressive family structure. But that too ended up quoting figures: 17 women commit suicide every month, most due to inadequate dowries. There is nothing wrong with statistics, but if you do not look behind them they are just an embellishment for sensationalism. Imagine the response: 350 women burnt to death in 1975 ... 200 women burnt to death or commit suicide in Delhi alone in 1978... 1064 brides burnt in 1979... All this combines with memories of suttee and exotic Indian culture to make bride-burning a highly saleable news commodity. The result? The issue becomes turned on its head and the press exploits traditional treatment of women, providing titillating scandal to sell more papers.

This is even more clear in the press debate over changes in rape laws. In response to legislation which shifted the onus onto the rapist to prove his innocence, newspapers were filled with articles and letters complaining that women would cry rape at the slightest provocation and that anyway women wanted to be raped and seduce men against their will.

Although the anti-rape campaign began with police rape and the law, no attention was paid to the ways in which mass rape has become a weapon of intimidation in the countryside. There, landlords, henchmen and armed police are engaged in a bitter struggle against agricultural workers and tribal peoples demanding the minimum wage supposedly guaranteed by the state.

Occasionally social judgments are made: dowry is a social evil, rape is the shame of the Indian nation, the honour of our women must come first. As long as the issues are treated in this general, isolated fashion, newspapers feature them prominently. But as soon as the links are made with the structure of the family and society, the press shifts its emphasis to hostility or ridicule.

For Western feminists this sounds just like the old adage that the press is male chauvinist. But it is not as simple as that. The treatment by Indian newspapers illustrates something more. The issues raised by the Indian womens movement - dowry, purdah, rape by the police, mass rape of peasant women, prostitution, female infanticide and suttee are so horrific that even the most misogynist conservatives could never justify them. Their only reaction can be to ignore the implications or swallow only that which is digestible, dismissing the rest as Western feminist claptrap, irrelevant to Indian conditions. And so as soon as feminist campaigns intensity, a subtle process begins to distort the image of feminism with hints of blue stockings and dried-up spinsters, of frustrated bra-burners undermining the hallowed institutions of the family. The force of change is deflected by ridicule and indifference. The voice of the womens movement is drowned in the noise of laughter. The final weapon is the use of language itself in the press article - a stray reference to the sexual history of a woman or her mental health are enough to make the substance of the report suspect.

Sensationalism can result in a numbing as well as a heightening of social consciousness. People come to think that violence against women is part of everyday life. This process is not a conscious conspiracy of the press but the inevitable logic of seeing social issues as sensational 'scoops'. If the positive powers of the media are to be developed, the womens movement must take care that when using the media they do not end up being used themselves.

Amrita Chaci is researching the conditions of women in the Indian textile industry.

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New Internationalist issue 100 magazine cover This article is from the June 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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