It’s heartening to hear a prime minister prioritize the difficulties facing ordinary Indian women

Modi has spoken about everyday problems that too many leaders overlook.
Modi has spoken about everyday problems that too many leaders overlook.
Image: AP Photo /Manish Swarup
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When someone who claims to have stopped visiting Gujarat because Narendra Modi was chief minister says on Facebook she has been moved by his Independence Day speech, you know this is something significant.

Prime Minister Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat when communal riots there left over 1,000 people dead, nearly 700 of whom were Muslim. Modi was blamed for remaining a silent spectator during the violence that broke out after the burning of a train coach carrying Hindu pilgrims, killing 58 of them. Many, like the above-mentioned lady, believed that the killings were a state-sponsored pogrom in which Modi was complicit.

So what moved this lady, and many others, as evident from social media feeds this morning?

It was the focus on women. A focus shorn of the patronising and patriarchal attitude that marks public discourse on women in India. A focus that ensured that he said things that are not spoken about in polite society, let alone the ramparts of the Red Fort from where the Independence Day speech is traditionally delivered.

Speaking about the rising incidents of rapes in the country, Modi said something no public figure—and certainly no male public figure—has said publicly: control your sons, not just your daughters.

“Even when they are only 12, young girls are always being asked so many questions by their parents, like ‘where are you off to?’ But do these parents ask their sons where they are going? … as a society every parent has a responsibility to teach their sons the difference between right and wrong.”

Indian women have got almost inured to the country’s politicians and sundry public personalities (including, sadly, women) asking women to dress properly, behave decorously, not venture out during dark in order to avoid becoming victims of sexual violence. In effect, they were shifting the blame for sexual violence to women.

Nor have these politicians been critical of leaders of caste/community bodies placing restrictions on women ostensibly to protect them. Leaders from Modi’s own party and its ideological parent—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—too have been guilty of such statements. Sexist comments on unrelated issues are par for the course.

And here was a prime minister from a party with a conservative and patriarchal outlook telling parents to mind their sons. In an Independence Day speech.

It is not that other prime ministers have not talked about issues relating to women’s safety. But it was almost invariably accompanied by the announcement of some meaningless endowment/empowerment scheme or increasing policing. No one has ever tackled the issue of mindset.

No other prime minister has also spoken about sanitation in terms of restoring women’s dignity. They have couched the issue of open defecation in rather sterile terms, reeling out statistics about lack of toilets (50% of all Indian households and 65% of rural households have no toilets) or linking it to preventive health. No one has spoken about rural women being forced to control their urges till after dark. No one has spoken so openly and asked others to ponder over “how much pain will this be causing to their bodies; how many diseases will this be leading to”.

The only occasion this writer remembers of a public figure talking about the bodily functions of women in a general forum was actress Shabana Azmi talking about reproductive health at a meeting of an apex chamber of commerce. She made the assembled tycoons very uncomfortable when she described how village women cannot dry the cloth they used during menstruation in the sun and how this becomes a source of infection. The camera didn’t pan on Modi’s audience, so one doesn’t know whether they were equally discomfited by what is never spoken about openly, but he certainly touched a chord with women today. Even women who were self-proclaimed Modi haters.

Does this mean the problem of patriarchal mindsets and open defecation will go way soon? Does this mean that the women who blamed him for all that happened in Gujarat will now become his cheerleaders? No.

Modi himself betrayed a bit of that patriarchal mindset when he spoke about ensuring the “dignity of our mothers and sisters”, in the context of building toilets. One cannot also overlook the fact that he did not say anything when politicians from his own party have in recent weeks grandly pronounced on how women should dress and behave.

So yes, the refreshing change in talking about women will be welcomed with some reservations. But Modi dealing with these issues in his Independence Day speech has removed a shroud that ensured that they remain hidden, spoken about only in whispers. For India and for Indian women that is a huge, huge step.

[The full, hour-long speech in Hindi is here.]