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NCW Chief Rekha Sharma's Misogyny Behind the Pretence of Nationalism

This is my response to her comment in the wake of the gangrape of a Spanish woman in Dumka (Jharkhand).

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Does it defame India to say that gendered violence is a real problem in Indian society, needing attention and change? Rekha Sharma, Chairperson of India’s National Commission for Women (a statutory body that advises the Government on policy matters affecting women), says so.

In the wake of the gangrape of a Spanish woman in Dumka (Jharkhand), US-based writer and journalist David Josef Volodzko had, in a post on X, flagged widespread sexual violence against women travelling to India as a “real problem in Indian society,” adding that despite India being one of his “favourite places in the world,” he advised his female friends “not to travel to India alone.” 

Taking offence at this post, Sharma posted, “Did you ever report the incident to Police? If not than you are totally an irresponsible person. Writing only on social media and defaming whole country is not good choice.”

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Does it defame the United States when I, as an Indian, say that racism or gun violence is a “real problem in American society”? If not, why should it constitute defamation or racism for women from other countries to say that they are not safe travelling in India? 

Sharma expresses no shred of empathy for the woman from Spain, nor for the women Volodzko mentions. And indeed, in denying their reality, she is also denying ours; in accusing them of defaming India with their complaints, she is accusing us - Indian women – of the same.

Travelling in our country is a joyful adventure for many Indian women. Strangers have welcomed us into our homes, shared food and a bed for the night, and helped us find our way when we’re lost. But on every journey, we carry the heavy baggage of constant vigilance (to anticipate and avoid danger) that strains our joy. How can it be different for women from other countries? 

Volodzko says he hasn’t met a single woman visiting India who hasn’t experienced, “groping, assault or worse” - and I would say Indian women would agree. But bad as it is, groping and assault aren’t, I think, what makes matters different - and worse - in India.  

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Rekha Sharma Herself Casts a Patriarchal Gaze on Women

In India, most women require “permission” of some sort from authority figures to go out of the house (and hostel if they are students or workers) at all. Women are expected to show a valid purpose for being in public spaces whether alone, with other women, or with men.

And often no purpose is valid enough: the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) found that nearly 60 per cent of women, especially young women, do not get permission to go out of the house alone and unsupervised, even to go to the market or a health facility. In such a country, a woman traveller, by her unconstrained mobility, immediately stands out as a breaker of the social rules, and men and women alike watch her with fascination or censure or both.

She never has the luxury of privacy, and if she’s been brought up in India she knows it, has a lifetime’s experience of dealing with it, and even she struggles with this burden.

On the other hand picture a woman who has grown up in a more democratic culture where she takes privacy for granted. She comes to India, careful to dress conservatively and respect social norms. But despite it all, her very body language gives her away: it’s obvious she isn’t aware that she’s being watched and judged. 

The Indian woman chooses to be bindaas, fully aware she’s expected to be a daas (slave). Women used to more democratic cultures are bindaas because they don’t realise they’re expected to be daas. The bindaas woman becomes the object of a gaze of prurient voyeuristic fantasy and censure: and this is a gaze that is shared both by the custodians of morality and the “immoral” creep who gropes or assaults women. When women feel this gaze fall on their clothes or conduct, they feel alarm, humiliation, anger, and acute fear. It is this gaze, the constant shadow of the woman traveller in India, that is the peculiarly Indian danger. 

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The problem is, that Sharma herself casts this same gaze on women, as her tweets from before her stint as NCW (National Commission for Women) chief reveal. In one tweet she shared a photo of “chorus girls” (performers in the chorus line of musical theatre), morphed most likely by Hindu supremacists to show Jawaharlal Nehru in their company, with text calling him immoral. This image is one of a set of photos (some genuine and some morphed) showing Nehru at ease in the company of women.

This is my response to her comment in the wake of the gangrape of a Spanish woman in Dumka (Jharkhand).
This is my response to her comment in the wake of the gangrape of a Spanish woman in Dumka (Jharkhand).

They’re circulated to “prove” that Nehru was westernised, un-Indian, and immoral - because why else would he choose to be friendly with immoral women? The photo Sharma tweeted, in the original, shows the performers preparing for a show, laughing, enjoying mutual camaraderie, totally unselfconscious. They’re bindaas, shameless because they don’t feel any need for shame. Sharma’s voyeuristic gaze sexualises and censures them for their shamelessness. That’s what women travellers experience: that prurient gaze that sees an unselfconsciously adventurous woman as immoral. If she isn’t anyone’s daas, then she’s fair game for all.

This isn’t the first time Sharma’s misogyny and rape culture has hidden behind the pretence of nationalism.

In 2018, she rejected a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey describing India as the world’s most dangerous country for women, on the grounds that it “projected the country in bad light (sic) to the world.” The problem was exaggerated, she said, because in 30 per cent of the cases the NCW saw, women made false allegations of rape as revenge against being jilted or for leverage in a property dispute, or to claim the reparations offered by the government to rape survivors.      

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Sharma isn’t an aberration when she says it defames the nation to speak of violence against women or other social injustices and bigotries. This has become official policy for the current dispensation. For instance, police treat protests demanding justice for a Dalit woman gangraped and murdered in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh as an “international plot” to defame the state government.

The chief minister of the state in turn said that such protests were “conspiracies” to incite violence. Accordingly, a journalist covering the case was jailed on charges of being part of a seditious conspiracy to incite terrorism. The prime minister himself accuses protestors (farmers, women, religious minorities, civil liberties defenders) of being “professional protestors” conspiring to defame the country and spread a “foreign destructive ideology” to corrupt Indian society. 

We’re being told to value the brand image of the government and its ideology which claims to represent the nation over the lives and dignity of women. We ought to be feeling horror and rage at the fact that a woman from Spain who wanted the innocent adventure of exploring India on a bike, was instead left with the unimaginable trauma of being gangraped.

Instead, we’re being asked to feel outraged that someone said Indian society needs to do better! Such atrociously skewed political morality on the part of the leaders we choose is what “shows us in a bad light.” They do after all reflect the worst in us. We need to do better — as a society, and as a country.   

(Kavita Krishnan is a women's rights activist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Rekha Sharma 

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