This article is from Open Magazine.
By Lhendup G Bhutia
A few days after a Facebook post by a female Delhi college student, Jasleen Kaur, accusing a young man, Saravjeet Singh, of making obscene remarks at a busy traffic intersection, an English news TV debate was held on this incident. The post had attracted considerable attention online, and its content--that of a man hurling sexual obscenities and threats at a woman, even having the gall to pose for a picture she clicked of him, while people looked on--was seen as yet another case of sexual harassment.
The TV panelists had been picked along expected lines. The woman whose post it was, Kaur, teared up as she recalled her ordeal. Two female guests, an activist and a comic, obliged their host by sharing similar anecdotes and experiences. And the heads of several activists and commentators in screen boxes bobbed with righteous indignation. Since the accused, Singh, wasn't present, their ire was directed at two men who spoke of restraint. They were shut up by the anchor and other participants whenever they tried to speak.
Deepika Bhardwaj, Filmmaker (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
But on the top left panel of the TV screen was a curious participant. Deepika Bhardwaj, a documentary filmmaker-- and a woman, one might add--defended, to the point of a spat with the anchor, the right of the accused to narrate his version of events. She also pointed out that there was a difference between an argument, which Singh claimed it was, and a charge of molestation, which Kaur was making it out to be. At one point, the anchor was so flabbergasted at Bhardwaj's perspective that he remarked in disbelief, "What kind of a woman are you?"
By the time the TV debate played out, Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had congratulated Kaur for her bravery on Twitter. The Delhi Police, which promptly found and arrested Singh, announced a cash reward of Rs 50,000 for Kaur. As it turns out, however, there are now several doubts about her allegations. An eyewitness account has emerged that discredits her version of events.
When Bhardwaj returned to her cellphone after the TV debate, she found several messages filled with obscenities, both from men and women, on her Twitter account. A series of tweets addressed to her by one particular woman caught her eye: 'Where r d rapist pimps? I can't see anyone now? Maybe busy giving blowjobs to the rapists'. 'This shameless woman hater Deepika needs to be kicked hard. She's all with molesters'.
"There is a lot of sexism everywhere and women face a really raw deal. But what I want to show is that you can't correct that wrong by perpetuating another wrong. You can't have laws that are misused against men."
Bhardwaj is one of several female members of India's fledgling men's rights movement. What began as a support group for husbands who had been falsely accused of making dowry demands, the group has now grown in size, various NGOs and forums across the country serving under the umbrella group of Save Indian Family. Its stated aim is now to fight misandry in society and push for gender neutrality in law. The members of the groups support and advise one another in their legal troubles, from false dowry charges to false rape cases, raise awareness of men's rights and their medical problems, and lobby for the formation of a Central men's welfare body like the National Commission For Women.
As the group has grown, so has--oddly, it would seem--the number of its female members. Why would women support the scrapping and modifications of laws that have been instituted for their protection? That too in what is regarded as a deeply patriarchal society with a fervid bias against women? According to Priti Saamant, an active member of Vastaav Foundation, a men's rights group under Save India Family, this is because of the presence of laws that are increasing being misused to target men. "When there is a problem and you don't even recognise it, let alone address it, people, men or women, who suffer or witness it will join you," she says.
According to Amit Deshpande, president of Vaastav Foundation, there are between 100 and 150 active female members across the country. Most female men's rights activists are those who have been drawn to the cause because their relatives have been accused of ill-treating women. Saamant's son was arrested for allegedly demanding dowry, which she denies. She claims that her daughter-in- law is demanding Rs 50 lakh as an out- of-court settlement to drop the charge. Bhardwaj had a relative who had suffered a similar charge.
Like their male counterparts, the female activists participate in the group's activities. They go for protest marches, counsel and support male victims, and approach politicians and the media to put out their opinions. Some like Saamant are part of WhatsApp groups like Mashaal (Mothers And Sisters of Husbands Against Abuse of Law), also the name of the women's wing of Vastaav Foundation that helps share information and arrange help for individual victims.
Uma Kiranam, Founder, All India Men's Welfare Association
Uma Kiranam, an author and illustrator based in Hyderabad who is the former president and founder of two groups-- the All India Men's Welfare Association, a men's rights group, and the All India Forgotten Women's Association, which represents the interests of mothers and sisters of men--also focuses on media representations of men. She has started campaigns against TV advertisements like those by Gillette (where women urge men to shave stubbles and call those who keep beards 'lazy') and Kitply (where the bride slaps her groom on their wedding night because the bed creaks). "Why should a man with a beard be termed 'lazy'? And in the Kitply ad, if the genders of the characters were flipped and the woman was to receive a slap, it would be termed abusive and offensive, with the bed even indicative of being a dowry gift. We need to be sensitive towards men and their needs as well," she says.
Many like Barkha Trehan, a member of the Delhi chapter of Save India Family, meet parliamentarians and politicians to lobby for their demands. A few years ago, Kiranam joined several other men's right campaigners from other parts of the world to travel to Washington DC and lobby with the US Congress against the implementation of The International Violence Against Women Act. This proposed legislation, introduced earlier this year, seeks to make addressing violence against women part of US foreign policy, along with practices for preventing violence, protecting victims and prosecuting offenders. Activists like Kiranam criticise it for discriminating against male victims and imposing Western values on other societies.
Late last year, when the Rohtak sisters' case gained attention, where Aarti and Pooja Kumar of Rohtak in Haryana were seen hitting three young men who had allegedly harassed them on a bus, Bhardwaj travelled to Rohtak to do a video story on the subject. She claims she learnt from locals, even as the rest of the case began to unfold in the press, that the sisters used to routinely attack men and get the incident filmed so they could extort money from them. Their case is currently under investigation.
Bhardwaj did two video pieces, collecting testimonials from various victims and individuals in Rohtak, and put them up online. She is currently working on a documentary titled Martyrs of Marriage around Section 498 of the IPC. "Look," she says, "I totally get it that women suffer a lot in the country. There is a lot of sexism everywhere and women face a really raw deal. But what I want to show is that you can't correct that wrong by perpetuating another wrong. You can't have laws that are misused against men."
Many female members of the group turn the argument made by feminists on its head. They point out that the reason for the failure of withdrawal of several rape and domestic abuse cases is not indicative of antipathy towards women, but because these cases are either false or being used to extort money from men. They point to the higher number of suicides among men and the larger scale of violence committed against males to contend that it is not women but men who deserve more attention in the country.
Most philanthropic money, they add, goes to NGOs that work for women, but very little for men. They organise health camps for men, and highlight how the focus on breast cancer has overshadowed similarly needed efforts for prostate cancer. According to Trehan, these issues need to be addressed for the benefit of all. "Right now, the entire discourse is about women and the issues they suffer from. But unless you also bring men into the fold, see to their needs as well, how will you address the issues of women?"
"Sexual arousal is easily discernible in men, whereas it is not obvious in women. As a result, men constantly face allegations of being obsessed with sex."
Some female men's rights activists argue that the social understanding of sexuality is flawed as well. There is very little understanding of male sexuality, they say, and its constant derision and criminalisation only leads to further problems. 'Sexual arousal is easily discernible in men, whereas it is not obvious in women. As a result, men constantly face allegations of being obsessed with sex. It is also believed that men always indulge in sex voluntarily, whereas women are thought to take part in sex either to fulfil the sexual or emotional needs of men or because they are forced to do so by men against their will,' writes Kiranam in an email. 'Today, male sexuality is ridiculed, insulted, misunderstood, undermined, disregarded, criminalised and everything but respected.'
The men's movement is for the welfare of both, but perhaps a clash with feminism on its finer points is inevitable. Kiranam believes there is a conspiracy of feminists, who, having taken over public discourse in Western spaces, are now doing so in countries like India. "The family is an essential and important institution in countries like India. You cannot have an ideology that tries to degrade it and make it subservient to the so- called emancipation of women," she says. According to her, feminism has taken over various institutions, from the media and academia to NGOs. "NGOs for women are richly funded. But these NGOs represent just a minuscule section of women, mostly wives. What about mothers and sisters?" Kiranam was jailed along with her brother for what she claims was a false dowry case filed against him. Her brother eventually won the case, but the experience turned her fiercely critical of feminist thought.
An internet blog run by the men's rights campaign, The Male Factor, highlights the suspicion in which many female activists for men's rights are held: 'Their acceptability in the movement [is] low because most of the men in the movement were cheated badly by a young woman...'
I ask Bhardwaj if she had to face any resistance within the group. Or if she had to put up with the odd incident of sexism or discrimination based on gender while working with it. She, implying a hidden bias against men in my query, replies, "Would you ask me this question if I was a man in a women's rights group? Would you ask me if I, as a man, faced any discrimination from the women in my group?"