Dear comrades, friends and well-wishers,
Information has recently come to us from West Bengal of a horrendous incident of domestic crime. Renu Khatun, who has a diploma in nursing and had been working earlier in private institutions, applied and got a place as nurse in the West Bengal Health Service. But even before she was appointed, her husband, also an IT trained person without any regular employment who thought she might leave him if she had a government job, hired a couple of goons and made a murderous attack on her chopping off her right hand in the process. However, the plucky girl managed to escape, was admitted to hospital by her family and lodged an FIR against her assailants. The media picked up the story and there was such an upsurge of public outrage that the administration was forced to act more speedily than usual, the culprits were arrested and cases filed against them and what is more, through the intervention of the Chief Minister, Renu got a job in the CMOH’s office in her district, East Burdwan soon after her recovery in spite of the physical damage inflicted on her.
Why, you may ask, if Renu’s story had a ‘happy ending’ as they call it, are we narrating it to you once more? For several reasons. Firstly, for Renu herself, it is not an ‘ending’ but the beginning of another episode in which she will still have to establish herself as a worker having security and dignity at her workplace. Secondly, what seems to be a ‘happy ending’ for an individual should not make us close our eyes to the thousands of other Renus, other working women in West Bengal and in other states, who are subjected at home to domination, torture and even murder without the media, the administration or the public batting an eyelid. Nor should it make us oblivious to those thousands of other women workers who face humiliation at the workplace as well as sexual and other forms of assault sometimes even leading to loss of life. Thirdly, we cannot overlook that the public concern over the case has a dark undercurrent. There is a murmur underground that such an atrocity against a woman can only take place within the Muslim community feeding the dangerous myth that the community itself is prone to bigotry and violence. This is not just evidence of how the politics of hatred has infected the public mind even in a state like West Bengal, but also serves to condone and cover up the spread and the growing intensity of violence against women across communities in the state. We must read Renu’s story from this multiple perspective.
Conservatism about women and the ideology of maintaining control over them to preserve social hierarchies has deep roots in any society based on inequality. When a fascist force like BJP-RSS gets hold of the mechanisms at the disposal of the state to intensify from top the culture of violence and divisiveness that it has been injecting into the social roots for a long time, such basic conservatism is bound to turn into aggressive violence against women too. The obsession for control which leads our fascist rulers to seek forcibly to dominate the legislature, the police and armed forces and even the judiciary to stamp out all opposition (as in the Zakia Jaffri-Teesta Setalvad case) gives legitimacy to smaller tyrants within a community or within the family wielding the stick to prevent women and others of an ‘inferior’ status from the path of ‘disobedience’. We have to strike unafraid at the traditional roots of conservatism within society itself to stop its being nurtured under state patronage into the poison tree of violence.
But this violence has other dimensions too. The ruling dispensation, at the behest of its corporate cronies is pursuing a policy whereby the devaluation of labour has reached its nadir and the worker appears to be the most easily expendable item in the economy of development. Labour ensures no livelihood, no rights, no dignity for men or for women. Women, in particular, who have been mostly part of the informal workforce anyway, are working outside home under unimaginable slavish conditions of drudgery and danger to keep body and soul together. Their labour remains therefore largely invisible in the national map of work participation rate. They face violence not because they go out to work, but because they work under such general conditions.
If men and women had been able to complete education and have positive job prospects in the normal course of things, conservatism about women working would have remained muted through social control. But failing that a woman with a job becomes an intolerable exception; she provokes open misogyny in two ways. Within the family and the social circle she rouses male envy and fear of loss of control; at the workplace her life is haunted by male predators because the work given her is considered as a favour for which she must pay. Right to work for men and women must be guaranteed if this culture of violence has to be stemmed.
For us in AIDWA, there can be no compromise in this struggle and our relentless campaign for the ‘Renu’s of India, for working women from all sections and communities has to be waged at the same time at the economic, political and social levels.
President, All India Democratic Women’s Association