Five man today appear in court, charged with the rape and murder of a still unnamed medical student on a bus in Delhi at the end of last year. I know I am not alone in continuing to feel haunted by the deep sadism, and even deeper sadnesses, of the Delhi case.. It feels like an act from another moral or temporal world which in many ways it is.
At the same time, there is an uneasy sense of fear and familiarity, particularly as the mother of two independently minded teenage girls, used to monitoring their safety out and about in the streets of one of the world’s largest capitals.
Is mine the luxury of pointless, pampered worry? Not if we trust UK government estimates that an astonishing 80,000 women are raped and 400,000 sexually assaulted in this country every year. And as any parent anywhere knows – particularly at that heart stopping moment in the early hours when a mobile phone signal is temporarily unavailable – the consequences for girls of serious sexual assault is inevitably life changing.
But there is a fine line between what we might call maternal care and patriarchal control, as the Delhi atrocity has only highlighted. There, the political elite initially responded with alarms about ‘dented’ and ‘painted’ women and the risks of an ‘adventurous spirit’ or even, the possession of mobile phones by young women; that is, until a groundswell of anger has forced culture and country to re-examine the true burden of guilt in this and countless other similar cases.
Here, while we pride ourselves on our greater freedom, particularly for women, we talk less of our fears, restrictions or compromises. But our attitudes are often surprisingly similar to that we reject from distant patriarchs or mealy mouthed conformists.
Certainly, our ambiguous response to the dangers that exist for young women has led to a kind of informal policing – in more than one sense. The wealthy can grant their children the much prized freedom of movement through unlimited access to secure taxi services. Meanwhile, the slightly less affluent, offer themselves – frazzled middle aged people, with winter coats pulled over their crumpled pyjamas – as late night drivers of last resort.
But for those who lack material or psychological resources, or who actually believe that girls should not have the same freedom of boys, there is a vast amount of forbidding or covert guilt tripping going on. I have lost count of the stories of parents – particularly mothers – who give their teenage girls earlier curfews than their younger brothers or who simply beg their daughters not to go out or not too late, to stop the responsible adult ‘worrying themselves sick.’
And it is not just parents who take this view. Last summer, around the time of one of the Slut Walks in central London, I had a furious argument with with a very old friend, who is both child-free and feminist. While I celebrated the courageous refusal of younger women to alter their clothing when out in public, my friend, her face stiff with disapproval, countered that it was crass stupidity for today’s adolescent girls to believe that they could walk the streets in buttock-grazing shorts, unaware of what they might provoke.
Once the shouting had subsided, we came to an edgy understanding of the tricky terrain we were spatting over. Younger women are right to claim their freedom of movement but am I, as a parent, being irresponsible if I don’t point out the potential dangers? Should the frequent ( and often amused, it has to be said) mutterings of adults about revealed cleavage and cut-off shorts and all the rest of it be fashioned into some kind of parental guidance, if not command?
Well, of course, in real households, that happens ( ‘ Put on a coat’, ‘ Never walk home alone’, are two of the sane, if tame, favourites.) But it is surprising, and depressing, how often such ‘guidance’ feels as if one is simply teaching girls to conform.
Re-reading ‘The Female Eunuch’ recently, surely now best taken as a bit of social history, I was struck by the echoes between some of the comments I have heard from the mothers of teenagers and Greer’s typically stern analysis of the varying means of old fashioned gender control. Greer rages powerfully against parents who instil fear of the dangerous, dark stranger in their teenage girls, with often stark psychological consequences. In today’s parlance, parents are more likely to talk about ‘ all those bloody psychopaths out on the streets.’ Same difference huh?
I’d like to think we could do all this better in the early 21st century. While it is impossible to ensure our daughters’ absolute freedom and safety perhaps we think more about the trade off, the balancing point, than parents of old? Talking about our own experience is always helpful, including making the simple point that our daughters may be in the greatest danger from men that they know. Or that they think they know.
Equally important is public debate, and rebellion, of the kind we are now seeing in India. It is why I will be joining the protest against sexual violence to be held outside the Indian High Commission in London today, , and will urge my teenagers to come along too. Here is one way to honour the life and death of that unnamed 23 year old woman, but also to ensure that her unimaginable suffering might, in some small way, effect change.
At the same time, such collective action links us to the long and honourable heritage of feminism when it comes to combatting violence against women. It reminds us, too, that there is always greater safety in numbers, now more than ever with the increasing globalisation of dissent. Our collective daughters will , of course, come up with new ideas; they will find fresh ways to fight old battles. Anger, protest – and mobile phones – will be essential to that task.
Protest Against Sexual Violence in India – 7th January 2013, 4-6pm outside the Indian High Commission, London, WC2B 4NA