'The worst country to be a woman'

AMRIT DHILLON
Last updated 11:29 29/01/2013
10 YEARS, 22 OPERATIONS LATEr: Sonali with her father, Chand, who never leaves her side.

10 YEARS, 22 OPERATIONS LATER: Sonali with her father, Chand, who never leaves her side.

sonali
BEFORE THE ATTACK: Sonali Mukherjee was an award-winning National Cadet Corps Student.

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Ever since the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old female physiotherapy student on a bus in Delhi last month, India has been writhing in introspection over the question: why do so many Indian men treat women as objects to be humiliated, groped, killed in the womb, married off in childhood, sold into slavery, lynched, trafficked, raped, or set alight?

Many are also asking why so many women are horrifically disfigured or even killed by having acid thrown on them.

When the news of the rape reached Sonali Mukherjee inside her small, bare room at a Sikh temple in the Delhi suburb of Sarojini Nagar, she just looked pensive.

The rape shocked the nation but for Ms Mukherjee it has also revived memories of the night in April 2003 when she was sleeping on the rooftop terrace of her house with the rest of her family to escape the suffocating heat of their small home in Dhanbad in Jharkhand state.

As she slept a group of local youths tiptoed onto the terrace about midnight and poured acid over her. Most of her face dissolved in a foaming froth, leaving her blind and hideously disfigured.

It was their revenge for Ms Mukherjee - who was just 17 at the time - telling them off for making smutty comments to her at a bus stop a few days earlier.

Despite 22 operations, the sight of her face triggers an instinctive reflex to avert one's eyes. What the acid did not damage, however, was her voice. It's strong and clear. When this pure voice emerges from her deformed face, the incongruity is startling.

''That girl was lucky to die,'' she says, her father beside her. ''Her pain lasted a few days but at least it ended. I've died a hundred deaths. Last July, I begged the government to let me commit euthanasia [which is illegal in India] because I could no longer live half a life with half a face.''

After 10 years of only leaving her house to go to hospital, last November Ms Mukherjee made the brave decision to appear on the Indian version of the quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

This followed an invitation by the show's producers, who had been moved by the outpouring of support that followed the media coverage of her euthanasia appeal.

Wearing sunglasses and with her face wrapped in a red scarf she answered questions confidently and won 2.5 million rupees (about NZD $54,000). The audience gave her a standing ovation.

''My parents said I should appear with my face uncovered but I can't do that yet. I can't face it,'' she says.

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Her father, Chand Mukherjee, never leaves her side. He fishes out old photographs of his daughter from a plastic carrier bag. They show her receiving an award as a National Cadet Corps student - a pretty girl with long black hair, smiling and carefree.

It's Mr Mukherjee who has been her rock. For 10 long years he has travelled endlessly around the country to meet politicians to beg for funds (no one has given him a rupee) and measuring out his daughter's life in operations.

''If I broke down, what would my daughter have done? My biggest strength is Sonali. Seeing her strength gives me strength. I'm her father, I have to be strong for her,'' Mr Mukherjee says.

After Ms Mukherjee won the quiz money, she and her father arrived in the capital and gratefully accepted the offer of a rent-free room at the temple.

If they had to spend money on rent they would not have enough to pay for the nine operations she still has to have at a Delhi hospital.

Sonali Mukherjee's mother remains in Dhanbad, a ''nervous wreck'' unable to come to terms with her daughter's deformities.

In the decade between the acid attack on Ms Mukherjee and the infamous gang rape last month, sexual crimes against women have soared in India to a point where a woman or under-age girl is raped every 20 minutes.

Known as India's ''rape capital'', Delhi has the worst statistics among all Indian cities with 635 sexual assaults in 2012, a quarter of the total reported rape cases in the country.

Every day newspapers carry stories of horrendous assaults: a young girl raped by her uncle and neighbour; a woman beheaded by her husband for suspected infidelity; a 16-year-old gang-raped; a 14-year-old gang-raped and murdered; a dalit (untouchable) girl swallowing pesticide out of shame after being raped; a woman raped at the police station after going there to register being raped; a woman admitted to hospital with 80 per cent burns because of the acid thrown on her by a man whose advances she spurned.

There are too many to mention but here are some. In 2006, Reenu Sharma, a vivacious, lively 20-year-old was blinded and the lower part of her face destroyed when a stalker - a former tenant of her father's in East Delhi - threw acid on her.

Speaking is still difficult for her because doctors had to graft skin from elsewhere on her body to restore her lips. ''Seven years have passed but I am still burning in hell,'' she says.

Two months ago, Jaikumar Vinodhini, who had just graduated from an engineering school in Chennai and had begun her first job, was attacked with acid by a spurned suitor while she walked to a bus stop one night. Her eyes melted in their sockets and she suffered 40 per cent burns to her body.

She was the only breadwinner in her family. Her parents had sold everything they had to pay for her education.

On January 13, a 30-year-old woman in the Kashmiri city of Srinagar was walking to a school where she was a teacher when a jilted lover threw acid on her face. She lost sight in one eye and has been flown to a private Delhi hospital where doctors say she will require several operations to reconstruct her face. Despite this, acid can be bought in grocery shops all over India for just 30 rupees a litre. It has not occurred to the government to ban it.

Many social observers in India believe a great sickness lies at the heart of Indian society, a sickness that explains why in a survey of G20 countries last June, India was ranked as the worst country in the world in which to be a woman.

Women in India have always been subservient to men. Hindu mythology and some scriptures show disrespect for women. They teach a woman to obey her father and regard her husband as a god. A woman eats only when her husband has eaten. She walks behind him in public.

This is the old India - only semi-educated, largely rural, deeply patriarchal, and steeped in reactionary tradition. It still forms the bulk of the country.

But alongside this conservative India is another India where a new social order is emerging following economic liberalisation 20 years ago. Millions of men and women have migrated from villages and small towns to the big cities to study or work. Men meet working women who are independent and have their own opinions. They do as they wish; they go out at night, travelling on public transport.

These women reject a man's overtures if they do not find him attractive. They exercise autonomy; they behave like equals. But the traditional Indian man, used to a sense of entitlement for simply being male and who still holds ''traditional'' ideas about women, does not accept these changes.

Two cultures are clashing and two world views colliding. The result is increasing violence against women, with rape and acid attacks being the most horrific. Both are intended to subjugate women and teach them their place.

''These women do not fit into the traditional mental categories of women that men carry in their heads,'' says Delhi-based psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. ''In their dress and deportment, these women do not conform to the blueprint men have carried of women in their minds as mothers, wives or daughters since childhood.''

Ranjana Kumari, of the Centre for Social Research, says India's profoundly conservative society has yet to adapt to the social changes that have ushered in modern ideas about sexual equality, particularly in urban centres.

''Everyone has been focusing on GDP growth rates and how to make the country more prosperous, but no one has updated the educational curriculum or prepared men for this new society where women come out to work and mix with men at work and in public places,'' she says.

Sonali Mukherjee's assailants could not countenance her answering them back. Those who attacked and murdered the young woman on the bus could not countenance her being out with a boyfriend at night.

''The rape victim didn't get intimidated when the men in the bus began making lewd comments about her,'' says history student Smita Gupta, 20, who participated in the protests.

''She answered back, she bit them, she fought them off. The tragedy has made women determined to fight for their right to feel safe in a public place.''

Instinctively, without having read Karl Marx, protesters such as Ms Gupta sense the truth of his remark that ''social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex''.

In India, the forces of patriarchy, sensing the old order slipping away, are responding by lashing out at women's new freedoms.

''Now that women are beginning to assert themselves, either by quietly marrying against family wishes, or challenging male authority deliberately, patriarchs have become violent and wild,'' wrote sociologist Dipankar Gupta in the Hindustan Times recently.

So, when a woman such as Ms Mukherjee goes to the police and charges her assailants, they make threats to intimidate her into withdrawing the case.

And when they are released from jail after serving only three years of their nine-year sentence they continue to threaten her and she is forced to move house. But even now, with nine more operations ahead of her, she has plans for the future. As the haunting sounds of Sikh chanting echo through the temple, Sonali Mukherjee says she wants doctors to improve her appearance to the point where she can find a job.

''I want to be both self-sufficient and to support my father in his old age,'' she says.

''I also want to start an NGO for acid-attack victims. The only normal thing left about my face is my voice and I must use it.''

- Amrit Dhillon is a Delhi-based journalist.

- Daily Life

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