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Safety issues

Lewd picture

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Lies, damned lies and statistics. " It might have been Disraeli who originally said this, but every self-respecting Keralite would have wanted to say it when faced with the statistics put out by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The numbers state that Kerala is the crime hub of India, beating even Delhi to the title. The numbers perhaps owe their existence to the fact that more crimes are reported by a literate, highly rights-conscious populace. However, statistics apart, there is no gainsaying that Kerala is a much more violent place than a decade ago. While political violence was a constant in certain pockets of the state, the use of violence against an erstwhile lover or a business adversary seems to be a new development. Whether there is more of this in the state or whether a very newsconscious public and alert media make it more visible is a moot question.

The figures of the NCRB also give Kerala the dubious privilege of being the place from where the most number of obscene pictures on the internet emanate. Once again, the high literacy rate and even the high computer literacy rate may have something to do with this. But it is a fact that the Keralite has a highly ambivalent attitude towards women. This is a society where women enjoyed privileges that women of many other areas of India envied. But these privileges were only in the matter of the titular ownership of wealth to a certain extent and in the protection offered by matriliny. And even in those days, the women were hardly visible in public spaces.

"Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life" is how the UN defined violence against women. Gender-based violence whether physical or by threats of physical action, is certainly on the rise.

Each such act of violence reduces the space where a woman alone feels safe, whether it is while travelling, while working in an otherwise empty office, or even opening the door of the house to an itinerant vendor. Susan Brownmiller called rape (or the threat of it) a method by which all women were kept in what was perceived as their place. A single man at the other end of a deserted lane is perceived as a threat even if the man is just waiting for someone to come out from some house.

For all of Kerala's high rate of literacy and the large number of women in the work place, a common space that is equally accessible to men and women is still not a reality in Kerala. We might have co-educational schools and colleges, but the genders usually sit segregated in different parts of the classroom. At social functions such as marriages, you find the men and women sitting on different sides of the hall. Seats on buses are still segregated. Such a compartmentalised society does promote voyeurism and an unhealthy curiosity about the other sex. It is seen not only in obscene comments and physical attacks, but also in the other extreme of moral policing by the general, usually male, public. Any woman seen in the company of a person other than a relative, especially after dark, is suspect. Incidents of violence caused by this moral policing too have been on the increase.

A once close-knit society that is unravelling might be one of the reasons for this increase in violence. There were checks and balances in the existence of people who knew you, who knew your family. Society in Kerala has been in turmoil for a number of decades now. Instead of an economy that was based on production, a remittance economy took over. And now there is an influx of strangers in each area, from within the state and outside it. When one hears that there are areas in Kerala where Oriya movies are screened regularly, the magnitude of this influx can be seen. No, I am not accusing the migrants of bringing violence to the state. But a society where one knew one's neighbour, where one's actions might reflect on a family known to other people in the area, no longer exists. And strangers do not demand the same norms of behaviour that members of one's closed society do.

The fact that there is a lot of money in circulation might have something to do with it too. When the stakes are higher, when most things can be bought with the money that is around, women too become more of a commodity. Whether statistics lie or not, it is true that the average woman in Kerala no longer feels as safe as she used to - in her home, in the work place, while travelling.

The author is a leading translator and a Sanskrit scholar

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