x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Acid attacks on women in India reflect society’s attitudes

When a man throws acid on a woman, his intention is to subjugate her and show her who is in charge, writes Amrit Dhillon.

Harpreet Kaur, slim, pretty and just 22, was sitting in her local beauty parlour getting her bridal make-up done for her wedding later that day when two men rushed in, flung acid on her and fled. The burns she suffered were so severe that her heart, liver and kidneys were affected. After indescribable suffering at a local hospital in Punjab, her condition worsened and she was flown to a special burns hospital in Mumbai. On December 27, she died.

Last year, Jaikumar Vinodhini, 23, 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 also died later.

Kaur and Vinodhini were the latest victims to suffer an acid attack. Many have endured similarly horrific deformities, which condemned them to endless operations, social stigma and seclusion.

In the flux that characterises Indian society – a new social order emerging while the old has yet to fade away – some Indian men are unable to tolerate the slightest wound, imaginary or real, to their ego.

In the old order, women were docile and obedient. In the burgeoning order, women are independent. If they wish to end a relationship, they just do. If a man shows unwanted attention, they spurn him. If a group of men on a street corner ogle or make smutty comments as she passes, she confronts them. If a man’s proposal of marriage is of no interest to her, she declines it. These are things people accustomed to a sense of male entitlement cannot take. In their world view, a woman should be grateful for any interest a man shows in her.

He is used to women being subservient. Hindu mythology and some scriptures show disrespect for women. They mostly 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, at least in rural India.

But all this is changing, as millions of men and women have migrated from villages and small towns to big cities. Women are now educated and they work. When men and women meet in urban places, the men tend to behave according to the old norms that suggest that any single woman is available for their enjoyment. But women tend to behave according to modern ideas of individual freedom and sexual equality. That is when the collision happens.

When a man throws acid on a woman, his intention is to subjugate her and show her who is in charge. Men resort to violent attacks as women assert themselves by challenging men’s authority and expectations.

In Kaur’s case, there was no vengeful male. She was the victim of a feud in the family of her fiancé. The divorced sister-in-law of her fiancé had apparently vowed not to allow another wedding in the family and she paid for the two assailants to disfigure Kaur on her wedding day.

The other reason men in India choose acid is because it is easy and cheap to buy. One can walk into any grocery store and ask for a litre of acid for just 30 rupees. India has yet to restrict access to acid. Following the failure of local governments to give compensation or pay for the cosmetic surgery that victims require, the country’s Supreme court on July 14 ordered all of India’s 28 state governments to ban the unauthorised sale of acid.

When, in November, the court asked the states what progress had been made, it turned out that only one state government had complied with the order. Between July and November, 20 acid attacks took place.

This indifference exposes the callous attitude towards women in India, which is why, in survey after survey, India is ranked as the worst country in the world to be a woman.

Given the procrastination shown by the states, tough penalties need to be imposed on state governments that fail to curb the sale of acid by a certain date. It’s neither a complicated nor a controversial measure. All it needs is will and enforcement.

The fact that 27 out of 28 states have ignored the court order supports what all acid victims say: with some honourable exceptions, society does not rally behind them. Relatives drift away after shedding a few tears. Neighbours keep their distance. They are not welcome at any social function because their “deformed” faces frighten people. Their isolation is total.

While the supreme court’s effort to stop acid attacks is commendable, society also needs to be more compassionate. Kaur’s fiancé, for example, did not once call her family.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi