Why Indian Policewomen Are Strong Women Who Don’t Give A F*** About Being Feminist

One would expect Indian policewomen to be sensitive to the issues of their own gender, but this author’s study shows that they weren’t usually, just strong women choosing their battles.

In 2004, when I was researching Women’s Police Stations in Bangalore as part of a paper I was to write, they were still a new thing, although the very first one was already a decade old. The local MLA had seen the need for a Women’s Police Station and pressurized those in power.

I ended up in a mini-forest in the middle of the city. The Police Station had picturesque stone steps leading me in. I had expected to meet a bunch of women who were highly committed to the cause of women, were feminists, and possibly the most exemplary role-models that modern state institutions had made space for, even nurtured. Instead, what I found was a group of women who cooked, cleaned, and pleased their husbands, and then came to work — taking on a double burden.

These superwomen were sizing me up, and lecturing me on why the 498a Anti-Dowry law should go and why I should most definitely cook for my husband when I marry.

Read on for my story

Each person had a desk and a chair; the boss lady aka officer had a bigger one and was on the phone. I entered and the lady constables all asked me one by one what I wanted — as happens a lot in my beloved India. I answered them all too, politely saying I needed an interview for a research project. One of the ladies asked me to go my way, but another nice one led me in to the Inspector, the Boss Lady.

I could see that all these women wore shirts and trousers, were somewhat athletic, and completed the look with bindi, bangles, anklets, and flowers. My first thought was that class and a rural background was going to be a category to think through here. To an urban eye, the odd mix of styles could only be weird or entirely revolutionary!

My thoughts were loudly interrupted.

An impossible project

Boss Lady: What do you want?

Me: I am a researcher. I needed to speak with you for 10 minutesplease.

Boss Lady: What about?

Me: On your experience working in a Women’s Police Station. Itis still new to the city, so I am trying to understand what is done herewhat cases are handled. And also, I would like to understand what parts of this set-up are challenging or interesting.

Boss Lady: No, we don’t give interviews here. Constable, show her out.

Someone steps forward and I want to launch into a speech about the benefits of research for society and for women’s well-being, and why she should be helping me. Instead I am reduced to a schoolgirl and all I can do is mutter: Ma’am, please, I have an assignment.

It’s Boss Lady’s turn to play victim and she promptly screams, “We are doing work here. You are wasting our time. Please allow us to do our work. Look at the number of files on my desk!

It’s time for me to leave; I depart hesitatingly like a lover who doesn’t want to leave! Girl, who knew that research was going to be like this? Back at my centre, I report the impossibility of this project. Forget being a participant observer; these women wouldn’t answer a single question on my projected interview notepad!

I had read wonderful stories of researchers penetrating the toughest and most hostile of communities and fetching data that had eluded the sciences for a long time. Alas, I was not going to be that hero-researcher with a great story to tell, I thought, prone to depressing thoughts as young PhDs are. I whined a lot in front my of teacher, but she said that the trick was go again and again. I shuddered at the thought but had no other option.

Why this job? Why not?

When I reappeared at the desk and chairs, Boss Lady was intrigued: Arrey, you are back!

Me: The interview, so…I have to write something…otherwise…

Boss Lady: All right, let’s see. You will not have a recorder on you. You are not going name me ever. You are not going to tell anyone what I say. You were never here. We don’t know you.

Me: OK, no problem. Thanks ma’am, thank you sooo much.

Me: Why this job?

Boss Lady: Why not?

Me: Er…As women, do you face any challenges in this job? 

I look at the lady constables as well, a couple of them looked miserable just then.

Boss Lady: Yes, people don’t expect us to be in this job, we have to get used to such attitudes.

Me: What training have you been given?

Boss Lady: A nine-month training is given to constables where their mental and physical and psychological changes are significant. They cannot any longer walk like a woman– in a shy manner. They are taught everything from swimming and running to 16 subjects that include law and psychology.

Me: What kind of cases do you get to handle?

Boss Lady: Mostly family matters, domestic stuff, but not criminal stuff. Someone beats up the wife, dowry cases and such like. But one thing I would like to tell you, 498a needs to go.

Me: But, ma’am…Why?

Boss Lady: You don’t get to interrupt me. This is my final point on this issue. Women come here with false cases all the time — its got to stop. I can just tell by seeing their faces, which is a genuine dowry case and which is not. Most of them are not. This law has got to go soon.

498a has to go!

These were the early days of the 498a of the Indian Penal Code catching the imagination of people. Commonly known as the ‘dowry case,’ the 498a was defined anew in 1983 and made cruelty, including dowry-related ones, a non-bailable offence. Women who cannot not hold their husbands responsible for any offences, including domestic violence, and marital rape and battery, resort to this section of the IPC helplessly, and use it as a bargaining and negotiating measure. Since the husband and his family can be imprisoned under the 498a, many families stop their harassment out of the social ‘shame’ of being imprisoned and seek to provide maintenance to the wives, while earlier they would show no assets or escape by paying extremely low amounts of maintenance.

This being the story of many married women in the country, I was shocked by Boss Lady’s take on the issue. But then, how does one really help the truly affected? Or how does one help women when all odds are stacked against them? In many households, daughters-in-law to this day are just considered burdensome bodies that need to earn their keep by providing free services to everyone in the family or work, but hand over the salary to their husbands.

Me: So, how do you deal with a dowry case?

Boss Lady: We inquire with the parents, relatives and neighbours if they have heard of any quarrels or if the woman has confided in them. 50% of the dowry cases are false cases. The wives do not like joint families and ask the husband to arrange for a separate residence. If the husband refuses, they threaten to harass him by making a complaint of dowry harassment. Some men are really greedy and harass their wives. I have seen all kinds of people.

Me: What happens in a typical domestic violence case?

Boss Lady: Well, most often, women do not want to split with their husbands and therefore do not book a case. They informally request us to issue some kind of a warning to stop the harassment. I have so far advised 244 cases by way of counseling, as against 117 that were registered FIRs. The advice given by my team often follows this pattern: Do not as far as possible book a case against your husband because it entails the loss of all relations from him. If a case is booked, then to fight for maintenance is the only way out, and it could take a long time.

Me: But parents spend huge sums of money on the wedding, which too is actually a form of dowry, and, if maintenance takes too long, then is not 498a…

Boss Lady: So, what? You leave that aside for a minute. Parents know they have to spend for their daughter’s wedding, it’s alright. Tell me, won’t your parents spend lavishly on your wedding tomorrow?

Me: No, never on my wedding.

Boss Lady and her band of constables: Ha ha ha(big round of laughter). My dear girl, let me tell you, you are still very young. You know nothing of the world. You will gain some responsibility once you marry!

Me: If I marry, it’s not going to be a conventional one.

Boss Lady: Yeah, yeah, we will see about that, won’t we? You will cook for your husband, you will give him children and then we will see. Ha ha ha!

Another round of applause, with the Lady Constables congratulating Boss Lady on the precise nature of her arguments.

Indian policewomen at work, and Indian wives at home

Me: You all are role models to the society in one sense. Although liberated at the work place and by the profession chosen, you appear to be oppressed at home. Do you all cook at home?

Boss Lady and Lady Constables in unison: Of course, we do. Who else would if not us? (Everyone is looking proud! I am quite miserable.)

Lady Constable: I cook, clean, finish everything and then get myself here on a bus. Every morning, same thing.

Boss Lady: You have to cook ma, you have to ‘do,’ if not, what is there?

Well, I know the joys of giving selflessly but my husband is not going get food cooked all the time by me.

So, I said: I don’t think I will be the one cooking all the time.

Another round of a unified sarcastic, “Oh, we believe you. Really.”

Boss Lady: Oh wait, wait, she is, what is that, feminine! Are you feminine, my silly girl?

Me: Er…feminist.

Boss Lady: Hmm, I challenge you to get married and have a life where you won’t have to cook! I wish you good luck! I mean it.

Lady Constables look at me like I don’t belong to this earth. Boss Lady looks at me at like I am a babe, silly, naïve, idiot and moron—all in one.

She tells me: You’ve got enough from us, I think. Now, go. We have work to do here.

Me: But Ma’am. Being in this job and still cooking and doing everything for your husbands, don’t you think there is a contradiction?

Boss Lady: No, girl, none. What I do for work is just work. Back home is real life, there I have to listen to what my husband says, take care of him, earn his affection. We can’t override him just because we work here. Besides, cooking is not a burden; we are used to it. Also, my husband doesn’t know how to cook! Got it? Now, go your way.

Me: Ma’am, a few more questions.

Boss Lady: Time up, girl. Go be feminine or feminist or whatever you want to be! 

Another round of laughter.

Me: OK, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am. Thank you for your time. Thanks everybody. If I realize I have more questions when I go home, could I please come back?

Boss Lady: You may not.

Me: Er, OK, ma’am. Thanks again.

Paper tigresses?

I left the Police station with a feeling of frustration, thinking that I had not gathered any meaningful data and that there was nothing to interpret. Mainly because my questions at that point of time were all to do with feminist methodology, what is feminism, who is a feminist, are these police women feminist, do they identify themselves as such, why did they choose this profession, and so on.

I gave up on the project and heaved a big sigh when my teacher didn’t insist on a written paper. Off and on, over the next few years, I would spend a day at a Women’s Police Station observing the goings-on, but the interview method had lost its appeal for me. My intermittent reflections led to me understand things in the following way.

After the women’s movement has insisted for years that the personal was the political, it was apparent that the Indian State was becoming increasingly aware that women generally do not want to talk about their problems, and especially in a public space like the police station, and to policemen. Because when they do, they pay a price. Recall also, how custodial rape (rape in Police stations by policemen) was a serious problem and still is. In response, reworked policy today deems that there cannot be any arrests of women after sundown. To counter women’s discomfort in entering a Police Station, the Women’s Police Station employs only women and takes complaints.

But the women’s police station is not truly women-friendly; women in power were like men or worse. In 20 minutes, they had managed to laugh at me, intimidate me and were too sure in their world. They had endless practical wisdom to offer — only it was all located firmly within the patriarchal world.

Not feminists, just strong women

These women were not feminists but were simply strong women. They were protective of themselves; they knew it was a bad world for women out there. They were clever; they chose their battles, maybe a little too carefully. They were feisty and genuine women, no doubt. And they were here to lay claim on the equality of job opportunities for women, created for them by a State after hundreds of years in which they had definitely had fewer choices. It was all wholly positive. They needed the job security, the salary, the benefits, and the pension — the entire deal. It was likely they were dealing with class-caste issues (we cannot unfortunately analyze that more here).

In short, the first generation of women employed by the governmentin this space! No meagre achievement, add to this the acceptance of double burden — the challenges of both tradition and modernity! Wow! These were superwomen, indeed, but not feminists.

To identify as feminist, one needs to look at women’s problems with a certain level of generality and overview to spot the patterns of subjugation that patriarchy creates. Instead, the Women’s Police Station was the result of an easy appropriation of the category of “women.” Because, clearly, there were no deeper issues addressed. Women were added and stirred to the normal police station. Even as I struggled with elitist practices and stereotypes of feminism, I couldn’t bring myself to see feminism here. These wonderful women had left me feeling defeated and distraught, while they were happy, triumphant and unrelenting in their attack on a number of ideas!

Things have changed for the better, but…

In my subsequent visits to other such women’s police stations, years later, I saw firsthand how many underprivileged women came in and complained about husbands who had run away, were into liquor or had beat them up. The policewomen this time round too were strong women. They called in the husbands, threatened them with jail and beatings, revealing the very unlawful but quirky, quick-justice methods in various avatars.

Some things had changed– women who came in were first offered a chair and water. Clearly, gender sensitization training had taken place in the interim. Yet, today we still see Police asking funny questions before registering rape cases and also dissuading women from filing FIRs. While for the less-educated women, information that an FIR might result in a permanent break with the husband might be useful, for an educated person, it is: why won’t you let me file a complaint? It appears that this counseling on the part of the police is not a straightforward Govt. initiative, but something confusing to everyone involved. Over time, it has been lauded and disowned in equal measure.

How do we ensure justice?

The approach of the Police women indicated to me what Senior lawyer and feminist activist Flavia Agnes has always insisted upon — that there are enough laws already; it’s their application and the execution in the justice system that needs more work. Most feminists today would agree that in some cases, 498a is misused (as many laws are), but then the real question still is: how do we ensure that women are not abused within their marital households? How do we get them justice? But these were not my only questions, then or now. I had a few more.

I had read the remarkablyaccessibleand brilliant Madhu Kishwar on dowry and watched some of her TV interviews of women who narrate harassment from the 80s. Brace up if you plan to track these; they’re not for the faint-hearted. But Madhu Kishwar’s writings opened up a Pandora’s box of questions.

She asked why women should not get a dowry if they were anyway not getting any part of parental property.Parental property went to the sons—these inheritance laws are still being reworked! Don’t we hear every now and then that the Supreme Court said something about women having to take care of parents in their old age if they wanted property and so on? The truth is, the much-maligned Manusmriti ensured better equity for women than do our British-inspired laws. How does one remain sensitive to the Indian cultural customs of giving and receiving, and still ensure that women get a fair deal in both parental and marital homes and are not considered burdensome?

Also, 498a and its abuse might have more to do with the practices of Family Court lawyers than anything else. I have seen firsthand, lawyers employ some utterly unthinkable claims just to escape the payment of maintenance. A couple of decades ago, they would deny that the marriage even occurred if there were no photographs to prove it. They would deny the validity of marriage by claiming it was never consummated if there were no children, or that the wife deserted the oh-so-poor husband or that she was unfaithful and so on. Just anything that laws permitted was tried and tested to escape paying maintenance. If these horrendous practices didn’t exist, would we need 498a at all or the new men-rights rhetoric that has developed as a response?

For decades, women’s education and financial independence has been thought of as a solution. But it appears to me that the achievement of these has thrown up a new problem — men and women don’t know how to be in a marriage anymore. While most men love the patriarchal set-up that makes the woman cook and take care of his parents and so on, women can’t be bothered with such extra-tasks anymore. In urban centers, they don’t want to give up their plush jobs and think that child-bearing along with a job is task enough. A marriage with equality has been so hard to envisage today that youngsters are choosing to remain unmarried, rather than fall into a complicated life.

Again, the question persists: how to remain sensitive to the cultural sensitivities of India and ensure equality for women? Because a harsh dismissal of either is a rejection of too many Indias and no way forward at all.

Image source: Flickr and a still from the movie Jai Gangaajal

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Sushumna Kannan has a PhD in Cultural Studies and works on topics in feminism and religion, postcolonial studies and South Asian history among others. She received the Bourse Mira fellowship by the French government in 2016 and 2017. She is currently Adjunct Faculty at San Diego State University. Visit www.sushumnakannan.weebly.com for more writings.

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