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When the recent court judgement sentencing Gujarat BJP MLA Mayaben Kodnani (among others) to life imprisonment made the headlines, I was visiting my parents, and one of the first things my mother and I both felt was, “But how could a woman be so heartless?”
Implicit in this question was the assumption that women are more compassionate towards their fellow-humans and less prone to violence. Our horror was also partly due to the fact that Mayaben was a practising gynaecologist, someone involved with the bringing forth of life – how was she able to participate so easily in the taking of it?
This led me to thinking; are women really more compassionate and less prone to violence? If feminism teaches us anything, it is that women are people just like men, and going by that, it seems only logical that there should be all kinds of women just as there are all kinds of men – good, evil, compassionate, heartless, violent, non-violent.
Still, data does tell us that women are not exactly the same as men when it comes to crime, and this disparity is consistent around the world. In the US, crime data for the year 1990 (PDF) shows that there were 9211 crimes committed by men, with only 2122 crimes committed by women. It’s not just the quantity, it’s the nature of crime too. Women committed only 12% of all serious assaults, and the majority of crimes committed by women were ‘mild forms of lawbreaking’. The percentage is the same for crime in Canada.
In India too, according to NCRB data, women formed only 4% of all prison inmates in 2010, although I could not easily find on the website as to what crimes women were arrested for.
So, it is true that not only do women commit fewer crimes than men, they also commit fewer violent crimes. Is this because of some intrinsic goodness in women, or because the factors that lead women to crime are somewhat different than those which impact men?
In the Indian context, riots are usually a male-led phenomenon, even if there may be tacit support from the female members of the community. One reason for this could be that Indian women are discouraged from mobilising outside the home, whether for good or bad causes, and riots require mobilization. Girls are generally not allowed to even go out to play in public playgrounds, once they reach puberty – a quick look at any neighbourhood playground will confirm this. Even though we think of rioters as sheep-like creatures following the behest of an instigator, rioting also requires some amount of autonomy – at the very least, the freedom to leave the house at will, which still does not exist for many Indian women, and would be even lesser at troubled times. Women’s familiarity with instruments of violence, and access to those instruments also tends to be limited.
So, could one say that Mayaben Kodnani, was in a sense, freed by her position as an educated, urban woman, with political clout, from the usual restraints that bind most Indian women, quite apart from their own inclinations to crime?
Mayaben may have had a visceral distaste of violence because she is a woman, or perhaps because she is an MLA and had her minions to do the job for her; she did not herself join in the actual rioting, and stayed away from dirtying her hands with the blood and gore of violent crime. Nevertheless, as Justice Yagnik stated in her judgement, “This court firmly believes that had the instigation not been done by A-37 (Maya Kodnani), had the offence not been abetted by her, the communal riots would not have spread at Naroda Patiya on such large scale.”
Pic of Mayaben Kodnani arriving at court credit: The Hindu
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