Featured image: Scene from a play Labhita. Courtesy of Dwijen Mahanta. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Assam, a state in North-East India, has witnessed multiple episodes of ethnic conflict over time. The phrase bahiror manuh (outsiders) has come to largely connote anybody who could not be identified as indigenous to Assam till the 1960s. Its usage further picked up momentum and had the effect of drawing attention to bideshi (foreigners) or undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh in the 1970s and 80s. Post-2000s, those believed to be immigrants have been publicly labelled, almost permanently, as “Assam’s sorrow”. In recent times, smaller indigenous communities have asserted a strong anti-immigrant sentiment.
It is widely understood that political instability often engenders organised crime. Along with the continued political unrest in Assam, crime against women has increased at a faster pace, which stands to be the highest in India in 2021. Problematic media report in alarmist ways about how migration and demographic changes affect the social milieu. This is, however, not the full picture.
Growing up in Assam, choosing to migrate in the 1990s to a metropolitan area in search of prospects of education and career, though my research interests kept my interaction intact, I cannot help but question whether the spaces today are in fact more unsafe than before. Dowry was almost unheard of when I lived in the state, whereas today domestic violence and dowry death list as a high concern for Assam among other states of North-east India. Cruelty by the husband and his relatives has a fair share in the numbers as well. Reports disclose that women at home feel unsafe.
The narratives that I have gathered through an open-ended questionnaire and unstructured interviews with women and girls (aged 16-49 years) living in urban areas of Assam on why the struggle for women’s safety is so challenging suggests that there is no clear connection between immigration into Assam and the question of women’s safety. One respondent felt that women have become educated and more visible in public spaces, but society remains patriarchal and work-culture demands for mobility push women to further vulnerability.
Domestic violence, abuse, and domination of women in the neighbourhood are regularly observed, and safety is easily compromised. Young girls are targeted in public transport and streets. Women’s vulnerability is highly at stake in spaces that one frequents daily and not only in isolated zones. This is not a recent phenomenon.
A woman in her 40s observed that teasing or physical molestation was not uncommon in public spaces when she was in her teens, and women of similar age have confirmed such responses. Posing the query alike to girls brought to light that, though teasing is rare, they have come across incidents of molestation in crowded places and perpetrators of sexual harassment were often known to the victims. Girls have disclosed that they feel unsafe going outside the home alone, especially during night hours. They are mostly accompanied by family members. They may also feel uncomfortable wearing clothes of their choice given the public glare. A respondent often advises her teen daughter to come home early, be alert, and remain in a group outside the home so that she stays safe. Interestingly, issues of safety are more openly discussed in the present times by parents and schools but to my understanding, the threat has remained where it was two decades ago.
The guardians of law and order insist that Assam’s higher crime rate against women is due to higher reporting. In that case, is the state responsive and listening carefully? A respondent rightly pointed out that there seems to be no regulated effort by the state to understand women’s vulnerability.
A discussion on women’s safety brings the stark existence of patriarchy and misogyny that is often entrenched in everyday practices in more ways than the statistics can reflect. Women respondents have confirmed that sexist slurs are frequently used by men to objectify women.
In social conversation, bonori (unchaste), kulta (woman who has sexual relation with many men) and, kulokhini (attaining dishonour for the kin) all of them denote ‘bad character’ women, who are deemed to tarnish the family image, whereas ghorelu and potibrotastree define women who are of ‘good character’ devoted to home, spouse, and his family. Similarly, mekhelartolorejua is usually addressed to men who have the image of being submissive to women. Such standards and stereotypes harden discrimination in many ways and may pressurise women to give up on many individual pursuits.
I agree with one respondent that crimes against women are not a result of any one single reason. She noted that immigration has caused anxiety and is suspected to have contributed to the existing crime rate. But these debates about immigration are also ways to make the safety of women a political issue, whereas social and cultural contexts are completely ignored.
Assam’s image as a women-friendly region under threat from immigrants is a generalised notion that clouds a more complex reality.
Acknowledgement: I am thankful to Papori Das and Jasodhara Borthakur for establishing contact with the respondents.
Ivy Dhar is an Assistant Professor at the School of Development Studies, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University Delhi. She was a Fellow (Junior) at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). She has taken an avid interest in researching the development and political issues of North-east India from the beginning of her academic career. Her broad interest areas are democracy, conflict and gender, water and development, and material culture and have published on related topics in journals and books.