State surveillance, like the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh governments are proposing, is not new to Indian women and girls. It begins at their homes. It is rather interwoven into the moral and cultural fabric of our society, tied securely with ropes of honour and tradition.
Ever since girls hit puberty, there is someone constantly keeping a close watch on their movements, actions and habits. It could be the mohalla aunty, retired society uncles, nosy relatives and even one’s parents — the feeling of constantly being watched and judged is one that every Indian woman is well-versed with.
Now, this ‘traditional’ role is being extended to the police.
Earlier this week, the Lucknow Police announced that they will be installing AI-enabled cameras that will identify “distressed” women to allow the police to help curb gender crime in the city. Scientifically, as my colleague Sandhya Ramesh noted, this technology could very well be impossible to implement. However, what becomes evident here is that the age-old notion of ‘keep an eye’ on the women of the household and protect them from the ‘big bad’ world, gets legitimate institutional backing through such orders.
In Madhya Pradesh, women stepping out for work will have to register themselves with the local police so that they can track their movement and in turn, ensure their safety. The police surveillance is part of the state government’s campaign for women safety called ‘Samman’ or honour in Hindi, and that is the driving force behind most initiatives for women. And also the justification for the surveillance of women’s bodies, both outside and inside their homes.
If only the UP and MP governments would spend their funds and deploy these registration methods and AI trackers to watch the men, the problem of women’s safety may be solved. The same is true for Indian parents. If they policed their sons better, women would be safer to stay out in public places, longer and more confidently.
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The bad girl trope
Don’t sit with your legs wide open. Don’t laugh so much. Don’t talk to boys in the park. Don’t wear too much makeup. Don’t go out without dressing up. Don’t wear shorts. Don’t talk too much on the phone. And that ubiquitous question that is thrown at them all the time — what will people say?
These are just some of the things that women have heard constantly in their families while growing up. Those who have more progressive families encounter this free gyaan from neighbourhood aunties, uncles, society watchmen, gardeners etc. Almost everyone always has some advice to give women to — about how to live their lives and be the perfect naari.
But it just doesn’t end in gyaan, that is just step one. All of these people make up one of India’s most effective and intrusive surveillance systems — the society watch. Forget Aadhaar being a data collection drive. What neighborhoods and relatives do is far more intrusive. From what you wear, the time you come home to who you were talking to, someone or the other is constantly tracing, tracking and collating data about you.
Now this data may not be traditionally tabulated, at least not yet, but the final report somehow reaches your parents in no time. And this can happen via a number of ways — taunts, fake concern and of course my personal favourite, ladki haath se nikal gayi (the girl is out of hand). This is because what a woman does in the public sphere is supposedly open for judgement for the entire society at large. Don’t forget that iconic line from Jab We Met about ‘khuli tijori’. It made each one of us wince but we recognise it instantly.
In September last year, Kannada actor Samyuktha Hegde was working out with a couple of her female friends in a park. They were wearing sportswear and an older woman, identified as Kavitha Reddy in Hegde’s Instagram post, started harassing them for what they were wearing and how it wasn’t appropriate.
A classic case of how everyone thinks it is their moral birthright to ‘correct’ women and constantly keep watch on them to ensure they do not ‘stray’ from the chosen path of righteousness.
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College and media
Most women leave their homes for college to escape stifling familial atmospheres that are most often not unlike prisons. Perhaps gilded ones but prisons nonetheless.
However, unfortunately, most of them end up in yet another prison in college. Most college hostels, especially those only for women, have strict curfew timings, with some of them as early as 5 or 6 pm. Many of them are locked in to ensure they don’t go out. This is all done in the name of safety because women out there at night are more dangerous. No one has thought of locking up boys because, of course, that would entail curbing certain freedoms.
Hostels are actually model institutions of policing and surveillance. The warden of an extremely reputed Delhi University college once disallowed a female student from entering the mess and having her food because her strappy top would have been too distracting for the senior teachers and administration there. And this moral policing of clothes, behaviour and movement is rife in university spaces.
Ironically, it is these supposedly liberal places where one learns about the gendered aspect of surveillance and policing.
Even on social media, which one assumes is a place devoid of authorities, one is constantly on the lookout to name and shame women for putting themselves out there. Most abuses that women get are rape threats, and violent online abuse is rampant across the spectrum because they are considered easy targets.
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Self-surveillance and women as upholders
American feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky particularly talked about how surveillance is a gendered act of power, aimed at controlling women’s bodies foremost.
Bartky also noted that these societal forces are so potent that after a point of time, women engage in self-surveillance and censorship.
“It is women themselves who practice this discipline on and against their own bodies….The woman who checks her make-up half a dozen times a day to see if her foundation has caked or her mascara run, who worries that the wind or rain may spoil her hairdo, who looks frequently to see if her stocking have bagged at the ankle, or who, feeling fat, monitors everything she eats, has become…a self-policing subject, a self committed to relentless self-surveillance. This self-surveillance is a form of obedience to patriarchy,” said Bartky in her book Femininity and Domination.
In other words, women begin to become more afraid of the dark, restrict their own movements and avoid coming under the radar of the society watch by simply not doing the things they find problematic. And some of them, in turn, educate other women to do the same, perpetuating the vicious circle.
Now, with the police in the picture, this socially sanctioned surveillance will not only take a turn for the worse but also weaponise this time-honoured tradition.
Views are personal.