Uber rape

The real problem with actress Shenaz Treasurywala’s open letter on rape

The actor's letter, in response to Uber rape case in Delhi, has been called a publicity stunt. But that's not the only reason it needs to be criticised.

On Thursday, an open letter by Bollywood actor Shenaz Treasurywala began bouncing around on social media, adding to the voices of indignation and protest after a woman was raped by an Uber cab driver in Delhi last week.

The actor had addressed her letter to the prime minister and a motley group of “powerful men”, including actors Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and industrialist Anil Ambani, passionately asking them to help the women of India.

By Friday, Treasurywala was all over Twitter and Facebook again, but for a different reason: by this time, people worked out that her open letter had come out just before the release of her new film, Main aur Mr. Riight, which hit the screens on December 12. The actor hasn’t been seen in a Bollywood film since Delhi Belly three years ago, so the timely appearance of her angry letter was quickly hailed as a publicity stunt.

Calling out a celebrity for trying to cash in on a horrific incident of sexual violence is certainly important, but in the case of Treasurywala’s open letter, the real problem lies somewhere else.

Getting to the root of the problem

She begins her letter on a deeply personal note, recounting her own experiences with various forms of molestation throughout her youth, as well as the experiences of her friends and family. She claims to speak for everyday, middle-class women who carry with them the shame of being constantly harassed by men, and repeatedly emphasises, “It’s not our shame. It’s their shame."

Treasurywala is legitimately frustrated by the safety precautions that women are forced to take every time they step out of the house – she raises a valid point when she asks, “Why should we as women be terrified and on guard all the time?”

But if the idea of bearing the burden of constant vigilance makes many women uncomfortable, Treasurywala’s recommended solutions are equally troubling. The crux of her argument is that women need to be “saved” and “protected”, and any man – particularly the “powerful and influential men” she has addressed – who fails at this should be ashamed:
“It’s not OUR SHAME, it’s THEIR SHAME. Who are ‘THEY’? ‘THEY’ ARE THE MEN IN OUR COUNTRY. Not just the rapists and the sexual offenders and gropers but also our Fathers...and Uncles and Brothers and MOVIE STARS AND CRICKETERS AND POLITICIANS for not SAVING US or PROTECTING US by insisting and protest for the LAWS TO CHANGE and Rapists and Gropers to BE PUNISHED SEVERELY!”

While women across the country – particularly on college campuses – are struggling to ensure that their movement and freedom is not compromised in the name of ensuring their safety, Treasurywala’s tone seems to repeatedly strip women of their agency, making them sound like helpless damsels who need to be saved from men, by men:
“SAVE US, your mother, daughter, sister please! This is not OUR SHAME. THIS IS YOURS. SHAME ON YOU. Don’t sleep till you SAVE YOUR WOMEN!”

Of course, in this process, the actor ends up echoing one of the most frustrating attitudes women face today: that men must respect women and stand up for them only because they are someone’s mother, daughter, wife or sister – that they belong to some man or the other.

No saviours needed

Gender-based violence is systemic and deeply entrenched in patriarchy, so it is undeniable that any fight against it must involve men. Having prominent and influential men on board is definitely an effective way to create role models.

But how should these men be approached? What kind of attitude should we expect from them? Certainly not the patronising kind that Treasurywala seems to be begging for in her letter.

When celebrities – both big and small ones – speak out for a cause, even if it is for publicity, their views are likely to be heard, shared and enumerated more than the average Jyothi’s. And this open letter, even though well-intentioned, is ultimately regressive.

The fight against a culture of sexual violence requires men to speak out and respect women as equal human beings with the same freedoms as they have. True, women shouldn’t have to be on guard all the time, but women also don’t need men to be their saviours and protectors. That would defeat the very purpose of the battle.

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