We're living in a world where it's become more dangerous for a woman to walk down the streets than being a soldier in a modern war. I've been listening to these statements more and more in the last few years and never before have I felt so aware of this reality I have become so accustomed to. I am scared of walking home at night or visiting a new place by myself, even going home from work at night is a constant headache. This paranoia has slowly crept up on me.
What kind of life is that? Having these red flags fly in front of my face when I walk down an empty street at night is tiring. How many times have I heard the phrase, "it's not advisable for women to..." Fortunately, nothing bad has ever happened to me besides the commonplace street catcall. "Fortunately," "common," it breaks my heart that I use those words and that I sigh in relief when I open my front door because nothing bad happened. This isn't a made up dream or a symptom of paranoia, but a true reality that millions of women face, including myself. The fact that we've normalized these practices is frankly upsetting and in many ways, demoralizing.
This normalized reality is what alarmed the activist and feminist artist, Sujatro Ghosh, and this made him meditate about these conducts in his home country, India. After the news of a man being attacked and lynched after he had allegedly stolen and slaughtered his neighbor’s cow became viral, he started thinking about how people in India, especially those who practice Hinduism, were capable of reacting in such a violent way when it came to defending and protecting their sacred animal. He was perplexed, to say the least, as to why some wouldn't mind murdering a man without even being sure he was guilty, and completely disregard gender violence and its spike in recent years.
How do you fight against this apathy? For Ghosh, it was clear: through art. So, he started a project consisting of photographs of women wearing cow masks around India to raise awareness about this contrast. Why are cows protected with so much devotion while women’s safety is overlooked? The images are very powerful since they confront people with this double standard. By taking away the identity of each of these women and replacing it with a cow's head, he’s both giving them that sacred status and promoting the protection of women.
The most important issue is not the religion that protects this sacred animal, but the country's legislation and the influence religion overall has on the legal system. In the past years, laws have hardened regarding the protection of cattle, and as a consequence, they’ve implemented severe punishments, including a 10-year sentence. In contrast, of the few rapes that are reported, women have to wait months or even years to get an answer or even an investigation of the offense. So, why the difference? Of course, Ghosh’s project doesn’t want to say that cows shouldn’t be protected nor is he diminishing the lives of animals; he uses this contrast to make us see these inconsistencies and how the safety of women should be equally protected by the government and its people. Then, at what point can a determined religion influence the legal system of a country?
India is supposed to be a secular country. In 1976, it was established as such in its constitution, but secularism doesn't work precisely as we would imagine. Here, it's all a matter of overlapping laws. While the constitution supports pluralism, at the end of the day, each group has its own legal codes that they abide by. The state will only intervene if laws are broken but it will step aside and allow for the practice of traditions and rituals stipulated by their code of conduct. In India, secularism doesn't mean a separation of religion from the state; it's a matter of legal hierarchies.
Sujatro Ghosh intends with this project, to make us think about this connection between religion and the judiciary system. For many this is a highly incendiary project but at the end of the day if people begin to question their social problems and how their beliefs sometimes blind them to important issues, then the project has succeeded. Let us defend ourselves and others with the same devotion we defend our beliefs.
If you want to know more about the project and this artist's works, take a look at his Instagram profile: @sujatroghosh
One of the main problems of gender issues lies in the misconceptions many cultures have towards women, who have been seen as inferior to men for centuries. If we don't change those perceptions, gender violence will prevail in our society, no matter how many laws and punishments governments implement. The first step is educating people on these troubling matters that touch the lives of millions. The road will never be easy but it is one we must all take.