Over two days recently, the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, organized the first event of panel discussions on Women Unheard: Silences, Dialogue and Mediation. They were supported by films.

The Keynote Speaker was Prof. Richard Pena of Columbia University, New York (former Director of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Centre). He knows Indian cinema well.

Prof Pena made clear that in the US also women had to break out of being just homemakers and mothers to fight for their status as thinkers with a right to careers and mindsets of their own.

Asked to speak, I felt that in India violence against women was culturally embedded in the male psyche. It is not just random acts of the sick. This is why it is widespread in India – and widely accepted. This comes across repeatedly in our films. What are item numbers except a response to popular demand for male titillation? So is the need to show a woman squirming as male hands rove.

At the SNDT event, writer, filmmaker Rinky Bhattacharya’s 1999 documentary “Behind Closed Doors” on domestic violence seemed as pertinent now as 16 years ago. I recall being shocked and choked at its first screening. It showed all classes of women, from the highly educated and articulate to the rustic and chawl dweller, all being subjected to constant beating and humiliation by their husbands, with no help from family or friends.

Prof. Pena was astounded by one statement in particular. A poor slum dweller says “When I married, I expected to be beaten – it happens – but not the brutal, violence that I faced every day.”

When we talk of rape or abuse of women in India, we get the reply, "Do you think this is true only of India? It is the same in my country - it is so everywhere". Somehow, accepting this act as a global crime seems to make it less heinous. The issue gets blurred.

Today, in India there is increasing sexual violence, especially rape. What is different here is the extreme, brutal violence that accompanies the rape. Parallels elsewhere would be far to seek.

When women are raped on US campuses (this is increasing at an alarming rate according to the director of Oscar winning “The Hunting Grounds” and Diane Warren’s haunting song in the film). But the women are not tortured, mutilated, burned alive, or paraded naked, as they are at regular intervals all over India.

Consider “The Accused” (1988) starring Jodie Foster, that decades ago was instrumental in bringing teen-age rape into wide focus. The girl had too much to drink and was flirting with men around her, this led to her being gang raped in a gaming joint while onlookers cheered. But she was not beaten or mutilated – as happens too often in India.

However, the humiliation led her to a courageous lawyer who saw to it that her rapist and, as far as I can recall, some of those watching were sent to jail.

And, abroad, is the humiliation faced by the victim the same as here? Does the girl become a social outcaste? How many women in the US or Europe have committed suicide after rape? In India, suicide follows many a rape. In a recent case in Mumbai , a little girl child who was raped on her school premises was asked by the school to leave and go where her ‘past’ would not be known.

There are other ways in which violence on women is cultural at its roots. Honour killing, for example, occur mostly to India and Pakistan. It seems outdated and bizarre but it exists with open support from the executioners, usually family and co-villagers.

Acid throwing is peculiar to our part of the world, hideously painful, which scars the woman for life not only physically but in every other way. This again is prevalent in India and Pakistan – and extends to NRIs belonging to both countries.

Dowry. This practice speaks for itself. It says that a woman is for sale when she marries and even after. Our marriage customs demean and betray a woman. We hear a lot of women who bring in an unsatisfactory dowry being dowsed in kerosene and set aflame. Kerosene is cheap and used for cooking. The symbolism is deadly.

A girl’s puberty: Take the on-going heated debate on menstruating women being ‘unclean’ and kept apart and also away from the sacred sanctum of temples and mosques. This taboo is widely accepted as right and just. But, a woman is also seen as blessed because she is fertile and can bear a son.

Middle East: stoning to death of a woman accused of sexual misdemeanor is an accepted punishment. The wonderful “Zorba, The Greek” stated this poignantly in the year 1964.

Female infanticide and female genital mutilation are other hideous expressions of cultural priorities – the male child over the girl child.

These practices have been exported by immigrants to their new homes. Our NRIs, living in a society that now nurtures them, cling to age-old beliefs of caste and creed. Most of these practices are against the law. But the belief in them is so ingrained that they cannot be contained or controlled. Or, do we not care enough to implement them?

The need is to work as citizen groups for safeguards against violence on women in our own vicinity, and with that, also to cooperate with wider and more basic methods being used by NGOs and Government.

Education is the main instrument of change in two ways: firstly, a woman must know her rights and learn to think for herself; secondly, education will help her to fend for herself economically. But law and order should come to her aid when her sexuality is exploited or abused or used to belittle her.

The more important education is for parents and society at large. Look at the way we run our homes. In life as in films, we see the women cooking, laying the dishes, then feeding their menfolk. The male child even at the age of five, is lovingly hand fed by the father while his sister and mother watch. As men ride into wedlock, they carry a crown and sword, and live with both symbolically deprived of their own real character and values as a result. They too should be free of such constraints to discover their innate humanity.

Shyam Benegal’s debut film Ankur describes this eloquently when Anant Nag as the landlord whimpers helplessly when Shabana Azmi, in her award winning role as his former maid and mistress, derides him before the whole village. He is unable to deal with his manhood.

It is this role model that men and women are forced to play in real life, regardless of rich or poor, educated or illiterate, that has to be changed.

Easily said and it can be done. It must start at home with parents and siblings taught to love one another whether male or female.