Tag Archives: rape

For Anonymous

(Photograph: Ruchir Joshi)
(Photograph: Ruchir Joshi)

That girl, the one without the name. The one just like us. The one whose battered body stood for all the anonymous women in this country whose rapes and deaths are a footnote in the left-hand column of the newspaper.

Sometimes, when we talk about the history of women in India, we speak in shorthand. The Mathura rape case. The Vishaka guidelines. The Bhanwari Devi case, the Suryanelli affair, the Soni Sori allegations, the business at Kunan Pushpora. Each of these, the names of women and places, mapping a geography of pain; unspeakable damage inflicted on women’s bodies, on the map of India, where you can, if you want, create a constantly updating map of violence against women.

For some, amnesia becomes a way of self-defence: there is only so much darkness you can swallow. They turn away from all the places that have become shorthand for violence beyond measure, preferring not to know about Kashmir or the outrages in Chattisgarh, choosing to forget the Bombay New Year assault, trying not to remember the deaths of a Pallavi Purkayastha, a Thangjam Manorama, Surekha and Priyanka Bhotmange, the mass rapes that marked the riots in Gujarat. Even for those who stay in touch, it isn’t possible for your empathy to keep abreast with the scale of male violence against women in India: who can follow all of the one-paragraph, three-line cases? The three-year-old raped before she can speak, the teenager assaulted by an uncle, the 65-year-old raped as closure to a property dispute, the slum householder raped and violently assaulted on her way to the bathroom. After a while, even memory hardens.

And then you reach a tipping point, and there’s that girl. For some reason, and I don’t really know why, she got through to us. Our words shrivelled in the face of what she’d been subjected to by the six men travelling on that bus, who spent an hour torturing and raping her, savagely beating up her male friend. Horrific, brutal, savage—these tired words point to a loss of language, and none of them express how deeply we identified with her.

She had not asked to become a symbol or a martyr, or a cause; she had intended to lead a normal life, practicing medicine, watching movies, going out with friends. She had not asked to be brave, to be the girl who was so courageous, the woman whose injuries symbolised the violence so many women across the country know so intimately. She had asked for one thing, after she was admitted to Safdarjung Hospital: “I want to live,” she had said to her mother.

We may have not noticed the reports that came in from Calcutta in February, of a woman abandoned on Howrah Bridge, so badly injured after a rape that involved, once again, the use of iron rods, that the police thought she had been run over by a car. We may have skimmed the story of the  16-year-old Dalit girl in Dabra, assaulted for three hours by eight men, who spoke up after her father committed suicide from the shame he had been made to feel by the village. Or some may have done something concrete about these things, changed laws, worked on gender violence, keeping their feelings out of it, trying to be objective.

But there is always one that gets through the armour that we build around ourselves. In 1972, the first year in which the NCRB recorded rape cases, there were 2,487 rapes reported across India. One of them involved a teenager called Mathura, raped by policemen; we remember her, we remember the history and the laws she changed. (She would be 56 now.)

Some cases stop being cases. Sometimes, an atrocity bites so deep that we have no armour against it, and that was what happened with the 23-year-old physiotherapy student, the one who left a cinema hall and boarded the wrong bus, whose intestines were so badly damaged that the injuries listed on the FIR report made hardened doctors, and then the capital city, cry for her pain.

She died early this morning, in a Singapore hospital where she and her family had been dispatched by the government for what the papers called political, not compassionate, reasons.

The grief hit harder than I’d expected. And I had two thoughts, as across Delhi, I heard some of the finest and toughest men I know break down in their grief, as some of the calmest and strongest women I know called and SMSed to say that she—one of us, this girl who had once had a future and a life of her own to lead—was gone, that it was over.

The first was: enough. Let there be an end to this epidemic of violence, this culture where if we can’t kill off our girls before they are born, we ensure that they live these lives of constant fear. Like many women in India, I rely on a layer of privilege, a network of friends, paranoid security measures and a huge dose of amnesia just to get around the city, just to travel in this country. So many more women have neither the privilege, nor the luxury of amnesia, and this week, perhaps we all stood up to say, “Enough”, no matter how incoherently or angrily we said it.

The second was even simpler. I did not know the name of the girl in the bus, through these last few days. She had a name of her own–it was not Amanat, Damini or Nirbhaya, names the media gratuitously gave her, as though after the rape, she had been issued a new identity. I don’t need to know her name now, especially if her family doesn’t want to share their lives and their grief with us. I think of all the other anonymous women whose stories don’t make it to the front pages, when I think of this woman; I think of the courage that is forced on them, the way their lives are warped in a different direction from the one they had meant to take. Don’t tell me her name; I don’t need to know it, to cry for her.

Talking rape

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Survivors, not victims:

This goes beyond semantics. The rape victim, in the minds of many Indian families and some of the media, is expected to suffer a kind of death along with her rape. It is not the violence that people are thinking about, when they say “her life is over”, of a rape victim; it’s the fact that she was stripped, exposed to strangers, and in their terms, dishonoured by the sexual assault. There is also a commercial devaluation: in families that see women as property, this woman, the rape victim, has suddenly been reduced to a person of no value on the marriage market.

This is very different from the reality of the rape survivor. In the best of all cases, the rape survivor is the woman who knows (or intuits) how common this kind of violent sexual assault is, and who makes the decision to move beyond shame, guilt, loss and everything else the world around her demands that she should now feel. The rape survivor reclaims her body, gives it the care and attention it needs, acknowledges her injuries but is not defined by them, acknowledges her rape but does not let her life be defined by an act she did not want and would have rejected if she had been allowed the choice. The rape survivor reclaims the right to be happy again, to heal, to have crazy, passionate sex again, to be interested in all that interested her before the rape, to develop new interests and passions, the right to feel whole again, the right to live fully and freely again.

The rape survivor is not necessarily just the brave woman who acknowledges her rape, tries to bring her rapists to justice, gets what help she needs and moves on with her life. The rape survivor is also the domestic worker who can’t grieve for herself and her injuries because she has to get into work the next day, the sex worker who can’t report her rape at the police station because she’ll run the risk of being raped by more policemen, the Dalit woman in Haryana who has no privacy after being violently raped because everyone in her village knows who did this to her, and how. Many rape survivors don’t have a choice in their bravery; the circumstances of their lives force upon them the basic courage it takes to get up the day after you’ve been raped and make rotis, go to office, go to the construction site where you have a hard-won job, look after the children, clean someone else’s house.

Given how commonplace sexual violence against women is, and given that we don’t expect the figures to drop drastically soon, it makes much more sense to acknowledge a basic truth—many women and some men will experience sexual violence in their lives. Instead of pretending that this is rare, or only talking about the worst instances, or talking only about how to prevent violence, important as that is, we need to talk about how to live your life well, even if you have experienced assault and violence.

We need to look at the many, many women and men who have moved on from the violence they were subjected to, and reshaped their lives; and we need to stop telling survivors that they’re on their own in this process of reconstruction. If so many women are going to experience or witness sexual violence in their lives, we also need to find ways to talk about what this does to us—we need to be able to speak openly, without fear of being judged, about our own experiences.

(I’ve said this before, but there is no acknowledgement or understanding of male rape; the ritualised sexual assault of men during college ragging rituals, for example, is normalized, seen as commonplace, the trauma rarely discussed. The male survivor of sexual violence in India is shamed and silenced in a different, but equally effective way.)

Men, not brutes:

One of the points I tried to make in a recent piece, ‘Executing The Neighbour’, was that rapists and the men behind sexual violence are not beasts, brutes or monsters. You will come across the occasional psychopath, the truly twisted horrorshow man who has a bloody chamber in his house filled with the corpses of his victims. But what we collectively find hard to accept is the banality of brutality, the unremarkable every-day quality of violence—perhaps because we are so silent about the violence that seems to run through the veins of many Indian families.

Most rapists know the women they have chosen to rape. What the NCRB statistics say, with stunning clarity, is that the average rapist is someone who is considered family, or a friend, or a neighbour, or a close acquaintance. Rape by complete strangers accounts for less than 9 per cent of all reported cases. The monster, the beast, the brute in the remaining 90 per cent of reported cases of rape across India: he’s familiar, one of us.

This is frightening to accept, just as it is frightening for people to start acknowledging that even violent rapes—the ones with the iron rods, the knifes of nightmare, the razor blades, the sharpened sticks shoved into women’s bodies—are often perpetrated by very ordinary men. The more we call rapists monsters and brutes, the less we acknowledge where rape comes from.

Equally troubling, we should not set up a hierarchy of violence and rape, where the media, and all of us, start to count bruises, start to discuss rapes in terms of competitive damage. That, in turn, diminishes the many, many rape survivors who were terrorized by the threat of force or violence, but who do not have injuries or scars to show. It diminishes all those survivors of sexual violence who never consented to what was done to them, never agreed that their bodies could be used that way, but were left without visible marks of assault.

In so many accounts of rape in India, especially, the man or men who rape have the full sanction of the community behind them. The gang rapes of women in times of communal riots; the almost ritualized rapes of Dalit women and women from lower castes because their men, or they, need to be taught a lesson; the custodial rapes, the rapes of women by men in uniform as a way of establishing dominance over the clan, the village, the community. All of these acts of violence are carried out with the approval and the collective silence of the wider community, just as child abuse (according to a 2007 survey, 53 % of Indian children of both genders have experienced child abuse) is carried out with the help of the collective silence of the family.

Most rapists are ordinary men. Many, like the politicians who have chargesheets against them, are men in positions of power and respect; or like the men who handed a woman around to be raped again and again in the Suryanelli case in Kerala, are “family men”. Perfectly ordinary. Perfectly respectable. Perfectly protected, because we don’t want to open up that can of worms; that comes too close to home.

Also: this violence has a cost. We’re not studying male violence enough, but how healthy do you think men can be if they inherit their fathers’ anger and pass it on to their sons? Perhaps this is why so many young men, in particular, are standing up and saying, Enough. Perhaps we need to hear from more men, young and old, about why they reject the rape culture around them, and why they have walked away from violence in their own lives, choosing other, better ways to live and love.

Some years ago, Sampath Pal, the founder of the Gulabi Gang, told me about how she had found the strength to start this movement of women who wore pink saris and beat up the men responsible for domestic violence. (They do broader work on a range of women’s rights issues now.) Her own passion was matched by her partner’s belief that she was right; he was ostracised by his village, and chose to support Sampath Pal rather than go back to his community.

I often think of men like him, or like Bhanwari Devi’s husband, who went with her to the police station after she was gangraped in 1992. He stood with his wife all through, rather than with the village that had first ostracised her for speaking up against child marriage, and then punished her with that chilling gangrape, the one committed with the blessings and knowledge of the community.

A few days before this December’s protests from young, urban Delhi at India Gate, the Times of India carried a small item. The Meham khap, one of the largest and most powerful of the Haryana village panchayat councils, announced that it would revert to the old methods of punishing boys and men accused of rape and sexual assault. It asked that families boycott the accused, and their families.

Perhaps this will work, perhaps not. It could, however, challenge the idea that the rape survivor is the one who bears the shame of the rape. Nor is the Meham khap’s decision a sudden flash-in-the-pan—over the last few years, Meham’s citizens appear to have expressed a collective anger over rising instances of sexual assault against women. The khaps have been in the news for more controversial pronouncements—bans on mobile phones for women, on various grounds, restrictions on meetings between young men and women—but the Meham khap’s decision signals some change.

Religion and tradition:

 If the family is one major site of change, religion and tradition form the other front. Religions can empower women—take Sikhism, the first major world religion to proclaim that women were equal to men, with souls of equal weight—but religious practice is another matter. If we’re serious about “stopping rape”—making sexual violence against women unacceptable, then one way to start might be to reject traditions and practices that denigrate women.

If your religion tells you that women must fast for men, but men don’t have to fast for women; that women are not welcome as leaders of the faith, or in the shrines and sanctums of faith; that women count for less than men, do not accept this blindly as a matter of duty. Every major world religion has gone through cycles of reform, and the lines of control have often shifted. Embrace that part of your faith which tells you to celebrate the strength of women and their equality with men; do not accept any prescription from any faith that tells you that a woman’s basic human rights are less important than religious practice.

The same applies to tradition, which has been used to justify everything from dowry to honour killings. The simple test for anything that is said to be the custom of the country: does it humiliate women? Does it threaten their wellbeing or their safety or their lives? If so, don’t support it.

Protesting injustice, expressing anger: these are important. But if Honey Singh’s vile pro-rape lyrics and Bollywood’s continued packaging of women’s bodies aren’t challenged as well, there’s little point to holding up placards asking for change and justice. Yes, the government and the state must change; but it can’t be only the government, only the state.

If you really want a system to change, start by changing the way women are treated every day, in their homes, in their workplaces, by their families. That kind of revolution, in our daily lives and behaviours, is much harder to bring about than passing a law, or setting up fast-track courts. It’s also more lasting.

More posts:

A blocked protest: Notes on my city

On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill

On the Dec 23 protests: At the heart of Delhi, no space for you; Dec 23 photos

On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour