|Volume 7 | Issue 01 | January 2013 ||
Beyond the Rage
SUSHMITA S PREETHA is hopeful that the Delhi protests can be translated into a feminist political agenda to challenge patriarchal structures of power.
As I sit not too many miles away in front of my TV, following the protests all over India after the brutal rape and murder of the 23-year-old medical student in Delhi, I am moved. I am moved by the articulate anger of the youth, by the zeal of the protestors who come out on the streets every day to demand long-term change, and by the sight of the men who have finally been nudged out of their cocoon of male privilege.
I am moved, and I am surprised, for I have gotten accustomed to the apathy and the dogged silence regarding violence against women.
I am moved, and I am glad that the recent upsurge has brought to the forefront many relevant issues that the Indian state, civil society and general public must now confront and address. It has drawn attention to the urgent need to enact and implement laws to better protect women. It has also highlighted the shortcomings of the judicial system -- the continuing and entrenched judicial delays, the non-responsiveness of key actors in the justice system, the lack of social support, and the pressures of powerful networks leveraged by the perpetrators which mean that accountability through the courts becomes a remote possibility in many cases. People are asking why the police and other state institutions are allowed to perpetrate violence against women, and why rapists and assaulters are permitted to run for elections.
The mass movements all over the country have also underscored the growing dissatisfaction of the urban youth with the political ruling class, and the inability of the political elite to react and respond to the democratic upsurge from below. As the editorial in The Hindu on December 24 argued, the government should have acted politically to assure the demonstrators that a serious national review of all legal issues surrounding rape, sexual assault and gender rights would be undertaken on an urgent basis. “Instead, its first and only instinct was to shut down the public transport system in Central Delhi and prepare for battle. When thousands of young women and men arrived at India Gate on Sunday having successfully evaded official attempts to restrict their movement, they found themselves face to face with a state apparatus that was not interested in a conversation,” wrote The Hindu. The massive deployment of police on December 29 to prevent protestors reaching the parliament, the India Gate war memorial and the official residences of Congress leaders in the name of security further solidified for the people the detachment of India's political elite.
When I see the ongoing protests, I am moved, and I am hopeful that the anger and the passion of the public can be translated into something constructive and sustainable -- into a feminist political agenda to challenge patriarchal structures of power.
I am moved, but I am also sceptical because patriarchy is a formidable foe and won't go without fierce, difficult and protracted battles -- battles that must be fought not only on the streets, in the parliament or in the courts, but in our homes, in our families and, most importantly, within ourselves.
I am moved, but I am concerned when I hear impassioned voices demanding castration and death penalty for rapists because it shows a very simplistic -- and hence problematic -- understanding of violence against women and diverts attention from the conditions that not only allow, but make inevitable, such systematic violence.
I will admit, as a woman and as someone who has seen many of her loved ones live and die through rape, assaults and harassment of all forms without any justice, I am tempted by the idea of disciplining the male body in such a crude and powerful manner. A part of me wants to cry, “Yeah, that'll teach those bastards a lesson, alright; if they can't use it responsibly, they shouldn't have the right to use it at all.” The other part, however, reminds me that rape is not an isolated manifestation of male power but rather part of a much larger process (or rather, processes) of male domination. As such, any attempts to address rape must also bring into sharp focus the unequal power relations between men and women -- and between different groups of women -- at every stage of society.
Rape and all other forms of gender-based violence are perhaps the most visible instruments of control over a woman's body, sexuality and being. As disciplinary apparatuses, they are not only inevitable but instrumental to the functioning of patriarchy. However, there are innumerable less conspicuous social practices that operate on and around the female body, dictating how she should think, what she should wear, when she should return home or who she can be with and in what capacity. In fact, it is through these everyday material and discursive processes of control that women are rendered docile, subservient, objects of sexual desire and 'rapable'. In fact, desire itself, in a patriarchal society, is dictated in strictly masculinist terms.
While we are willing to question the government, judiciary or the police, we often fail to see that these institutions do not exist separate from or outside the confines of the family and community structures that legitimise men's control over women. In a society that still tells daughters to remain in unhappy and violent marriages because marriage is the only viable life choice for a woman, in a culture that turns a blind eye towards an uncle raping a 12-year-old girl or parents killing a female foetus, enacting laws and dispending tougher punishments can only go so far in creating a change in the way women are envisioned. As conscientious Indians gather on the streets to demand justice, perhaps it is time to initiate the difficult task of ensuring equal social, political and economic status to women. Once we can guarantee that, hopefully gender-based violence will finally disappear.
I am moved to see the large numbers of well-educated English-speaking young women and men who have taken the lead on the mass movement. But I am also worried that their middle class conscience might gloss over the systematic violence against dalit women, adivasis, poor women, sex workers, refugees, transgender people, Muslims and other minority groups. They need to ask why some forms of violations are more acceptable than others, why they are unlikely to take to the streets to protest the rape of a sex worker or a dalit woman living in the slums or why they can rationalise the rape of women in Manipur and Kashmir by the Indian army. If we are to really understand patriarchy, and challenge it, we need to also take into consideration the other forms of oppression that shape, inform, act in co-relation with or in opposition to patriarchy. We need to pay attention to the intersections of gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, etc., if we are to truly initiate and bring about radical change.
Despite whatever limitations there might be, I am moved, and I am envious of the mass movement in India because the last time there was a similar uprising in Bangladesh over violence against women was too long ago. According to statistics published by the Mahila Parishad, 157 women reported being gang raped in 2012 alone (forget the total number of cases of rape or gender based violence). Were those rapes not brutal or sensational enough for our youth, civil society or media to rise in outrage? How much worse must things get before we say, “Enough is really enough”?
I am moved, and I am convinced that something constructive must come out of this rage.
Sushmita S Preetha, an activist, is a reporter with The Daily Star.
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