In the last fortnight, we unlearned submission. On December 16, a 23 year old girl, just on the brink of leading a socio-economically independent life was raped in a moving bus at 9.30 at night.
We saw protests, we saw outraged masses. It is the first time in the history of this nation, when people were out on the streets on the issue of gender. For more than two weeks in a row. And it continues. Figures have been thrown at us: every 20 minutes a woman is raped in India, every third victim is a child, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
At one of these protest sites, the car parking contractor informed me that they have slashed the parking charges from 30 bucks to 10 bucks in solidarity with the girl and her family. This may be dismissed as a ‘simplistic’ contribution by those who have been accusing these protests of being ‘middle class’. But we need to hit the core, to understand the wider repercussions of the Parking contractor’s this simple act.
In a country where 30 percent of sexual abusers are family members and almost every woman can recollect at least one incident of abuse within the ‘safe domains’ of a family in her lifetime, sexual abuse is often a tightly guarded secret. It’s a ghost. Middle class patriarchal domestic spaces do not even allow discussing or reporting it, to uphold their regressive moralistic notions of sanitised spaces. Where girls, as soon as they hit puberty are told, ‘from now on you must stay away from boys’. Where television channels are switched if they broadcast a rape report. In such a gender claustrophobic society, a stranger is ready to discuss ‘rape’ on his own initiative with me, on the road, is an achievement in itself. These protests are struggling to get rid of the baggage associated with the word ‘rape’. It was this moment that made me hopeful that these protests are in a way rupturing the idea of gendered spaces in the country. The same gendered spaces which are seen as male bastions and the women who perforate them are taught a lesson.
That night, the bus too was a gendered space. The girl entered it with a male friend. Her choice to be out with that particular man in the male fiefdom was an ‘offence’. Her male friend’s objection to the lewd remark passed by the six culprits was a breach of the male dominion. Her attempts to bite them, three of them, while they were assaulting her, was an assault on the male fiefdom. And thats why the the brutality that followed: inserting a rod in her vagina and pulling out her ‘rope-like’ intestines, like any other rape, was not an act of sexual gratification, but purely an act of male assertion. The patriarchal society we live in feels threatened when traditionally male occupied spaces are explored by women. It does not know how to deal with it. The act of throwing the girl and her companion naked on the road was a declaration that those who attempt to turn male territories into equal spaces will be meted out a similar treatment.
The day the girl passed away, I was waiting for my turn outside a public toilet, which are few in this country at Janpath in Delhi. Two men were vociferously engaged in a discussion, swearing on the private parts of their mothers and sisters in alternate sentences. One of the men lifted his head, saw me and said ‘sorry’. In a city like Delhi, swearing on the private parts of women is a common slang. It is almost the third word of each sentence. Even ‘gender-sensitive’ men and ‘liberated’ women use it, sometimes to abuse and sometimes to fit comfortably in the male spaces. In such a scenario, this apology was a first. This superficial acknowledgement of the misogyny associated with the that particular slang is a ramification of bringing gender debates from intellectual, theorised, NGO-ised spaces to the public arena.
There are plethora of accusations and problems with these protests. Extreme Leftists have rejected them as another middle class stunt, like the Anna movement, questioning why is the nation not similarly outraged when several Dalit, Kashmiri, Northeastern women are raped almost everyday. It is indeed true, that the passive cocoon the middle class lives in is difficult to break. However, this particular gangrape smashed it. Thus, this historic moment can then not be wasted in recounting the apathy of the middle class or alienating oneself from the outrage. It is the time to engage and give the struggle a direction.
Housewives, students, the old, the common, were out on the roads protesting against the rape of a working class girl. Some wanted the culprits to be hanged, some wanted chemical castration. During a silent march from Mandi House to Jantar Mantar to mourn the death of the girl on December 30, a passionate housewife, Puja, started sloganeering to demand death penalty for the accused. She believed that death sentence will prove to be a deterrent. Activists and intellectuals saw this moment to engage and argue her out of the simplistic understanding. At how this approach is not oriented to reform the society but to punish. She was made to see the larger picture. This is the effort required to be made by activists and intelligentsia to sensitise, to include.
Also, to repeat certain facts which unfortunately are seen as a rhetoric: According to 2011 census, over one million unborn girls are killed every year. The socio-economic reasons behind this are well known. Patriarchy’s role definition of women does not allow them to be seen as breadwinners, successors,equals. And that is why prejudices against them percolates down to their food plates. According to UNICEF, in India, 90 percent of adolescent girls are malnourished as inadequate resources of families are divided preferentially among men. Where even middle class, ‘well to do’ girls are often ‘allowed’ to be economically independent only through professions like ‘teaching and medicine’ which are more ‘feminine’ or ‘maternal’ in nature. Where they have to barter their economic independence by leaving the choice of their life partners with their parents. It is in this light, her father’s decision, who is a porter at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, to sell off his land for the education of his daughter, even when he has two younger sons to take care of, is not just exemplary but also extremely significant.
When the middle class thronged the roads protesting against this rape, they got a first hand taste of the police atrocities. Unlike the Anna movement, here they were ready to face police batons, water cannons, tear gas, which was till now for them only a romantic image of a revolution. They lived the reality of stone pelting in Kashmir and the autocracy of the Armed Forces Special Power Acts in the Northeast. It may be surface sensitisation, but it was also a moment to expose the sex terrorism of the state. To discuss custodial rapes, about the rapes of adivasi women like Laxmi Orang, who have been waiting for justice for the last five years or that of Manorama who was raped and killed eight years back by the army. And it is in this light then the middle class may understand the grotesqueness of Central Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde’s statement when he says, “ Tomorrow, if 100 adivasis are killed in Chhattisgarh or Gadchiroli, can the government go there?” It is this participation, even at a cursory level, that is potent enough to initiate the scrutiny of political representatives and their prejudices. It is then the statement of former Uttar Pradesh Congress President, Rita Bahuguna, herself a woman, who said, “Mayawati too should be raped and then given Rs 1 crore as compensation” or the statement of West Bengal CPM MLA Anisur Rehman, who said, “ How much will Mamta Banerjee charge if she gets raped.?” reflect the existing political leadership’s indoctrinated misogyny and the tendency to trivialise rape.
It also, for the first time, we heard words like ‘patriarchy’ being discussed on the streets and in the mainstream media. In juxtaposition, the machismo of certain men was manifested in the forms of protests, where young boys displayed stunts on moving bikes with ‘hang the rapists, save our sisters’ placards. They were again hijacking the spaces that were being used by women to assert their rights. It is then, young girls displayed placards in opposition saying, ‘I don’t need to be someone’s daughter or sister to move freely on the street.’ This at least created a space to ask uncomfortable questions. To discuss how patriarchy not just patronises women but also forces them to conform to traditional, ‘dutiful’ roles of a daughter, mother, wife and sister.
A girl held a placard with, ‘I will use the same rod to smash your head,’written it. Naive and violent it may be but it announces that women’s vagina’s are penetrated with things other than penis too, which is otherwise conveniently ignored by the sanitised middle class. And that is also rape, which our judicial system does not recognise as in the case of Soni Sori, the tribal woman whose vagina was inserted with stones, thus hinting at a need to change the rape law, to understand rape better.
For a woman who has made the journey from a stereotypical, upper caste patriarchal, middle class, small city person to a person who is still struggling to fight it on a daily basis, to do away with all stereotypes and acknowledge one’s privileges to engage with the working class, I understand the importance of unlearning. In creating an independent life, in awakening one’s own critical consciousness.
It is this unlearning that was instigated by these protests amongst the middle class. The unlearning that teaches to refute, question, assert and empathise. The Indian feminist movement is hidden under these protests.
Published on January 5, 2013 on kafila.org