It has been a year of images of protest marches, television talk show conversations and sometimes even serious engaged dialogue on the subject of violence against women.
In our book, Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (2011), we asserted women’s right to be in public spaces for fun, the right to take risks without being censured for it. After the Delhi attacks, Kavita Krishnan seemed to echo these ideas in a speech that went viral when she said, “We will be adventurous. We will be reckless. We will be rash. We will do nothing for our safety.
Don’t you dare tell us how to dress, when to go out at night, in the day, or how to walk or how many escorts we need!” Since then, Krishnan has become an important spokesperson for this emerging dialogue.
The Justice Verma Committee (JVC) report, based on the depositions of feminist lawyers and activists in some ways, transformed the language of the debate by, among other things, widening the definition of sexual assault. This expanded version which made its way into the new law, is something that we, feminists as much as anyone else, are still grappling with. As the survivor of the Tejpal assault put it in a statement she issued, “I don’t know if I am ready to see myself as a ‘rape victim’, or for my colleagues, friends, supporters and critics to see me thus. … the law is clear: what Mr Tejpal did to me falls within the legal definition of rape.” This starkly honest narrative also points to the victim-blaming that almost inevitably follows any act of sexual assault.
However, as her statement suggests, women are speaking out and though there continues to be no little victim blaming, there are counter voices being heard as well. A decades-old article written by rape survivor Sohaila Abdulali resurfaced after the December 16 gangrape. Not wanting this to be her last word on the subject, she wrote another piece in which she reminded us strongly that there was life after rape, “Life rewarded me richly for surviving. I stumbled home, wounded and traumatized, to a fabulous family. … I found true love. I wrote books. I saw a kangaroo in the wild. I caught buses and missed trains. I had a shining child. The century changed. My first gray hair appeared.”
In a similar vein, more recently the gutsy journalist, survivor of the Shakti Mills attack was quoted as saying, “Rape is not the end of life”. Suzette Jordan, the inspiring survivor of the Park Street assault discarded her anonymity choosing to march in protest as herself. In an interview she was quoted saying, “I was sick of being called ‘Park Street’. I realized that I can’t fight this behind a mask. I had to make the point that we have nothing to be ashamed of. Society should be ashamed to make rape victims feel a stigma. Me? The ‘Park Street Rape Victim’? Bullshit! I’m a mother, I’m a daughter, I’m a sister. People depend on me and love me!” Jordan’s stance dramatically changes the terms of engagement for us all.
Survivors are increasingly making the case that rape is not a fate worse than death, a transformative idea in a context where honour is all important. In our research on women’s access to public space in Mumbai, we found repeatedly that women would choose to put themselves at physical risk in order to safeguard their reputations. For instance women would walk 100 metres or more to their homes rather than be seen being escorted by unrelated men, regardless of whether they were their boyfriends or not. In such a context the assertion of the value and eventual joy to be found in survival is no less than a radical revelation.
And yet, not enough is changing — this conversation seems confined to middle class women, and usually we see front-page coverage of sexual attacks committed by lower class men on middle or upper class women. Attacks on lower class women or indeed attacks by middle or upper class men (unless they are celebrities) rarely make it to the headlines.
There is little or no dialogue on the structural power that tacitly sanctions the sexual assault of tribal and Dalit women; or indeed that poor women are less likely to report rape as was seen in the Shakti Mills case, where it was discovered that several rag-picker women had been raped by the same/similar gangs but had not reported the crimes. Even after the journalist filed an FIR, the only person to come forward and report this gang was a call centre employee, arguably another middle class woman. The question, who can afford to speak and who will be heard is an important one that we must not forget.
Despite these gross limitations, it is nonetheless a start. Because some women are willing to raise their voices and make themselves heard, something infinitesimal is changing for all women.
The Tejpal assault and the brave young woman who spoke up have publicly reminded us that a progressive politics does not mean a lack of sexism or indeed prevent someone from being the perpetrator of sexual assault. So also in the case of former SC judge AK Ganguly, known for his otherwise progressive views, who has been accused of harassing an intern. Tejpal and Ganguly are among the few high profile visible middle or upper class men accused of sexual assault/ harassment. Though their offences were not ostensibly committed in public places, they have become part of the larger debate on violence against women.
The JVC report also saw fit to draw a continuum of acts of violence against women, making recommendations on not just rape and sexual assault but also verbal sexual assault, sexual harassment, acid attacks, offences against women in conflict zones, and suggested the discontinuation of the two finger test as well as recommendations for actions of the police. We would do well to use these recommendations as our guidelines as we continue to struggle both against violence committed on women and the ideologies that prevent us from speaking out and/or being heard.
The author teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences