Fight Violence Against Women Across the Country- Viplav Sanskritik Manch

December 29, 2012


The horrific gang-rape of a young student in the Munirka-Mahipalpur area on December 16th has sparked off wide protests in Delhi. Thousands of people, young and old, have congregated at police stations, India Gate and the CM’s residence expressing their outrage at the brutal incident and the government and police’s lax attitude.

But instead of sensitively listening to people demanding ‘justice’ for the young woman, the Delhi government has created an Emergency like situation and attacked protestors with tear gas, smoke grenades, water cannons and lathi charge! It is heartening to see that common people have braved the systematic force used by the government and still collected in the area. Women with young children, elderly people, families on a Sunday outing, young girls in a discussion on violence they face, activists, journalists-were indiscriminately beaten up by the Delhi Police and Rapid Action Force (RAF) at India Gate on 22-23 December. Metro stations around India Gate are closed and Section 144, which prohibits the assembly of more than 5 people in a public space, has been applied in the area. It’s striking to see the government acting so swiftly and efficiently against peaceful protestors, when during riots, emergencies or when common people are harassed, they are nowhere to be found.

National statistics show that in our country, a woman is raped every 20 minutes. Daily life for women is littered with abuse – unwelcome stares and leering, groping and harassment, lewd comments on the street; beatings, molestation and rape by male family members and threats for dowry in the home. Rising figures of female foeticide show that most girls are killed in the womb. Women who assert their independence and marry outside the caste or community are beheaded or hacked to death by their won families in “honour” killings. Women are barred from working outside the home, while working class women who do are thought of as easy prey and ‘loose’. With such unequal and oppressive gender relations, why should we look at rape as unique?

Rape and sexual assault are not aberrations, but they are the norm. Our society celebrates sexual assault in strange ways – the harassment during holi that is brushed away as ‘mamuli ched-chaad’ or the idea that ‘ladki ke na me hi han hai’. Or the pop songs that play constantly on the radio, Honey Singh’s ‘main hun balatkari’ is an obvious example. It’s important to realize that rapists are not ‘demons’. The rampant misogyny and patriarchal practices of our society are what produce rape and rapists. Violence against women is so routine that women who protest it are usually frowned at and condemned. When a woman is sexually assaulted, people ask what she did to “provoke” the man. What she was wearing, something she said, being out in the night, roaming around, her ‘character’ – any of these could mean that she “asked for it”. This is why it is absolutely imperative for us to protest this rape.

But remember September in Haryana? Twenty cased of gang-rape were reported in a month and many of these were Dalit women raped by upper caste men. In 2006, Priyanka and Surekha Bhotmange, two dalit women demanding rightful ownership over their land, were raped, stripped and beaten to death by a crowd of dominant caste men and women in Khairlanji, Maharashtra. During the Gujarat riots of 2002, many Muslim Women raped and murdered by Bajrang Dal and VHP activists. These were women were all attacked not only because they were women but because they were Dalit and Muslim women. In the past month, two minor girls were raped in other cases in north and east Delhi on December 16th itself. A young woman in Siliguri was drudged, gang-raped, and then burnt, and a 5 year old Dalit girl was raped and killed in Bihar. But none of these terrible cases received the same kind of reactions from people or reportage in the press as the Delhi gang-rape case. Is it because we don’t value these women’s lives and safety as much as a middle-class students in Delhi? Or because Dalit, Muslim or working class girls are always thought of as ‘loose’ or ‘inferior’? Or that when women are demanding land, their rights, equal wages or fighting dominant ideas of ‘development’ then violence against them is justified?

If we really want to fight sexual assault, we can’t afford to look at this incident as an isolated case. We must link it with the cases described above. Men do NOT rape for sex or pleasure- they do it to assert their power. This power is not just that of men against women, but of upper-caste men against dalit women, employers against women working in their households or factories, landed men against landless women tilling their fields, and the state against dissenters. Sexual violence is directed against all people is subjugated position.

The people of Delhi are on the streets with the slogan “we want justice”. At this point, it is crucial for us to think through what we mean by ‘justice’ for this young women and rape victims everywhere. Can the definitions of justice being offered today be a real answer?

Today there is frenzy around death penalty for the six rapists. Political parties have endorsed this punishment and common people seem to be rallying around it as well. Some individuals, as well as sections of the media like the Times Group, have even proposed sensational measures like chemical castration for rapists. But can capital punishment be a solution? In all crimes where it is allowed, it has proved to be a weak deterrent. Death penalty, which can only be given in ‘rarest of rare’ cases, will bring the conviction rate for rape down even more than the current obysmal 27%. It may push rapists to kill their victims so that there’s no evidence against them. Further, as statistics show, 90% of rape cases are perpetrated by people known to the victim. When it is already very difficult for women to report their fathers, brothers, uncles or friends for assault, this will become even tougher if the punishment is death.

Death penalty also reinforces the widely held belief that rape is a ‘fate worse than death’ for women and strips them and their families of ‘honour’. The BJP’s Shushma Swaraj has said that the young student will be a ‘zinda lash’ or ‘the living dead’ if she survives. Paradoxically, the doctors have called her a fighter and expressed her desire to continue her studies. This is substantially different from the idea of a raped woman being a victim whose life is over!

More than pragmatic reasons, there is a big question on the ethicality of capital punishment. Giving the state even more powers and the “legitimate right to kill” is dangerous.

More important than severity of the punishment is the certainty that there will indeed be a punishment. This requires strong legal and police reforms. Most rape victims, especially Dalits and Muslims, are dissuaded from filing cases by the police themselves and thus the majority go unreported. If they do manage to file cases, they are subjected to the worst kinds of questioning and abuse. Rape trials that regularly take years to conclude become an added burden on the victim. Changes in legal framework are also much-needed. Many women’s groups are rightly demanding that the definition of rape should be widened from penile penetration of the vagina, to anal penetration, penetration by objects, non-penetrative assault and so on. There are many loopholes in the legal framework around rape that quick and easy solutions like death penalty cannot change. A better deterrent would be trials carried out effectively by a sensitive judiciary, lawyers and police and assured punishment.

We must also seriously question the intentions and integrity of the Parliamentarians shedding crocodile’s tears for the young student. The same political parties have carried out and justified sexual assault of women across the country. The Congress has shielded men guilty of sexual violence. Soni Sori, an adivasi school teacher in Dantewada, Chattishgarh has accused state police of torture and being raped with stones, but the government instead of taking action, gave the SP Ankit Garg a Police Gallantry medal!

Other political parties are no better. BJP women members have made fiery speeches in the Lok Sabha and media, but their party has indulged in worst kinds of violence against women, be it calls for systematic rape of Muslim women during the Babri Masjid demolition (1992) or during the Gujarat riots when scores of Muslim women were raped and murdered under Narendra Modi’s leadership. Modi was voted to Gujarat government for a third term the day the Delhi protests broke out!

It is the same political system that justifies rape by armed personnel and police. Remember the rapes and murders of Asiya and Nilofer Jan in Shopian, Kashmir by the army, that were protested by Kashmiri youth in the streets, much like we’ve seen at india Gate in the past few day. There the youth faced not just lathis and water cannons, but guns and bullets of the state police. Or the army’s brutal rape and murder of Manorama Devi in Manipur in 2004 which agitated Manipuri women activists to protest naked at the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal, with posters saying “Indian Army, Rape Us”. These crimes go ignored and unpunished in the name of “national pride” and “security”, with faulty enquiries that seek to bury the evidence rather than bringing the guilty to book. The rapists roam free under the protection of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA).

Are legal solutions enough? Laws, no matter how strong or effective, can’t change the social system that produces violence against women. We should challenge the traditions that bind us to the ‘safety’ of our homes, families and communities, and take to the streets and public places even more, for work or fun. We need solutions that take into account the social and political set-up that makes sexual violence emerge, a society that rests on the oppression of the many for the privilege of a few. Unless we build a strong solidarity with all women and men facing violence, because of their work, their caste or religion, their sexual choices, we cannot fight rape.

Speed up rape trials and punish the perpetrators!

Down with patriarchy!

Viplav Sanskritik Manch