AN ESSAY BY RITA BANERJI
Rita Banerji is an author, photographer, and gender activist from India. She is the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign to end India’s female gendercide. Her book ‘Sex and Power: Defining History Shaping Societies’ is a historical and social study of the relationship between sexuality, gender and power in India, and how it leads up to the ongoing female gendercide.
Pick up the newspaper in any part of India today, and there is bound to be news of a local gang rape. Here are some reports just from the month of January this year: A house-wife in Mumbai was gang raped by the men delivering cooking gas
cylinders to her home; a 13-year-old school girl visiting her parents
for the holidays was gang raped and killed in Uttarakhand; a teenage girl in Kolkata was gang raped by the same men twice, the second time for filing a police complaint, and burnt to death
; a 51-year-old Danish tourist was gang raped
at knife point by eight men in Delhi. Women’s activists downplay this trend by insisting that women are simply reporting rapes more often. However, rapes by single perpetrators, known or unknown, are almost never reported to the police or made public. In fact, these rapes are often zealously concealed and even denied by the victims’ own families.
But the rape crimes that India is undeniably seeing an escalation in are violent assaults by gangs of men
, in which the victims are either killed, or so brutalised they have to be hospitalised. There is also a corresponding increase of fear amongst women. It is more than a fear of rape. It is the terror of being attacked by a gang of men, where pepper-sprays, self-defence, hand-guns, and emergency speed-dials can be of no help. Nation-wide surveys indicate that 94% of Indian women feel unsafe
outside their homes. And this fear is increasingly curbing their lives, choices and movement. In fact those in the survey who have traveled to the west, said they feel safer and freer in other countries.
Gang rapes by their very nature are collective male statements. In the case of an individual committing rape, the knowledge of the crime usually exists only between the rapist and the victim. The rapist uses his power to silence the victim so he can conceal what he knows is a crime with legal consequences. But a gang rape, by its very set-up, has numerous eye-witnesses, who in their cooperative, often excited, and cheering participation in the assault, negate to each other the criminal nature of the act they are all committing. This is in fact a collective validation of the rape. The question that is imperative here is: Why this escalation in gang rapes in India?
One of the clues to that question comes from another case of a gang rape in January this year in Birbhum
, West Bengal, where on orders of the panchayat (the village council) a 20-year-old tribal woman was gang-raped by a dozen men as ‘punishment’ for loving a man from another community. The woman was put on a platform, and raped all night with everyone, including women and children watching. Many have said that normally in circumstances like this, the panchayat at worst would excommunicate the person. There are incidents though in other parts of India, where women have been stripped naked and paraded through the village. Women are also routinely publicly lynched for this: the so-called ‘honour killings.’ But gang-rape by the village as a ‘punishment,’ as in this case, is unknown not just for this tribal community but in other communities too.
On being asked, the villagers said
the woman deserved it, because she was a ‘bad influence,’ and too ‘defiant,’ ‘curt,’ and ‘outwardly.’ This was an oblique reference to the fact that this woman had moved to Delhi where she was working as a cook. She had learnt Hindi, viewed as a ‘foreign,’ urban language by the villagers, and could purchase what are seen as ‘luxury’ goods, a music-box, face-creams etc. for herself. More so, where firm reminders about social boundaries and rules for women would be enough to restrain other women, this young woman had the confidence of her independent living and earnings outside the community, such that she could not be intimidated into submission.
But it was this young woman’s unstated assertion of power as an individual with freedom of choice that was particularly unsettling for the tribal patriarchy. It is important here to understand that the earnings of women, or the cash they bring in to the community, are themselves not seen as a threat. In fact, where women are traditionally viewed as sexual and reproductive resources, there is an increasing tendency in India to also regard them as a wealth source. Grooms’ families not only feel entitled to demand exorbitant dowries, but view the bride and her family as endless cash wells even after the wedding. It is now customary for middle-class educated families seeking brides for their sons, to inspect a prospective bride’s CV, job and earning potential. It is not uncommon that when the cash stops coming in, the husband and his parents gang lynch the wife. Each year there is an escalation in such dowry related murders
. A bride who is no longer a cash-source is regarded as dispensable. Even in the case of ‘honour killings,’ the patriarchy views the women as worthless, personal property they own, that they are entitled to ‘destroy.’
In the case of the tribal woman, the gang rape was a collective and aggressive means to crush the woman’s attempt to assert her individuality and rights, and to degrade her to a de-humanised, sexual commodity for the community’s ‘use.’ In essence it was their way of putting her in what they believed was her ‘rightful’ place in society, and doing it in a manner so that the message went out as a warning to other women who might contemplate challenging their assigned roles in the community.
At the time of the Birbhum gang rape, a sentence by the artist Imroz, in the book I was reading seemed to make particular sense. He said, men can “accept [women’s] incomes very easily, but never their independence.” The book, Amrita Imroz: A Love Story, is about the avant-garde relationship between the Indian author and poet, Amrita Pritam and the artist Imroz, the man whom she lived with, without marrying for more than 40 years. Even more scandalous was the fact that Amrita was a married woman with children when she moved in with Imroz in the 1960s. Imroz was labeled a ‘kept’ man. This was not a reference to economic dependency for he was a well-established artist and earning twelve times her income. The social contention was that Imroz did not know how to ‘keep’ a woman in her ‘place.’ Instead he embraced and loved Amrita in her personal and creative totality, children, choices and all. Though many admired Amrita’s poetry, the media and the public were often scathing in their denunciation of her lifestyle and choices.
Indeed, collective male psyche, aggressively reclaiming social space, and putting women in their ‘rightful boxes’ plays out in other ways even in the urban and educated landscape in India. In 2012, a woman was gang-raped at gunpoint on Calcutta’s Park Street, when she took a ride home with a man she had met at the club where she had gone dancing. The public verdict, which was reiterated by the state’s Chief Minister, a woman, was that being a mother of two girls, her place was at home. If she was dancing in a club with strange men then she must be a “prostitute
.” The rape survivor and her family
were forced out of their home by neighbours, her children were harassed in school, and despite some well-meaning support, she is still unable to find a job.
Five years ago, some women met at a pub in Mangalore to relax and talk over drinks, like urban, working women all over the world. A gang of men, who decided that the women’s western clothes and drinking were an affront to Indian culture, attacked the women, and physically and sexually assaulted them. This was videotaped, and the video was viewed by millions on the internet and on television channels. Not a single politician, not even the female leaders, denounced the incident. Other than 50,000 odd persons on Facebook, who formed the ‘Pink Panties Campaign’
and valiantly protested against this attempt to repress women’s freedom and individual choices, the majority in India agreed that they were an offence to Indian culture. A representative of the National Commission for Women (NCW), the highest office for women’s rights in India, investigated the incident and reported that the women’s clothing and behaviour had indeed provoked the men to attack. And further, if women intended to exercise such choices, they should do so at their own peril. This month, the NCW reinforced its stand when another of its officers announced that the Delhi bus gang rape victim returning home after a movie, and the Mumbai photo journalist who had been gang raped while on assignment last year, had indeed invited the attacks. She said
“women should know better than to be out in the evenings.”