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The word ‘rape’ comes from the French verb ‘raper’ which means to steal .While sexual assault is a big act of aggression on the women’s body and mind, this word does not connote the violent attack on her rights regarding her sexuality, but, rather gives importance to the honour being stolen away from her. And here too it is not her honour that the society is concerned about but that of her man, her family.
December- January 2012
The place where the women and her male friend boarded the bus at around 9 p.m., a busy and crowded area, called Munirka, is (was till now) a site where a case like this was unheard of (unheard of- is a case like this occurring in the public sphere of a market area during the busy hours of the city). Though women face lewd comments and men staring at them, these acts fall under the category of ‘normal’, a ‘normal’ understanding says that rapes in working class localities and slums are widespread, but not in a place like Munirka. Our ‘normal’ understanding also says that a women wearing salwar kameez, accompanied by a man in a crowded area around 9 p.m. in the night (like in this particular case) is safe. This incident shook many beliefs of students, parents and families, many of whom were spotted in the streets of Delhi protesting for the safety and ‘freedom’ of women, women like them and their daughters.
The week that followed 16th December 2012, the day when a daughter of a lower middle class family and a student of physiotherapy in All India Institute of Medical Science, was brutally sexually assaulted by 7 men in a public bus, large number of students, women organizations, middle class women and families took to the ‘streets’. Sites of protests that were first limited to the Vasant Vihar police station and the area around it, soon shifted to India Gate and Jantar Mantar (Jantar Mantar is one of those state sanctioned areas for protests!). Sheila Dixit’s (Delhi’s Chief Minister and a member of the ruling party, Congress) house, Police Headquarter in ITO were among the other places that the protesters occupied to vent out their anger against the ruling party, Congress or/and against the police force. In all this media had a prominent role to play in broadcasting every movement, mobilization and ‘tension/friction’, that was taking place not only in Delhi but also in other metropolitan cities like Bangalore and Calcutta.
After the day the protesters pelted stones at the police force present at India Gate and were lathi charged, something that was beyond the expectations of the protesters, all entries to India Gate were heavily barricaded and hence shut for protests. The crowd then moved to JantarMantar where one was allowed to enter to PROTEST after a bag and body check.
It is significant to scrutinize the composition of the protesters and to pose the question, whether one can understand the entire mobilization simply as a ‘spontaneous’ participation of protesters. A section of the protesters (mostly students and women organisations) came in huge numbers, expressing their anger immediately after 2 days the incident took place (the incident was reported in the newspapers the very next day). One saw an angry mob in front of the Vasant Vihar police station, blocking roads, shouting slogans and saw residents of Munirka join. Many of the protesters were witnessing and joining such a demonstration for the very time. The protesters mostly belonged to the middle class, where a large section automatically links corruption and manipulation with political parties in India. Looking into the question of leadership, JNUSU (Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union) made initial attempts to organize, which did succeed in getting the groups of protesters together but which fizzled away as the movement grew. All India Students Association and All India Progressive Women Association (Students and women wings of CPI (ML) Liberation) took over the leadership speaking not only the dominant language of the movement but also shaping and moulding the popular discourse. The movement spoke of ensuring the security of women in Delhi, ensuring her freedom to mobility, the movement spoke of reclaiming the night, the time when the city becomes unsafe for women, for women returning from work or going to work (in case of a night shift) and for women who enjoy being out in the night. Some of the demands raised by many women and student organizations are (1) ’gender sensitizing training modules’ must be introduced for the police force, (2) increase in women constables (3) fast track courts for cases of sexual violence (4) formation of laws addressing rape and sexual violence in consultation with women organisations and students and many more.
In Jantar Mantar one noticed that people formed different groups. So there were group of right extremist people (represented mostly by the men in the sites of protests), group of left organization (like CPI (ML) Liberation) and then there was a huge group of students and Delhi middle class residents who resisted the entry of protesters representing organizations. CPI (M) and AIDWA had formed their separate camp, where political celebrities like Yechury, Brinda Karat made their special appearances. And then there were people who chose not to belong to any camp and use the space outside the circles/groups to converse with people or to the media, which not only caught emotions of anger on camera, but also at times directed scenes of people crying. these sites, Jantar Mantar, India Gate and other places in Delhi saw people expressing thier anger through the modes of music and banners, but then the visual expression remained sadly restricted within these sites. Many recollect their experiences during the women’s movements in the 70s in India, where one saw an innovative usage of the urban space through paintings, poems and other visual expression, this however was completely absent in this particular movement. One of the most popular slogan that demanded freedom were, ‘we want freedom to get out in the night’, ‘we want freedom to work’, we want freedom to travel alone’, ‘we want freedom to be free’, ‘we want freedom from institutions like khap panchayat’. (Khap panchayat- these institutions that run separately from the Indian law control inter-caste marriages where women and men are often killed for doing so.
Women’s movements and organisations in India have repeatedly raised their voices against ‘honour’ killings, dowry, female infanticide, wife beating and other practices in urban and rural India. They have also fought and supported struggles against police and military forces accused of sexual harassments and assaults. Rape is not an act of pleasure. Rape is used by the State and the military to infuse fear in the people. It is a tool of domination.
States like Kashmir and Manipur, which demand freedom from the Indian State, have been facing brutal repression on a daily basis. The military forces, an integral instrument of the State, uses rape and harassment blatantly as a means to assert their power in these conflict zones! A large Muslim population of Kashmir are either killed in fake encounters or are made to rot in jails for being tagged a ‘terrorists’ by the Indian State. News of custodial violence and rape are both numbing and usual in these conflict zones. There are not few houses but towns and villages in Kashmir that have experience the extreme violence inflicted upon them by the Indian State. There remains a cloud of fear and anger over these regions- hovering over them every single day and night. People continue to fight for their azadi (freedom).
Manipur has a similar tale to tell. Kidnapped, brutally tortured, sexually assaulted and murdered by the personnels of the paramilitary force of 17 Assam Rifles in Manipur, Manorama Devi was victimised in the case of custodial rape in the year 2004. People of Manipur continue to fight and await justice. This is only one of the millions stories of military brutality and oppression.
The rage and anger expressed in the year 1974 by the women’s movement, when a adivasi (tribal) girl named Mathura was sexually assaulted by police officers in a place in the state of Maharashtra, led to the changes in the definition of the term ‘rape’ and inclusion of ‘custodial rape’, where custodial rape is today defined as follows,
‘Custodial rape is a rape in the custody or care and control of a person either in the custody of police, jailer, or in the custody of hostel superintendent, remand officers etc.’1
It is important to see the current movement and the demands in the legal realm as part of the women’s movement in India at the same time this movement recognised that sexual violence is not a women’s issue but the issue of the society.
Justice Verma Committee and the fight for changes in law- time to negotiate and compromise?
We feel that it is the duty of the State as well as civil society to deconstruct the paradigm of shame-honour in connection with a rape victim. Rape is a form of sexual assault just like any other crime against the human body under the IPC.
-Justice Verma Recommnedation
Early this january the government had set up a commission headed by Justice Usha Mehra to enquire into the aspects of the particular case of sexual assault of 16th December 2012 and further has asked people to contact and send in complaints against the police or any other authority responsible and suggestions Another commission ihas been set up called the Justice Verma Commsion to specifically look into the laws regarding sexual assault for the purpose of giving speedy justice and formulate recommendations. This commission too invites suggestion from the people.
The recommendations for the changes in the Criminal Law that were finally prepared are considered to be a revolutionary set of recommendations in the India history of law. It sees rape in relation of power relations and rejects rape as ‘a crime of passion’ .The Indian Penal Code clearly states under the definition of rape, that a wife cannot accuse her husband of rape. In other words a wife becomes the property of the husband in marriage and hence cannot refuse to any act of sexual intercourse. The Justice Verma Committee recommends the consideration of marital rape under the Penal Code. Further in India it is a very common experience that women often face harassment by the police officers when filing a complaint and hence many women avoid going to the police station to avoid the harassment. The recommendations takes up this issue with all seriousness where it focuses on the harassment a complainant faces by the police force. Moreover, the recommendations also hold the insensitive doctors and medical examination procedures responsible for the fact that women refuse and fear to file their complaints. Further, it also raises the issue of harassment women face by the paramilitary forces and that women face sexual violence in conflict zones and during communal violence on account of their identity. It further states both paramilitary and police force should be held accountable for such acts of sexual harassment and assault.
However, it is no surprise that the criminal law ordinance does not include most of ‘controversial’ recommendations, for many of the points are a direct attach on the patriarchy society and the State power, which the law must maintain. It refuses to consider marital rape; it also refuses to hold police officers, military forces and other office bearers accountable in additions to many other issues and concerns.
The movement began with the emotion of fervour and rage, with many possibilities and directions. But today the objective to push for Justice Verma recommendations is the focus of the mobilisation, where All India Progressive Women’s Organisation and All India Student’s Association (CPI (ML) Liberation women’s and student’s fronts) are taking the lead. Moreover, there are discussionsamong women’s organisations and lawyers of changing the language of some recommendations, make them sound ‘less radical’ in order to be accepted during the budget session in the parliament. (The ordinance will become a law once the President of India signs it and needs to passed by the Parliament within six months). Although these meetings with lawyers are open for public, there is no sign of ‘public’ in such meetings. What can be negotiated and what cannot be negotiated is the question the organisations are dealing with, so a recommendation like condemning military occupation in conflict zones has to be comprised, for it is too ‘radical’ a demand.
We saw voices, shouts, anger, slogans and poetry of freedom hovering over the city of Delhi a month back. While there is an immediate importance to engage with law and legal matters, these scenes of emotions are only scenes to remember, something that the books of law will not record. Pessimism? Certain questions and concerns that need our deeper engagement
The Effects of the movement and the rape culture
One of the after effects of the movement in 2012 was the demand of ban of the popular and much loved lyricist and singer Yoyo Honey Singh for his ‘obscene and vulgar’ lyrics, Yo yo Honey Singh (Snoop Dogg or Usher of India) who recently made his appearance in the music industry in India has sung in several places in Delhi and other cities in India, Delhi University is one such example, where Yoyo Honey Singh lovers and others came in large numbers, demanding their favourite songs. We must however locate his music and the lyrics in the society itself which not only supports such an industry but gives birth to these industries too, where this popular culture portrays ideas and thoughts that already exists in the society and also further contributes to the making of this society. For example Honey Singh as a character in his songs and lyrics is not fictive, I say fictive because this character represents the north Indian masculinity. Ashley Telis in his article ‘Study Honey Singh, don’t shut him down’ writes: “A study of his lyrics, his videos, his personae, his attitudes and his body would tell us much about North Indian masculinity, the political economy of Punjab, the coordinates of upper caste/upper class Punjab and the tensions and contradictions that ravage its subconscious.”
Thus while opposing and condemning the violence on the female body and mind which has been put to words, sung and appreciated, one must question the ban itself, where Yoyo Honey Singh’s music has been singled out and labelled obscene and vulgar. We do not support a ban, if it means a mere cleansing of the society from the ‘obscene and vulgar impurities’, a censorship, we do not support a ban of music, which humiliates a women, a goddess, which needs to be worshipped decorated within the four walls. We support a ban of music, pornography, films, advertisements, T.V. programmes ETC., products of capitalism, because they commodifies the women’s body, displaying her body for sale in the market. We support a collapse of this very society and culture where this industry breeds. Talking about commodification of the women’s body and the four walls of a house, these four walls, a symbol of protection imposed on women by a capitalist and a feudal society that practices and preaches disciplining and taming of women’s body, these four walls, the private sphere, holds in an innumerable incidents of violence, humiliation, abuse and rape inflicted on the women by the man. The four walls, which define the private sphere of two lovers in a relationship or marriage, terms the above mentioned acts as personal matters, matters where an ‘outsider’ must not interfere. The law in India does not consider marital rape, rape of a woman who is not a wife of the rapist is considered by the Indian law. Mere changes in law are not the solutions to the end of violence on those who are oppressed.
Is law the only solution?
We do not see a solution limited to the legal realm, where law is in the end of the day an apparatus of the State. A state, whose military forces are given the license to rape and harass women in many parts of the World. We are asking the very state to pass laws to combat violence on the women, we are asking the very state to punish its very police forces and military, in many cases the accused. Gender sensitive laws, a must for a gender just and democratic society, is a way through which our capitalist societies accommodates the many protesting voices, this society shall continue to change its very law every time it becomes ‘obsolete’. While the protection of women against sexual violence in workplace bill is on its way in becoming a law, unequal wages among women workers, which is illegal as the law says, is still a reality in India and other parts of the World.
Sexual violence and violence on the women’s body and mind
While the sexual assault case in Delhi has provoked us to ‘remember’ many other horrifying cases of sexual assault, we fail to ‘remember’ women sexually assaulted and abused by their partners or men. What is it that disturbs us? When violence on the body becomes evident through the body injuries? Where body injuries and the manner in which the violence is inflicted on the body measures the act and level of violence? The society with its institutions of law and policing thus defines brutality, where it differentiates violence on the genitals and violence on the mind. Further it undertakes the task of protecting the genitals of the women. Where the attack on the genitals is marked as an act of shame, where the ‘care takers’ and ‘owners’ of the vagina, the father, brother, husband and other relatives face the society with their heads low for the weight of shame is too heavy!! The victimised has to prove her ‘innocence’ to the society (though in a legal proceeding she is not required to) where for a wife or a prostitute the ‘case’ to prove that they are sexually assaulted becomes difficult because in their case consent is a given fact. (in case of a wife the vagina becomes the property of the man, hence no room for consent)
The city which recently witnessed huge number of people on the streets, protesting and continues to witness , is also protecting a growing surrogacy industry where women ignorant of the health hazards rent out their womb for a wage. Unaware of the short term and long term complexities these working class women are provided with a ‘healthy’ diet for a ‘healthy’ production. Many among them have gone through several pregnancies for it pays enough for their survival. The women give their consent (though based on partial information) and are free to sell their labour. Many women ‘choose’ this job over a job in factory for the daily abuse of physical and mental nature in a factory is far more severe. On the other hand the surrogacy industry like other industries gives them the freedom from financial dependence on the man (to some extent). The market works on these principles of freedom, where the workers are free to sell their labour and receive a wage for this very purpose. And hence the exploitation which the capitalistic mode of production attaches with the mechanical nature of work is termed natural and inevitable. It is hence natural for workers to work overtime. The violence on the body and mind is not brutal but is understood as the very nature of the work. The women selling their wombs are bound to undergo a brutal violence but that becomes part of the job which the workers choose.
We were sharing our opinions with strangers during the movement. Many spoke and are speaking around this time when the movement is moving. Many expressed their experiences of sexual harassment in public areas, inside homes by uncles and cousins, many expressed and many related to those who expressed. Many spoke of their independence. A middle class housewife asserted her independence of mobility in a conversation in Jantar Mantar, saying that ‘I never let my husband pick me up from the railway station.’ Further she added, ‘several cases of sexual assault and harassment take place within the house itself which go unreported’ and admitted that in some other scenario she would have never thought of talking to us, strangers on topics like these, which are on a normal day talked about in a private sphere of neighbours, friends and families. One also noticed a similar scene during the Anna Hazare movement where many came out to discuss their daily experiences where they face corruption; businessmen, housewives, students, factory workers, schoolteachers and so on.
The potential of the spaces created by these movements have been immense, people are talking to people they know and people they do not know, building solidarities based on opinions and experiences. People are not only talking about their experiences of sexual harassment but also for example talking about a ‘western’ culture which is responsible for such ‘acts of barbarism’. While we observe the creation of such spaces, one must also observe the class and gender of those who are joining the space. Is their belonging to a particular class and gender influencing the space? The task is not only to create spaces where we simply talk, but also to defeat and overpower spaces where fascism breeds and where a particular perspective of the bourgeoisie prevails. Our task does not ultimately end at building spaces, where people simply talk, but create this space as a means to organise and challenge the police force, the law, the social norms!
(This article has been written with an intention to NOT draw attention to a specific incident of sexual assault in the India, but to draw attention to every other form violence on the female body and mind, visible and invisible all over the World!)