Note: This article is the part of a special series between Youth Ki Awaaz and Haiyya. Haiyya believes that the best way to create positive change in India is through this combination of citizen leaders inspiring others to work together. They believe in Organising for Action.
ByÂ Aprajita Pandey:
How often have you heard them saying, ‘she shouldn’t have gone there alone’, ‘what was she wearing’, ‘must have been drunk and roaming around with guys’, ‘she should have used her proper senses, she should have been more careful’. I have always wondered why similar concerns and questions never come up when other crimes are committed. Children run over by careless drivers? What about murder victims? How about someone whose house has been robbed? Do questions like, ‘why was the house so ravishing’, ‘why did the person travel late at night’ even compute? Can we even think of having a discussion around circumstances which the murder victim might have created to provoke the murderer? The reality is that it’s absolutely nonsensical to talk about, what a victim of any crime can do to stop the perpetrator.
I have had conversations with friends and family who have perpetually blamed women for crimes like harassment and rape. There have been unbelievable dialogues with unexpected people around me. Sometimes I am just amazed listening to them and the way this thinking has laid its foundation everywhere. It’s like a pattern cut from the same cloth. The blame approach manifests in two ways. First, blame women for violence inflicted on them. Second, blame it entirely on men by seeing them as lusty, helpless and sexually frustrated beings. And both these manifestations are usually seen to be co-existing. That’s how a victim blame narrative is powerfully created. Leave the perpetrators unexamined, with lack of introspection and absolutely invisible in the entire discourse, labelling them as inherently aggressive and violent. Now get started and blame women to take hold of their own destiny, to pull their socks and stop creating a scene of their oppression. Absolve the privileged, protect the status quo and put down the problem on women. Easy fix!
Haiyya’s current campaign is on gender based violence in public spaces; we have had conversations with over 300 women in Malviya Nagar, Delhi. We organized people sabhas comprising of small groups of women to understand women’s perception around the issue of violence. Victim blaming has been the most common and rampant thought during those discussions. And it hits you hard when you see women’s role in perpetuating and sustaining patriarchy. Even if they are being pawn, kept at the forefront to protect the power which men uphold, they still embody patriarchy. It’s important to recognize that patriarchy as a system is equally supported by women and men and men receive more rewards from the system. But the truth still stands, men do oppress women and both of them are hurt by rigid sexist role patterns. These two realities coexist. But male oppression of women cannot be excused by the recognition that there are ways men are hurt by rigid sexist roles. While working in the community, I often felt how door-to-door conversations would mostly give an unequivocal support to end male violence against women. Then if you discuss with them in the sabha, by addressing the patriarchal structure, male domination and demanding equal rights for women, they would start hesitating and change their positions. And guess the tool which helps them in this transition? Of course, it’s victim blaming and an implicit consent to violence on women in the community. This tool would help you create spaces to normalize violence and reduce its pervasiveness. Because in the process of creating this space you have identified bunch of ways how the woman could have saved herself from any form of violence.
While talking to women in Khirki, it was tough to break their silence around gender based violence in the neighbourhood. But one story which has always found words and voices was the Nirbhaya case. Women in Khirki have eloquently narrated the incident and the impact it had in their own lives. I have personally seen both anger and fear in their eyes when they discuss such cases, hoping that at the end of this conversation this anger would become fearless. But it had mostly regressed to, ‘our safety is in our hands’, ‘better take precautions than repenting later’. I have spent many sleepless nights trying to understand the reason behind the existence of victim blaming. Though I knew the sociological dimension, of how it preserves the status quo. But somehow that angle didn’t help me to steer any conversation with women I kept meeting every day. If the campaign’s objective is to organize the community against gender based violence in public spaces, it’s imperative to shun these spaces of blame. Obviously, it is not an overnight change to happen. But to transform such conversations and discussions from placing responsibility at the door of the victim to making perpetrators and structures accountable needs an in-depth understanding of how patriarchy is embedded in our psyches- men, women or children. It is the psychological effect of patriarchy which restricts us making any connections with each other’s stories of injustice and violation. It used to worry me all the time, why these women who get teary talking about Nirbhaya fail to see their own insensitivity towards other women? They are actually making similar arguments for other women that were made by advocate A.P. Singh at the courtroom.
I realized the only way women would probably understand the phenomena of blaming is when they share their own experiences and narratives in a group. In one of our sabhas, few working women started sharing instances of harassment when they have taken public transport, few young women voiced out their perspective on clothes/behaviour not being the reason behind harassment. The group has witnessed friction and conflict when few women have advocated the idea of women staying covered up as a potential solution to prevent harassment in public and private spaces. And at the same time there have been women who have radicalized the conversation to address root cause of violence than these superficial escapist arguments. Only when there are conflicting ideas/perspectives within your community and group which could attempt to break the existing bubble, ‘I wouldn’t wear that/I wouldn’t get that drunk/I wouldn’t walk home therefore I am safe. It cannot happen to me. It happened to her because of her decisions and I make different ones’. The truth is, any act of harassment is simply not under your control, because other people are not under our control at that moment. To make the system responsive to these crimes, it’s instrumental that women come out of this self blaming and victim blaming approach.
We have been using story-telling, narrative sharing and street play as tools to break the silence and transform these spaces of blame. These tools play with cognitive psychology and have the potential to understand and recognize oppression. Once the community identifies existence of an issue, only then they stand against it and act. Haiyya’s campaign on women’s access to public spaces in Malviya Nagar sees a need to organize communities to build power on the issue of gender based violence by creating sustainable leadership within the community who break cultural norms of sexism and eventually build a symbiotic relationship between police and the community.
About the author:Â Aprajita works as a Women’s Safety Campaign Manager with Haiyya in Delhi.Â Her work and understanding has always been focused towards fighting those power structures with a strong belief that everyone has the strength and potential to liberate themselves. Haiyya inspired her to work with people and locate those sites of silences as well as subversion around every social issue. Her previous work has been on gender based violence, reproductive and sexual rights and women’s political rights and governance. She loves traveling, photography, food and writing. The writer can be contacted atÂ firstname.lastname@example.org