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Why Is Sexual Violence Against A Woman Seen As An Attack On Her ‘Honour’ And ‘Purity’?

More from Amreeta Das

By Amreeta Das

A demonstrator holds placards during a protest in New Delhi December 29, 2012. A woman whose gang rape sparked protests and a national debate about violence against women in India died of her injuries on Saturday, promoting a security lockdown in New Delhi and an acknowledgement from India's prime minister that social change is needed. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CRIME LAW) - RTR3BYMC
Source: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

I received (as did all contributors to this platform) an invitation from Youth Ki Awaaz, to express my views on any topic that has stirred me somehow this year, with a reference to Nikita Azad’s letter, that sparked off the #HappyToBleed movement. So, I take my cue from this very reference. Before going into my subject, I would like to openly salute Nikita. Her move has emboldened me and many other women like me to rethink our taboos regarding menstruation. These taboos are some of the innumerable strategies that the society employs to make women feel weak, and uncomfortable about their bodies. I begin my article by commenting upon this psycho-social construction of a woman’s body, which is one of the most powerful tools of psychological subordination.

A woman’s body is the greatest space of oppression for her, the most potent source of inhibition, fear, weakness and fragility. Her ‘honour’ depends on whether her body has been ‘legally penetrated’ by a male, or ‘illegally violated’ by a stranger. In case the latter takes place, she is ‘dishonoured’, made ‘impure’.

From her childhood, a woman is made to disown her body. It is usurped by the society, and the way she feels about it, in turn too, is programmed by the society. So, in a dark night, if she is grabbed by a man or few men and forcibly made to surrender her body to him/them, it is no longer a question of private or individual suffering that invites the legitimate sympathy of the society (as it would have happened if she was just beaten up, or maimed or tortured, without being sexually assaulted), it is most powerfully a question of a suffering induced by the society’s branding of that ‘tortured body’ as ‘impure’. The sympathy, the numerous sighings of “So sad”, “They destroyed her for life, bechaari“, “Kill them, they destroyed her purity, those beasts”, “Imagine her trauma!”, and a thousand more lamenting cries come with the hidden admittance that those men actually succeeded in destroying her ‘honour’ and ‘purity’.

It is also a cruel reality, that the next time when she steps out of her house, she will be looked at with pity, that she is no longer ‘pure’. Yes, that one incident will maim her for life, make her feel guilty about herself. At least five out of her 10 avid ‘sympathisers’ will have speculated, perhaps secretly, about what exactly she was wearing that night and whether that garment adequately covered her body or when exactly she was attacked. Was it too late in the night? If so, then what on earth could a woman be possibly doing alone at that time of the night, knowing that rapists lurk the streets at that time? Could it be that she herself had (of course unconsciously), made some inviting gesture, and of course, the inevitable thought—how clean is she herself as a woman? Is she of the sort who would easily sleep with guys at night or is she the right sort, who firmly protects her ‘virginity’ for the ‘right man’?

The degree of sympathy is directly proportional to the ‘appropriateness of her character’. If she dances in clubs at night, then, of course it is not much of a wonder that she was raped (I mean, big deal, a woman like that is any way used to sleeping with multiple partners, why not few more?) She is painfully aware of the whispers, the curious glances, and the hushed conversation of her friends. She comes to inhabit a warped, ‘violated’ environment. She is socially raped a hundred more times.

It is this ‘rhetoric’, this nightmarish claustrophobia of ‘pity’ and ‘sympathy’ that makes the women re-live the trauma, again and again. This rhetoric makes her feel ‘dirty’, ‘impure’. We all know that language has the enormous power of creating realities. She is made to inhabit this warped reality, where her ‘honour’ is measured by her ‘sexual purity’.

But I ask, which man/woman possesses the power to dishonour or disgrace a woman by forcefully having sex with her? How do we define her ‘honour’? Is it so brittle, so weak that any man can sully it, by inappropriately touching her body, by forcing himself on her? Instead, we make her feel weak and ‘impure’, by actually ascribing the power of dishonouring and violating her to the rapist.

It is shameful that our pious authorities are (the same people who vociferously demand the death of the rapist or even wishes to lynch him) perversely occupied with her ‘sexuality’. They cannot look at her without immediately imagining her ‘body’ and measuring it in their self-created ‘purity metre’. Of course, this same society wishes to burn the rapist alive or castrate him. But does it give one moment of constructive thought that it must redefine the way it expresses its collective sympathy for the woman?

Collective sympathy has the real power of boosting somebody, making somebody believe that she was the victim of a heinous crime and that the society stands by her. But no crime has the possible power of interfering with her ‘honour’. Her honour is far greater, far beyond her ‘sexual status’.

A woman is not just about the size of her breasts or shape of her buttocks. Her ‘purity’ (Notwithstanding my grave objections against the usage of this very vague term in any context, I use it in its popular cultural sense) had never anything to do with her sexual status.

The psychological trauma that any victim of sexual assault has to go through has much to do with this deeply patriarchal rhetoric that in powerful ways make the victim feel guilty and the perpetrator powerful. We need to shatter this ‘warped’ reality that has been killing girls all over the planet, whether raped or not. We need to militate against this linguistic subjugation of the mind. We might torture the rapist to death. But would that change the way a woman is perceived? Would a man begin thinking that it is irrelevant whether his fiancé is the survivor of some gruesome crime and whether that crime had anything to do with her sexuality?

The way we use words or have been taught to use words reflect the way we have been conditioned to think. The onus is on us and no one else, on how we liberate ourselves from this conditioning.

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  1. B

    Rape is wrong and there is no justification for it, neither is there any excuse for the skyrocketing false cases of rape, due to which men lose their honour and dignity in much the same way as a woman, if not worse. Accused men are boycotted from socirty, are left jobless, their careers ruined and life spoilt. Fabricated allegations of rape, dowry, harassment, domestic violence etc. also affect women as their sons, brothers, fathers, husbands have to suffer, but who cares. Its just men.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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