By Nandini Mazumder:
The letter by the woman who was raped in a campus in the United States of America is powerful. It is powerful because it gives us a voice that we seldom hear, the voice of a woman who has been raped. The shaming that follows rape is so loud and profound that survivors are pushed towards death than being allowed to live and their voices remain mostly unheard. If allowed to live, they must forever be silenced and forced to live in the shadows. They must forever be sorry for being ‘victims’ of a crime. How absurd is that! But that is our reality and we know it. So, in India, we seldom come across a rape survivor who has a voice, such as Suzette Jordan. We are more accustomed to Jyoti (known as Nirbhaya; even her real name was not given its identity), or Delta or Jishamol and other nameless, mutilated ‘victims’ hanging from trees which remind me of a poem written in another context but which fits well with ‘victims’ of gender-based violence as well. Abel Meeropol’s poem goes, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Rape or the threat of rape is a reality in India and while our government has promised to take action on it, they do not seem to have lived up to that promise. I know they never will unless there is a radical change in our society, which I believe will happen someday, but at present is still a distant dream. Women will live in fear of getting raped and if such a thing were to happen, there is the fear of how radically it will change our lives and our identities, forever marking us as the ‘fallen’ or ‘tainted’ ones. This is not what I believe, but this is what I know the society around us has been socialised to believe in. That is what makes me even more nervous about being a woman in a country where every day 93 women are raped as per the official data from National Crime Records Bureau.
So when I heard the Stanford rape survivor’s letter being read out by the anchor and her voice faltered at the part where the girl decided to talk to her parents, I too choked. The very thought that here in India, perhaps even the immediate support system may not be strong enough to provide the support that is needed after a crime that is meant to humiliate you, a crime that makes you feel the lowest you have possibly ever felt, violated as you have never felt, was disturbing. Rape is not an act of violation alone, the aftermath of rape has a catastrophic impact of its own. The ordeal of a woman doesn’t end with her rape but it only begins there. The character assassination and the ‘victim’ blaming are often juxtaposed with sympathy pouring in like it did for the Stanford rapist.
The part where she talks about not being able to fall asleep without her lights off anymore or the newly developed fear of darkness, most likely a sign of post-traumatic stress, reminded me of my own fear of darkness and for some reason, I could never sleep with the light off. As a child, the fear was of mythical monsters and now as an adult, it is the fear of the real ones. As working women, we constantly travel and spend nights alone in hotel rooms. We live in fear of break-ins or attacks in the middle of the night, sleeping in fully-lit, single hotel rooms, hoping to be alert when someone tries to break in and we need to defend ourselves.
And if that is the life of an educated, middle-class, working woman in India, I shudder to think what life is like in the streets, slums and villages of India. They are outside the concern of mainstream society and media. The crimes that occur there against the weaker sections, such as, women and children, powerless, voiceless and easy preys, remain unnoticed. The country treats them as if they don’t exist and they languish in remote areas or on the merciless streets of Indian cities.
In the world that we live in, rape is also used as a political weapon, a tool for domination. ‘Victim’ blaming is the norm and not surprisingly conviction rates in rape cases are abysmally low. The government of India put a gag on the screening of “India’s Daughter”, a documentary on the 2012 gang rape, when instead of banning the movie we should watch it, get others to watch it, and discuss and debate rape. That might have been a real attempt towards a solution.
What we have today is apathy and even mockery of rape and those who were raped. Some brilliant men and women, including judges, people in power and politicians making misogynistic, rude, ridiculous and insidious comments. Sometimes equating accusations of rape as a fashion trend and sometimes as thinking of it as something natural by saying ‘boys will be boys’. Some even encourage and instigate the use of rape as a weapon against minorities, a legitimate punishment in politics of vendetta and the crazy rampages by majoritarian groups against minorities. We witnessed this in the Gujrat riots and the Muzaffarnagar attacks on Muslims where sexual violence was used extensively, in Chhattisgarh against tribals, in Kandhamal against Christians. But how can we forget that we are all united in being women, irrespective of our identities, as Muslims, Dalits and tribals, or Christians, we live in fear simply because of who we are – women.
A celebrity compares the feeling after a tremendous workout to what a raped woman must feel afterwards. While we condemn him even though the film fraternity complies with stark silence as if playing parts in “Raja Harish Chandra”, India’s first silent motion picture, we must remember that he is not alone in thinking the way he does. His statement is an echo of a widely held belief that rape can even be enjoyable. That if she got it, she must have enjoyed it just like a good workout. Never for once do we stop to remember that the aftermath of a rape can be life in a vegetative state like what happened to Aruna Shanbaug. Or the social, legal and political condemnation can break someone like it did to Suzette Jordan who succumbed to pneumonia three years after she was brutally gang-raped. Or the “stark nude body wrapped in plastic” of a raped and murdered tribal girl, Madkam Hidme. The mutilated dead body of a bright young Dalit law student, Jishamol, brutally raped and killed in her humble home. Or the woman who was gang-raped and abuses tattooed on her body by her husband and his family in a village in Rajasthan. Opportunistic men of influence claim rapes happen only in India, not in Bharat. He and everyone who made those ridiculous comments about rape, speak in the same language that Salman Khan does but dare the National Commission for Women take action against them.
I write this piece with a lot of anguish and the anguish is not over who said what, but on the action or inaction related to how systemically inept we are at dealing with rape. My anguish is in creating false divides between ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’, not recognising that they are the same patriarchal country, that the sari is as much a provocation as a mini skirt is; that rapists need no provocation. They are predators and they prey on the defenceless. Just as people in power prey on the powerless, men on women, upper castes on Dalits, adults on children, a full-bodied young man on a drunk girl, husband on his wife.
My anguish is because as women we are taught that our life as we know it ends after rape. That society tells us it is our job as women to not ‘get’ raped. That every man is a potential rapist but is never subjected to the lecture on what he must do or must not do to avoid committing rape, unlike women who are constantly lectured and judged. It is 2016 and I am anguished that we still live in a shadow of a terrible fear in and around us, the fear of rape and the greater fear of its aftermath. All we want is to be free from that oppressive, demonic, debilitating fear assigned to us simply because we are women. How long more before that happens?
Featured image credit: REUTERS/Stringer.