Trigger Warning: Sexual violence
Being a woman comes with being at the receiving end of sexual violence. This is something that every woman grows up knowing. We are taught that men will hurt us. They’ll sexually assault us, abuse us and kill us. And we accept it and navigate the world with this thought in our minds.
What a lot of us do not realise, or do not know, is that when widespread violence happens, women face some of the most horrifying instances of violence – both sexual and physical.
Only in the last century have women started being seen as a person rather than property. So, it comes as no surprise that when widespread violence breaks out, women face the brunt of this.
When we look at the history of the modern Indian subcontinent, we can easily note down the major violent incidents. Firstly, the Partition of 1947 itself, then the Bangladeshi independence struggle in 1971, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, and the 2002 anti-Muslim riots of Gujarat. Each of these incidents has well-documented instances of mass sexual violence that took place against women.
Both Pakistani and Indian women have horror stories of escaping their villages during the Partition. Women have horror stories from the riots of both ’84 and ’02. Since women are considered to carry the honour of their communities, raping them thus robs the communities of their honour.
Often, the communities themsellves consider these women worse than dead when they’re raped. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence about women being told to set themselves on fire or consume poison rather than to fall into the hands of the enemy and then be “dishonoured”.
When women are seen as property and as representatives of the honour of their communities, possessing them and destroying them to punish them for the crimes of their communities is the best way to harm it. Women are considered to be objects, not people. And these objects can be broken and marked to show that one community is above the other.
During the Partition, women who were raped were often also tattooed with symbols of their attacker’s religion. Their bodies were carved with the words “Pakistan Zindabad” and “Jai Hind”, depending on the religion of the attacker and the attacked.
Looking at the history of humankind, we can find that this pattern of women facing the worst of a political unrest has been repeated around the globe in different periods of time.
During and after the Second World War, the armies of the USSR would gang-rape women. These soldiers, who had been at war for months and were therefore very sex-deprived, viewed women as their spoils of war. They won the conquest and raping these women was their reward.
It is estimated that somewhere between 95,000 and 130,000 women were raped in the city of Berlin alone.
Looking further down South, Japan had mass prostitution during the time of the Second World War. Though this institution had been in existence since the 1930s, it was expanded widely after the mass rapes that occurred in and around the Chinese city of Nanking. During the six-week-long massacre of Nanking, somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000 women were raped by Japanese soldiers.
To prevent incidents like these from happening again, Emperor Hirohito ordered for the opening of more comfort stations, which were brothels for Japanese soldiers. The women who were in these comfort stations were known as ‘comfort girls’, were kidnapped or bought from the Japanese colonies of Korea, China and other parts of South-East Asia, and were raped by the soldiers of the Japanese army. Approximately 90% of these women died before they were released.
And they were not liberated by the allied forces either. They were raped by American soldiers till the year 1946, when Douglas MacArthur shut this system down.
The point is, that while sexual violence is a part of the day to day reality of women, it gets much worse during times of political unrest and widespread violence.
There is no good time or place for being a woman, but it is undoubtedly worse in such situations. Because looking as recently as 2002, at the cases of women such as Kausar Bano, we can tell that men have always tried to exert power and control over entire communities by torturing the women of those communities.
Looking at the violence that erupted in Delhi on the night of 23rd February, allegedly organised by Hindu nationalist terrorists, we can see that this pervasive pattern is still visible. At the moment, while no cases of rape have emerged, the Muslim women who were in the riot-affected areas say that this happened because either they stayed inside their houses or they fled. However, many women did talk about how close they came to being sexually assaulted and were saved by their neighbours, who claimed that they were Hindus, and then later helped them flee.
When in situations like wars, pogroms or genocides, the State has allowed men to act inhumanely without fearing the consequences of their actions; men rape, mutilate and brutalise women en masse.
Till these incidents of mass violence are allowed to take place, women can never be safe. Whether they’re living in small villages in remote corners of the country, or in the capital of the country, women will face the worst consequences of widespread violence.