From Khairlanji to Kopardi

Via Dilli Mumbai and any other

Desolate spot in a town or village.

Only the names of the places change.

Lines from a Marathi poem written by Neeraja. Yes, only the names of the places change – it is Delhi, then Unnao, Hyderabad, Unnao again and so on and on. Each time, the same story of a woman’s rape unfolds before our eyes. A story of bestial cruelty and police indifference. A story which changes when the media takes over, and suddenly it is a big story. There are angry protests, processions, politicians get into the scene, make statements, some foolish, some insensitive and many banal. They express their outrage, promise that the offenders will be punished. Finally the furore dies down. And nothing has changed. Except for the mourning grieving family. Except for the fear that stalks women when they are on lonely dark streets, a fear that can become a constant companion if allowed to take control.

“Rape,” says Susan Brownmiller in her book, Against our Will, “is a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

And so the constant reminders: Come straight home after school, college, work. Don’t go out after dark. Don’t go to lonely places.

Does that mean that because of the fear of a man, little girls give up playing outside their homes? Does it mean that older girls stop doing things which are a part of being young and learning about the joys in life? In other words, do women have to live behind bars because men rape? Do they give up their hard-won freedom because men are predators?

There was a time when young women were blamed for the rape. Girls were told to dress modestly, to behave with care. The perception was that men were provoked by the sight of women’s bodies. That they could become “victims of their lust” as a judge said some years back of two men who had raped a girl.

But it is not a woman’s body or behaviour that drives a man to rape. The darkness lies within the heart of the rapist. And so little girls are raped, as are infants. Mothers as well as grandmothers. Rapes don’t happen only outside the home; they happen, more often, within the home. Cousins, uncles, fathers, brother, even grandfathers rape. If a wife has not consented to having sex with her husband, that too is rape; marriage does not give a husband total right over his wife’s body. But even today, marital rape is not recognised in India, for fear that it might damage the ‘sacred’ bond of marriage.

In the outside world rapists can be teachers, guardians, policemen, bosses, politicians, public figures, priests bishops and godmen. Even the gods raped. Zeus, the Greek king of the gods was a rapist and so was our own Indra, another king of the gods.

What connects all these men is power: economic power, political power, power within the family, the power of belonging to what they consider a superior caste, class or race. And, finally, the delusion of power over a woman that every man holds within himself. The power that is given to him only because he is a man.

The sexual act is, at its best, fuelled by love, need and the desire for progeny. Rape is fuelled by lust. And hatred. Cruelty stems from hate. It is cruelty that makes men drive a rod into a woman’s body, that makes them commit unspeakable acts on the body of a woman they have raped and killed. It is cruelty and revenge that makes men beat a girl, then pour petrol on her and set her on fire.

Illustration: Anirudh A Ashar

In our country, there is a tradition of not naming rape victims. The tradition was discarded when the brave mother of the young woman the media called Nirbhaya said, ‘My daughter’s name is not Nirbhaya. Her name is Jyoti Singh.’ Yes, we need to give these women back their names. They are not nameless faceless victims of rape, but young women with dreams, aspirations, ambitions. Women with courage. The woman set on fire spoke the names of her assailants while suffering from 90% burns. The girl raped in a bus in Delhi recorded her statements before a magistrate even as she was dying. All that courage, all that promise, lost to the world because some men thought they had a right to a woman’s body.

It is not only lust, revenge drives men to rape as well. The best way of revenging yourself on an individual, a family, or a community is to rape ‘their’ women. Neeraja’s poem speaks of two rapes that happened in Maharashtra. In Khairlanji, a Dalit women and her daughter were paraded naked through the streets, then raped and killed. The killers and rapists were Marathas. In Kopardi, the victim was a 14-year-old Maratha girl, raped and savagely killed. Her killers were Dalits. Both the communities took out huge morchas, ostensibly in the victim’s name. In reality it was a show of power of the community; they were making a political statement.

Rape is but one of a long list of wrongs that men can and do commit against women. From stupid inane jokes about women, to eve teasing (abominable term with connotations of innocent mischief) to domestic violence, sexual harassment, abuse and threats on social media, touching in crowds, stalking, flashing, and finally the worst crime of them all – rape. All of them emerge from the same source: the belief that women are inferior and exist for a man’s pleasure.

Susan Brownmiller quotes an army sergeant’s ditty:

This is my weapon, this is my gun

This is for business, this is for fun.

She speaks of how women’s bodies are not only a reward of war, but a necessary provision, like ‘soda pop and ice cream to keep our boys healthy and happy.’ She says women are the spoils of war for soldiers, the victors having a right to the defeated country’s women’s bodies. To possess a woman is to emphasise the fact of the possession of a country. It has been the same for ages. Those of us who know what Partition meant to women, what happened in Bangladesh after the Pakistan army invaded, know the horror of war for women.

But it looks like peace time is not much better.

The media gives us the figure of 81, this being the number of rapes in Unnao. Almost a battlefield. One cannot but conclude that there are many more rapes than before. Many more gang rapes, for they now hunt in packs. What is happening for God’s sake? Where has this sense of entitlement to women’s bodies come from in this day and age?

Calling women ‘daughters of India’ is poor comfort for those who suffer. Everyone has a solution; the mike thrust into faces makes people talk. ‘We need the death penalty’ was the cry the last time. The result, as was feared, is that women are more likely to be killed so that there is no witness to the crime. Fast track courts were supposed to be set up. But with the number of rapes spiralling, the entire judicial process may have to be diverted to these cases. Lynching was proposed by a member of Parliament. Was she serious? The men arrested for the Hyderabad rape were killed in what the police called ‘an encounter killing.’ Their deaths were celebrated, greeted with joy. But do those who rejoiced know the disastrous consequences of flouting the rule of law?

Surprising that few speak of castration, for if there is anything a man fears more than death, it is the loss of his ‘manhood’. Nobody speaks of pornography, either, that great enemy of women and children. Long term solutions, like teaching young boys to respect women, teaching girls to stand up for themselves, are rarely mentioned. Not surprising, because one wonders how many generations it will take for boys to disencumber themselves of the idea that men are superior. To learn that both sexes are equal. Different yes, but equal.

Ultimately rape is an offshoot of the idea of power. And women have lost out on both economic and political power. One look at the crowd gathered in a hall during the recent Maharashtra ruckus, a meeting of three political parties, boldly announcing ‘We are 162’, showed a sea of white-clad men. And a bleak picture of a pathetically few women among the male legislators. Women who were huddled together, their body language spelling out their uneasiness about being in the midst of so much male bonding. The only woman who moved about confidently was Supriya Sule. And her courage obviously came from the fact that she was the daughter of Sharad Pawar.

Today, at this dreadful despairing moment, it seems a great pity that we missed the chance of correcting inequalities between men and women when we rejected feminism. Feminism, convinced of its rightness, bravely and innocently set out to right the wrongs done to women. But it was misunderstood, scorned, reviled, ridiculed.

“Do we now call Manhattan Womanhattan?” a politician asked, looking meaningfully at a feminist on the dais with him. And the audience laughed. It seems strange that a movement that tried to help half the human race to be recognised as equal was laughed at.

Feminism wanted women to get equal opportunities, for them not to be treated as sex objects, it asked for women to get more power. Nothing that was unreasonable. And some things were achieved. But somehow the message got diluted and distorted and things did not work out as they should have. Perhaps women’s equality was too strange an idea for a world that was used to men in power. Feminism, it now seems, failed to make it clear that it was not fighting men, but fighting the attitude towards women, fighting for a better relationship between men and women. The biggest failure of feminism was that it failed to get men into the movement.

Today, decades after feminism was mooted, most women still remain powerless. The #MeToo movement made it clear that women complaining against men, specially powerful men, were not to be trusted. As always, powerful men got away, making the accusing woman a liar in the process. The police continue to refuse to take a woman’s complaint seriously, they still tell the family of a missing woman, ‘she must have run away with her boyfriend’.

This attitude is even more pronounced when the woman belongs to a backward caste. The caste hierarchy is still intact in villages, in smaller places and in this hierarchy the lower caste woman is at the very bottom of the pile. The connection of caste to rape is very strong in India. The day when a poor and lower caste woman’s complaint will be taken seriously, and this not after she is killed, remains a distant dream.

Political parties, which are pushing legislation through at a pace which leaves the country breathless, have forgotten the Women’s Reservation Bill. It is very clear: no party is prepared to share power with women. The Bill is not even a dot on a distant horizon. The amazingly fierce resistance to women’s entry into Sabarimala is a sign of a reluctance to yield territory. Religion, custom, tradition, we are told, bar women from entering the temple during their reproductive years and religion, custom and tradition should be respected. But religion, custom and tradition did not drop down from the skies. They are all man-made. Nobody seems to realise the absurdity of invoking the rules of man-made institutions against women.

All the poems, the novels, the stories authors write, all the terrible stories that journalists give the world, cannot stop a single man from raping. We can only wring our hands and rage at our helplessness. When will this end? There is no answer. But one can hope. The angry anguished faces of some of the younger women who took out a procession in Delhi after the death of the young woman set on fire in Unnao give a small glimmer of hope. That one day things will change. But when?