Are we listening now?

In my last post i quoted a passage from Listening Now, a 1998 novel by Anjana Appachana about women in Delhi in which she captures the kind of lecherous assaults they often face in public. It was a situation we ourselves were familiar with as students at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) in the 1970s. One intimate of ours was abducted by a hoodlum named Bobby Oberoi and narrowly escaped being raped by him. We later discovered that he was a budding Don, the scourge of Delhi University women, many of whom he had raped at gunpoint. Traumatized, she was afraid to return to Delhi, but luckily for her it was 1975, Indira Gandhi had just declared the Emergency, and most petty criminals and gangsters had decamped from the capital in a hurry: those who didn’t, risked being removed by the armed forces during curfew hours.

Later when some of us moved on to Jawaharlal Nehru University another member of our in-group found herself the victim of a stalker, a fellow JNU student from Aligarh, who became obsessed with her, dogging her footsteps wherever she went and begging her to marry him. It got so bad the university had to intervene, terminating his stay at the university and sending him home. JNU was an experimental university, the first central government funded university i believe, and every single state was scrupulously represented in its student body. This meant that students from rural areas who had never set foot in a big city suddenly found themselves rubbing shoulders with the most hip and sophisticated types from Delhi University, Calcutta, Bombay and the other major cities. It was the female students coming from colleges like LSR, Miranda House, Sophia’s who caused the most consternation for there was no counterpart for them in small-town or village India, where women rarely moved freely in public by themselves.

Anjana, like many other feminists, seethed with anger at the blatant lack of respect women were treated with, and was particularly incensed by the impunity with which men behaved, their actions circumscribing women’s lives in harmful ways. But were only men to blame for this state of affairs? Not at all. Her response to my quoting of the scene in her book makes the point that it’s often women themselves who deny the existence of gender-based violence, thus allowing it to continue without check. As she said:

Yes, that anger still simmers, but the writing helps Annie…but women don’t want to hear about it. When I had my reading at LSR either in ’98 or ’99, many of the girls were upset about that scene, because they felt it was unnecessary and that things were different. I was appalled. In fact I remember one of those girls shaking her head at me in disappointment and asking me why I found it necessary to write that scene. I said, it happens. And she shook her head again. Perhaps they saw me as a “foreign returned” woman who had no right to write these things. And I didn’t want to start justifying my years in India (have been coming here every year, now twice a year and living here not as a tourist but as a constant caregiver), so really, there was nothing to say. Fortunately the other readings went off very well, no one protested about that scene. But imagine, LSR girls! Sometimes I find, even about other things, that it is women who are most incensed by some of the things I write about. It is the attitude of “It-isn’t-like-this-anymore.” And from what I have seen and lived, it is worse now, because we women are going forwards and the men are rapidly going backwards. Also, all these rape protests are good and necessary, but are women making any changes in their own lives? Do they feel passionately about what is right and wrong and then do they try and do something about it?

I think we’re all just beginning to realize that if we–women, that is–want to feel safe and equal, we’re going to have to do something about it ourselves and this includes erasing or reformatting our own socialization. The following blogpost by Neha Dixit speaks eloquently of what will be required, among other things:

Unlearning submission

When the middle class thronged the roads protesting against this rape, they got a first hand taste of the police atrocities. Unlike the Anna movement, here they were ready to face police batons, water cannons, tear gas, which was till now  for them only a romantic image of a revolution. They lived the reality of stone pelting in Kashmir and the autocracy of the Armed Forces Special Power Acts in the Northeast. It may be surface sensitisation, but it was also a moment  to expose the sex terrorism of the state. To discuss custodial rapes, about the rapes of adivasi women like Laxmi Orang, who have been waiting for justice for the last five years or that of Manorama who was raped and killed eight years back by the army. And it is in this light then the middle class may understand the grotesqueness of Central Home Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde’s statement when he says, “ Tomorrow, if 100 adivasis are killed in Chhattisgarh or Gadchiroli, can the government go there?”  It is this participation, even at a cursory level, that is potent enough to initiate the scrutiny of political representatives and their prejudices.

For a woman who has made the journey from a stereotypical, upper caste patriarchal, middle class, small city person to a person who is still struggling to fight it on a daily basis, to do away with all stereotypes and acknowledge one’s privileges to engage with the working class, I understand the importance of unlearning. In creating an independent life, in awakening one’s own critical consciousness.

It is this unlearning that was instigated by these protests amongst the middle class. The unlearning that teaches to refute, question, assert and empathise. The Indian feminist movement is hidden under these protests.

In addition to unlearning the harmful effects of having learnt to be women in a profoundly patriarchal society we might have to take direct action of the kind outlined on Facebook by my friend, Punam Zuthsi…

On the 3rd I attended the IIC panel discussion moderated by Soli Sorabjee. From amongst the audience there was a suggestion … offered hesitantly that there should be a group of women who should volunteer to spend 12 hours at a time at a police station to ensure that anyone who came to the police station feel reassured and supported… I am told that there is a system by which women who volunteered could be made honorary constables. Reading the account of Nirbhaya’s companion who sat for hours in the ER of Safdarjang without a stitch; and hearing of a man whose head injury was not attended to for the whole day given the rush on the CT Scanner in the Safdarjang/ AIIMS… Apart from police stations there needs to be someone at the Emergency Rooms of Safdarjang and AIIMS and the Trauma Centre as well… Obviously the ‘social work’ segment at the hospitals is not terribly useful… One knew that the ERs did their work but it seems that they seem not to be as reassuring as I thought they were…

Now are we prepared to undertake such a radical rearrangement of our lives? If we want to lead free and unencumbered lives we’ll have to secure it by finding solutions to each of the ways in which society systematically failed that ill-fated young woman who was trying to do something as pedestrian as catch a bus home last December 16. We’ll have to acknowledge that there are fundamental ways in which our culture(s) must change. If not change won’t come in our lifetimes or the next.

Finally some of the change so urgently needed isn’t that difficult. A lesson may be learned from the family of SOHAILA ABDULALI, who lived to write about the horrific rape she suffered at the age of 17, and how she survived to lead a full life because of the empathy of her family and their continuing love and care for her after she was raped. That is what families are supposed to be, nurturing cradles of unconditional love–no matter your gender–especially when life has left you damaged or brittle. Read the following article and see how familial support and love helped to heal a trauma that could have disrupted Sohaila’s life forever. Now why can’t we all take a leaf out of this family’s book?

It’s not exactly pleasant to be a symbol of rape. I’m not an expert, nor do I represent all victims of rape. All I can offer is that — unlike the young woman who died in December two weeks after being brutally gang raped, and so many others — my story didn’t end, and I can continue to tell it.

When I fought to live that night, I hardly knew what I was fighting for. A male friend and I had gone for a walk up a mountain near my home. Four armed men caught us and made us climb to a secluded spot, where they raped me for several hours, and beat both of us. They argued among themselves about whether or not to kill us, and finally let us go.

At 17, I was just a child. Life rewarded me richly for surviving. I stumbled home, wounded and traumatized, to a fabulous family. With them on my side, so much came my way. I found true love. I wrote books. I saw a kangaroo in the wild. I caught buses and missed trains. I had a shining child. The century changed. My first gray hair appeared.

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