A brief meditation on how language facilitates rape on the first anniversary of the inhumane Delhi gang rape.
There are many reasons I chose the phrase Active Voice for the title of my blog. One of them is simply grammatical. I deplore the tendency to resort to the passive voice and all that it implies. The passive voice dwells on the action not on the actor. You come across it a lot in bad academic writing. “A form was developed and disseminated to collect epidemiological data, including data on health services utilization and costs….Subsequent visits were made to collect the data” etc etc.
But there are far more serious abuses of the passive voice, especially as described in the article quoted below; written in the wake of the horrific Delhi gang rape almost exactly one year ago (December 16) Tilotamma Shrinivasa notes how the passive voice can be employed as a blame-shifting device in relation to sex crimes. It’s worth thinking about.
Before we begin, a quick grammar lesson is due. Google for ‘passive voice’ and the very first hit defines it like this:
Passive voice is used when the focus is on the action. It is not important or not known, however, who or what is performing the action.
And adds this:
“Sometimes a statement in passive is more polite than active voice, as the following example shows:
Example: A mistake was made. In this case, I focus on the fact that a mistake was made, but I do not blame anyone (e.g. You have made a mistake.).”
So, saying “Draupadi stole Bheema’s apple” blames Draupadi for stealing, while saying “Bheema’s apple was stolen by Draupadi” focuses on the fact that the apple was stolen. Now if you drop Draupadi from the second sentence, “Bheema’s apple was stolen” conveys the idea that this terrible thing happened to Bheema but doesn’t blame anyone! Or if I use an even worse and a grammatically dodgy form of passive voice: “Bheema had his apple stolen” squarely dumps the responsibility of what happened on Bheema’s head!
Now that you are equipped with the power of grammar, here is a snapshot of Google results for the recent assaults in Gurgaon and Manipal:
Let’s not even start with the ‘allegedly’ business! Anyway, here is another general snapshot of recent articles:
Padma began to scream. Then Anu began to scream. As if in slow motion Madhu saw that like boxers in a ring they were in the middle of a crowd of men with avid eyes, yes, it was the eyes that she always remembered, that Padma was bent over, her hands covering her breasts, that Anu lay crouched on the ground in a foetal position, her legs curled, her hands tight around her body. As Padma screamed Madhu saw the thick ring of men around them move back smoothly like a receding wave, then smoothly, in perfect accord, the wave flowed back towards them and they were engulfed. The hands at Madhu’s breasts squeezed and pinched, between her thighs the fingers probed and prodded, they slid down her bra and below her waist under her petticoat, she heard a groan as a hand rubbed her bare bottom up-down, as if it were sandpaper, she struck out with her bag and hit someone and her long nails scratched someone else’s hands, she bent down, her elbows out and hit someone’s stomach and as she did she felt a body moving hard against her back, both his hands holding her thighs, she heard her own scream as she fell on the ground, her head hitting the ground. There was silence. The loudspeaker began its next song from the latest Hindi film. She opened her eyes. It was as if nothing had happened, no one was around them, a few yards away four policemen with lathis stood grinning, and beyond them everyone stared.
—Listening Now, Anjana Appachana
The above quote from Anjana’s 1998 novel, Listening Now, set in Delhi, captures the horrors faced by women in India’s capital city where packs of predatory men regularly terrorize women and have done so for decades. Anjana, who was at Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) with me (in the Emergency-prone 1970s) and later at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), right next door to Munirka where a young woman’s innocent decision to board a particular bus interrupted her forever, was always incensed by the overbearing male gaze that ruled our movements, the way we dressed, the way we spoke…what we could and could not do.
The recent fury in India over the gutsy, hard-working optimistic young woman whose life was so rudely, abruptly, interrupted by six predatory males in a bus who literally gutted her in the process of sating their lust and rage reminded me of Anjana’s novel and her simmering rage about the traumas and injustices regularly faced by women in India. I hadn’t read it since 1998 but I knew it wouldn’t take me long to find the relevant passage. Note that the passage ends by highlighting the indifference of the police to the women’s plight, their grins even signalling a kind of pleasure in what they were witnessing.
And that is what astounds the most; that the Indian Police, those assigned to protect the public from criminals and gangsters, seem not to see anything wrong with sexual predation and rape. Exactly 10 days after the hideous gang rape in Delhi, on December 26, another gang rape victim in North India ended her life, unable to cope with policemen who were more interested in getting her to drop rape charges and marry one of her rapists than uphold law and order. As a New York Times article detailed:
The family of Paramjeet Kaur sat huddled in the dusty courtyard outside their house on Monday afternoon as a stream of senior police officers, politicians and villagers arrived to pay their condolences after Ms. Kaur killed herself on Dec. 26, nearly six weeks after she was raped by two men.
The family kept asking: Where were all these people when their 18-year-old daughter had sought justice from the village council of Badshahpur and the police, only to be humiliated and pressured to strike a deal with her rapists?
“They are all here now, but nobody helped us then,” said Charanjit Kaur, 28, Ms. Kaur’s sister, as she sat against a whitewashed wall, her knees drawn up to her chin. “If the police had done something, she would be alive today.”
The practice of getting rape victims to marry their rapists strikes me as an extremely dangerous one. In effect it acts as an incentive to men to rape women if by doing so, they can expect the woman in question to legally become theirs. What a bizarre version of crime and punishment. This principle certainly wouldn’t be applied to property would it? Hard to imagine a gang attacking a private home and having terrorized the owners, being allowed to acquire the property for themselves? But that, in effect, is what this complete perversion of justice amounts to.
What makes Delhi such a charming city and one that I keep returning to are the splendid ruins of old tombs and temples that irregularly interrupt the bustling city scape. Reluctantly I’ve come to believe that there are correspondingly ancient, if unlovely, mindsets –steeped in feudal, patriarchal logic and incompatible with the demands of contemporary life in cities such as Delhi. And they occur much more frequently than the occasional picturesque ruin in the postcolonial landscape. What we are confronted with in the case of these violated girls, are archaic psyches interrupted by the postmodern, themselves no doubt the victims of class-based iniquities, reacting to the assaults with savage violence and cruelty. The failure of the Police to do the right thing by women is also symptomatic of this time-worn hoary mentality. We are in the midst of a cultural crisis of no mean proportions. I don’t believe we can legislate our way out of it.