Are we listening now?

What will it take to change the status quo in countries with the kind of healthy, flourishing rape culture that accompanies the worst forms of patriarchy?

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.

Girls, Interrupted…No City for Women…

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

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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.

Rape statistics from National Crime Records Bureau's Crime in India 2011 report plotted on an interactive map of India. Hover over the map for detailed stats.
Rape statistics from National Crime Records Bureau’s Crime in India 2011 report plotted on an interactive map of India.

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.

How are we going to repair Indian culture?

So much has been said, so much written, emoted, protested, pronounced and declaimed that you wonder if you should even venture to add anything to the maelstrom surrounding the young woman so brutally violated in Delhi who has now succumbed to her fearsome injuries. Yet not to mark her death with a post would be to disregard her life, to avert my gaze from this youngster who paid so dearly for having been out with her male friend in Delhi on December 16.

Image from Bangalore NH7 Weekender
Image from Bangalore NH7 Weekender

On that same evening I was in Bangalore, with Achal and Rita, enjoying the stupendous NH7 Weekender music festival. Somewhere in a field near the Yelehanka Airforce Base this superbly organized event featured seven stages or music stations facing different directions each one with a roster of acts simultaneously pumping out a particular genre of music: rock, soul, folk, punk, electronica and of course the Pepsi Dub Station with Reggae-inspired music. In fact i had organized this outing so i could hear the Reggae Rajahs live at the Pepsi Dub Station.

Weekender2

We watched Indian Reggae fans skanking and vybsing to the Reggae Rajahs who put on a great performance. We had barely arrived in time to catch them and missed all the earlier acts but it was wicked to be in Bangalore listening to live Reggae and so much else. The whole event had a mela-like atmosphere, thousands of youngsters, i mean probably 20 thousand young men and women, many of them out with each other and enjoying themselves. There was food, drink, other stuff to buy and the music crashing all around us, what an awesome moment, especially catching just before we left, the amazing Indian Ocean, one of the oldest pop bands in India.

Achal vouchsafed that the experience had restored his faith in Bangalore which in recent years with the explosion of tech industries had become unrecognizable from the gentle, civilized city it used to be. But seeing all these young men and women out having clean, good fun said something for the kind of space still available for non-religious, communal, Western-inflected, almost cosmopolitan recreation. Mind you you had to well-heeled, the tickets weren’t cheap but it wasn’t by any means exclusively an upper-class, English-speaking crowd.

In the aftermath of what took place in Delhi that same night, originating in a part of Delhi i know so well–Munirka–having studied at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), i was haunted by the thought of what a hostile space that city i love so much represented for a young man and woman who had only aspired to see The Life of Pi that evening. Early reports suggested that the rapists had taunted the young woman for being out alone with a man at 10 pm, as if to say she was now fair game for rape. They then had their way with her, expressing on her body and that of her companion, but particularly hers, all the repressed desire and rage engendered by a society that refuses to acknowledge the sexuality of its young, that keeps it pent up beyond all reasonable limits, allowing no space for young women and men to be with each other and enjoy their youth.

Who were these men? How old were they? I bet they didn’t have girlfriends or wives yet…where was their sexual energy supposed to be spent? This isn’t to justify their bestiality…personally i think they should be castrated as an example…but these are questions we need to ask and find answers for.

Ironically the long term cure for the rape culture so cozily nourished by draconian Indian kinship and marriage practices is the very thing this unnamed young woman and her friend were doing that evening. The practice of young men and women going out together before marriage has to be encouraged, cultivated and normalized before there’ll be any reduction in rapes. Look within India at cultures that have space for mating rituals before marriage and see what the correlation with rape is.

Gujarat may feature very high on the rape radar because of the systematic, premeditated rape that accompanied religious and ethnic riots there but if you look at regular, everyday rape statistics there i wonder what it would show. Because Gujaratis are generally very permissive towards their young and have space in their culture for widespread pre-marital mixing. Their garbas and other communal dances are designed i think to engage the sexual energy of young Gujaratis legitimately, within the culture, respecting cultural codes. As long back as the 60s and 70s the prevalence of courting couples had changed the name of Law Gardens in Ahmedabad to Love Gardens.

Look at Bangalore and the NH7 weekender event i described earlier and the vibrant pub culture long associated with this city. In recent years religious fundamentalists have decreed that pubs and other places be closed earlier and earlier, that spaces where the young could dance be shut down, all in the name of some sinister vernacular morality that ultimately begets, actually propagates, widespread rape, much of which takes place within families, with underage children, with the helpless and the most vulnerable in our societies. I haven’t even touched on the dread subject of Dalits all over India and the routine violation and terrorism they face at the hands of ‘moral’, ‘upright’, ‘chaste’ Hindus.

So rage against the government all you want, the problem is really with Indian culture, broadly speaking, despite the preponderance of female gods. Goddesses notwithstanding, as constituted now its a culture that incubates rapists, then trains them and arms them. How are we going to repair that?

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Nirbhaya image via Deepak’s Lore