- Middle East/North Africa
The 23-year-old Indian student who was gang raped and brutally assaulted on a moving bus in Delhi, the Indian capital city, died on 29 December 2012 in a hospital in Singapore after days of intensive medical treatment. The day before her death, a national paper, the Indian Express published an interview conducted with her brother. The interview raises serious questions about the country’s political leadership, structures of policing, law and order, and problematic media reporting across the country.
In a quote towards the end of the interview, the victim’s brother states, “Even when her friends or relatives come to visit, she asks us how much they know. When she hears of politicians coming, she gets scared. She keeps asking my mother if she has told anyone what happened.”
These words, heartbreaking as they are, point to the deep-rooted misogyny and patriarchy that pervade Indian society, breeding structures, discourses, and attitudes that condemn victims of sexual violence to a life of shame and silence. Misogyny and patriarchy that are perpetuated and sustained by our collective participation.
We participate when we repeatedly use the words "alleged" and "reported" before the words rape and sexual assault. We participate when we mourn and remember one victim of rape but forget and ignore thousands of others. We participate when we "other" the perpetrators of sexual violence – when we blame the migrant, the laborer, the uncivilized rural outsider, the constructed rapist from the lower religion/caste/class while we absolve ourselves from the hatred we breed.
We participate when we instruct our daughters to stay away from boys, to be home before sundown, to watch what they wear, to sit properly, to talk softly, to not draw attention to themselves, to not look at strangers, to cross their legs, to be discrete when buying sanitary napkins, to obey their fathers and brothers like they will obey their husbands one day.
We participate when we tell young girls that a woman’s reputation is at stake every time she steps out of line and that fragile reputation holds her honor and her family’s dignity. We participate when we think of unmarried women as incomplete, when we label women without children as not-even-women. We participate when we ignore the domestic abuse happening in the homes of our neighbors and friends because we "do not want to get involved in their private matters." We participate when we listen and then ignore. We participate when we tell our daughters, sisters, and friends to deal with family matters "within the four walls of the house" and to suffer in silence so as not to shame the family. We participate when we tell women to "adjust."
We participate when we switch on our televisions to watch yet another product of the industry that has shown young men and women all over the country that "no" doesn’t really mean "no," it means chase her until she says "yes." We participate every single time a woman onscreen is portrayed as the "maan and maryada" (value, reputation and propriety) of her family, her religion, and her nation. We participate when a scriptwriter thinks it is ok for a character to lose everything/commit suicide/be kicked out of her family as a consequence of her rape. We participate when we think that only happens in the movies. We participate when we don’t discuss with our grandparents/parents the problems with Ekta Kapoor’s imagination. We participate when we watch a few minutes of that not-as-bad-as-the-others TV soap. We participate when in the name of passing the time and watching a mindless movie, we laugh and enjoy sexism with a side of overpriced popcorn. We participate when we buy those tickets to see our staples of untamed masculinity and victimized femininity, with the occasional insertion of ridicule in the form of a gay stereotype.
We participate when we play those item numbers at our wedding "sangeets" (music event) and Diwali (a five-day Hindu festival in October-November) parties. We participate when we call routine sexual harassment "eve teasing," when we ignore another whistle, another remark, and another slap on the ass as playfulness. We participate when we think it is ok for men to leer at women, to refer to them as "maal" (goods), to make chick charts and rating lists. We participate when we stay silent and take a joke. We participate when we let boys be boys. We participate when we want our sons and daughters to only be engineers and doctors, to stay away from all things controversial, to settle. We participate when we proclaim we can only be happy once the kids have settled.
We participate when we support political parties whose woman leaders condemn a rape victim as a "zindaa laash" (living corpse), placing her beneath those living and even those dead. We participate when we perform and recite the discourses of these parties, built entirely on women’s bodies, in our local parks, "sabhas" and "shakhas" (meetings and branches). We participate when we support political parties whose representatives hold the highest offices but are unable to put together an empathetic sentence. We participate when our political leaders use the word Maoists as an expletive. We participate when we ignore how women’s bodies have been central to discourses of counter-insurgency. We participate when we do not protest sexual violence by the military and paramilitary. We participate when we refuse to vote, when we want to stay away from the hassle of politics, when we insist that we don’t care about the dirty business that is politics. We participate when we stay apathetic, when we embrace distance, when we adopt indifference as means of survival. We participate when we use the phrase Shining India. We participate when we fool ourselves into seeing it shine.
As I sit here mourning this young girl, whose name I do not know, I hope that her brutal death sheds light on the countless other women and men who face systematic and often unreported sexual violence in our country. I hope it makes everyone of us introspect on our own contributions to rape culture, misogyny, and patriarchy. I hope it problematizes our notions of rigid masculinities, femininities, and heteronormativity. And I hope it highlights and strengthens the resistance, the protests, the subversions, and the struggles, everyday and otherwise, of those who have challenged the aforementioned participations and of those who continue to do so.
Akanksha Mehta is an MPhil/PhD candidate at the Center for Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She can be reached at www.twitter.com/SahibanInExile
This article originally appeared in the Indian website Counter Currents.