Trigger warning: rape, sexual violence
Amrit Wilson 22/01/2013
On 16 December last year, in south Delhi, a 23 year old student was gang raped, brutally assaulted and eventually thrown off a moving bus unconscious. In the days which followed, Delhi and many other cities in India saw the largest and most prolonged protests about rape anywhere in the world. Day after day, for nearly a month, young women and men demonstrated in central Delhi demanding justice for the victim, an end to violence against women, changes in laws and the way they are applied, an end to the extremely common victim-blaming by the Indian judiciary and changes too in police behaviour (Delhi police are on record saying that women who are raped deserve it). Changes in other words to the structures and ideologies of the Indian state and society which not only perpetuate violence against women but instil fear and keep women shackled. The government responded with water cannon, tear gas and baton charges.
Kavita Krishnan, secretary of AIPWA (the All India Progressive Women’s Association) one of the mass organizations of the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist), and an activist centrally involved in the protests expressed the anger and defiance of the protesters and also their determination to see much more than cosmetic changes. In a speech which was to go viral, outside the residence of Sheila Dikshit Chief Minister of Delhi, she said:
‘We will be adventurous. We will be reckless. We will be rash. We will do nothing for our safety. Don’t you dare tell us how to dress, when to go out at night, in the day, or how to walk or how many escorts we need!… regardless of whether she is indoors or outside, whether it is day or night, for whatever reason, however, she may be dressed — women have a right to freedom. And that freedom without fear is what we need to protect, to guard and respect.’
Despite consistent demands from the demonstrators that the Prime Minister come and speak to them, neither Manmohan Singh nor any of his senior cabinet ministers were anywhere to be seen. Instead various politicians pontificated about why rapes occurred. One, a minister from Uttar Pradesh(UP) state, called for skirts to be banned from girls’ school uniforms while the son of the Indian President and an M.P. in his own right in the state of West Bengal, declared that the protesters were ‘dented and painted’ and not to be taken seriously. Others insisted that this rape came under the category of ‘rarest of rare’, an aberration in other words and therefore something which did not require systemic change.
On 26 December, the government announced that the rape victim’s condition was deteriorating and she would be flown to Singapore for treatment, a move which, as almost everyone in Delhi was aware, was simply an attempt to remove the dying young woman from the city which was outraged by what had happened to her.
Meanwhile back in London, Channel 4 was asking Arundhati Roy to make sense of the events of the previous weeks. Roy’s answer was that this was a middle-class response which played into ‘the idea of the criminal poor assaulting a middle-class girl’. Roy’s comment suggesting as it did that there is a hierarchy of suffering and that a middle-class woman’s rape is somehow a ‘lesser’ rape, served also to sideline the importance of the protest movement and feed the clichés about India’s burgeoning middle class. In fact, she had got her facts wrong. The woman who was so brutally attacked was not middle-class at all, her family had migrated to the capital from one of the poorer districts of UP and her father was a loader at the airport. Roy was wrong too about the protesters – while some were indeed middle class, the vast number represented the changing class make-up of Delhi itself. There were young people who have migrated to the city to do low-paid contract work, students come to study in Delhi from states as far away as Bihar and large numbers of low-paid urban workers in non-factory jobs who, thanks to neoliberal ideology, are under pressure, as Soma Marik explains, ‘to imagine themselves to be middle class’.
Will these protests now broaden out further, taking on board the rapes by the army and paramilitaries in states like Kashmir, Manipur, and Chhattisgarh where these rapists are protected by impunity laws? Will they confront the rapes by upper caste men of Dalit women? Or the rapes of Muslim women by those who are part of, or influenced, by the Hindu Right? Many of the activists involved in the protests hope that they will. The connections between violence against women and various kinds of power, in the family, the community or from the police and army are increasingly in focus. As the artist Shuddhabrata Sengupta wrote in an obituary to the young woman who lost her life in this terrible incident:
‘every person who thinks of herself and himself as a citizen has to make themselves known against the brute force as well as the cold indifference of power. All kinds of power – especially the kind that emanates from the office, the flag and the uniform, from guns and cars and cold cash. All kinds of power — especially the kind that comes wrapped in the sanctity of scripture, the patronising confidence of expertise and law, and the perverse armour of honour. We will have to defeat these everyday. For the rest of our lives.’
Returning to London from my weeks in India was dispiriting. The Jimmy Savile revelations still hung in the air. And soon after came the shocking figures about rape and sexual abuse in this country – one in 38 serious sex crimes results in a conviction for example. But here, unlike Delhi, there was no widespread sense of outrage or anger – the subject has within a week crept out of most national newspapers and no Government policies have changed. The purveyors of the ‘Big Society’ continue to close down the very services and organizations which combat violence against women.
However, many British feminists, particularly those from South Asian and Black communities, who have for decades campaigned over these very issues, have not only demonstrated their solidarity with the Indian protests but drawn inspiration from them. A meeting called ‘in solidarity with the Delhi rapes and to confront gender violence in Britain’ by a large number of organizations combating violence against women together with the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics, will put forward a number of demands to the Indian and British governments today, on Wednesday 23rd January.
More details of this can be found on the LSE website, by clicking here.
Amrit Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in Women’s and South Asian Studies at Luton University. She helped to set up the first Asian women’s refuge in London and currently works with the campaign Asian Women Unite. She is the author of Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain (Pluto, 2006), and the forthcoming Reclaiming History: The Umma Party and Zanzibar (Pluto, 2013)
South Asian Women in Britain
A political account of the lives and struggles of British Asian women.
“At a time when Asian women are only being discussed in terms of their veils, forced marriages and oppressive religion, what a relief it is to read a book about Asian women as agents not objects.” – Institute of Race Relations
“Amrit Wilson does not let anyone off the hook… This book will be of supreme interest to activists and those working with or for South Asian women in the voluntary sector or community projects. It will also be useful to those who teach courses on South Asian communities in this country, within whatever discipline, who will find it a refreshing example of how political commitment can yield a book that is committed, analytic, informative and that rises above vacuous polemic.” – Ursula Sharma, The Journal of Contemporary South Asia