Who qualifies to be Nirbhaya?

J Devika | Updated on January 20, 2018


Girl, interrupted: A poster in the heart of Perumbavoor town mourns the death of Jisha, a law student who was killed on April 28. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

The outrage over Jisha’s rape and murder shows we can really mourn only for women whose struggles can be reduced to tales of heroism interrupted by patriarchy

As if to mock all those who fervently believed that the death penalty will ensure women’s safety in this country, yet another ghastly murder of a young woman rocks our conscience now. Jisha, a 30-year-old young woman from Perumbavoor in central Kerala, was not out late; when last seen, she had been fetching water from a public tap. On a perfectly normal afternoon in April, when the neighbourhood had been full of people, she was battered, strangled, raped, mutilated in the most grisly way imaginable, and killed right inside the ramshackle squatter-hut that she called home.

In the debates and protests that have followed, much pain and grief and sheer anger at the apathy of the government, the police, the welfare machinery, and the neighbourhood is being shared, so also the hope that the threads of sorrow that now bind us will also become the ground on which we build more long-lasting citadels of resistance. But these debates and protests also reveal the limits of our political imagination.

Clearly, Jisha was a fighter. She was a law student determined to pursue her studies in the face of enormous challenges. Women-led households are numerous in Kerala, and no, not because the vestiges of matriliny persist. Rather, it could be the reverse. The end of matriliny meant that matrilineal women’s claim to permanent residence in the family home as a customary right came to an end. With the rise of dowry and the migration to patrifocal marriage, women lost land rapidly. This was a society in which even patrilineal communities imposed customary obligations on brothers to protect their sisters. All such obligations waned in the course of the 20th century. Poor women received land during the land reforms less frequently; and in any case, the lack of upward mobility of the Dalit communities, which accelerated with the widening of economic inequalities in and through the Gulf boom, affected poor and lower-caste women more severely. Today, the shrinkage of state support to crucial services like education and healthcare, and the neoliberal turn in Kerala’s welfarism that enthrones self-help as the major instrument of poverty alleviation means that the poorest families must struggle incessantly to keep their heads above the water, or run faster to stay at the same place. Jisha, her friends remember, faced this scenario in her life with singular determination and extreme endurance.

I wonder if her murder would have evoked such a tsunami of outrage if she had not been so heroic. For example, some have called this incident ‘Nirbhaya 2’, the reference being to the horrific rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi in December 2014. But that only reveals how selective our political imaginations are. ‘Nirbhaya 2’, if we need to call it that at all, could not have been the mentally-challenged Nepali woman whose hideous gang rape and murder in Rohtak was news less than a year ago. But no, commentators on Facebook from Kerala at least could descry Nirbhaya again only when another woman student, who was ostensibly struggling for upward mobility, was murdered. Why? Because the atrocity at Rohtak has not made an impression on our memories? Because we can really mourn only for young Indian women who seem to have fought the limitations of their social circumstances, whose struggles can be (unfairly, but still) reduced to tales of (possibly neoliberal self-help) heroism interrupted by patriarchy? The fact that she had to struggle so hard should itself put us to shame, even as we marvel at her remarkable tenacity, and rage against the way it was snuffed out so cruelly.

And I shudder to think what might have been the tenor of the discussion, had Jisha appeared to be less than ‘proper’. Interestingly enough, even as no slurs have been cast on Jisha’s character yet, there has been enough effort to blame her mother’s “un-cooperative nature”, “quarrelsome nature” and so on for the social isolation and poverty the family experienced. Another incident, of the gang-rape of a 19-year-old student at Varkala whose date assaulted her with his friends, made the headlines in Kerala in the middle of the debate on Jisha’s death. The young woman did not die, but even if she lost her life and suffered similar injuries, it may not have provoked the same sort of resounding and united outcry. For this woman did the “wrong” thing by going out on a date with a man she knew only through a cellphone call (according to reports).

We live in a society where the young face ever-greater policing as they are continually exposed to new possibilities and desires. In such a society in which women’s sexual desire may itself be a crime, transgressions are only to be expected — the demand that women stay ‘pure’ in a society where sex is permitted only via marriage that requires hefty dowry payments is absurd. And yet the hypocrites wax sentimental for a ‘pure’ victim’, one whose promise was aborted — as if it was the promised future that really mattered, and not the living present.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on May 13, 2016

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