Talk

The body politic

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on August 14, 2014 Published on January 31, 2014

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A small but significant change is that women’s voices can no longer be easily silenced

One way or another women have been at the heart of much that has gone on in India in the past year. Not a day goes by when there isn’t some story or the other to do with women in the newspapers and on television. The news isn’t always good — indeed much of the time it’s the opposite: gang rapes, midnight raids on unsuspecting foreigners, acid attacks, insensitive remarks and mob ‘justice’ to name only a few of the things that have happened.

There’s been no let up too in the international media attention that India has received in relation to women. Something takes place in the remotest corner of the country and the international media are immediately onto the story. Many phrases get bandied about: Delhi is the rape capital of the world, violence against women is on the rise in India, India is an unsafe place for women and so on.

What does all this mean for women in India? Reports tell us that violence against women seems to be on the rise, the number of cases of reported rape continues to escalate and, if it were possible, become more brutal.

Contrary to popular expectations, the death sentences handed out to the December 16 rapists have not resulted in putting the fear of death into others who have rape on their minds.

As always in India, the signals are confusing and contradictory. We have a new law in place that brings in some positive changes, but stops short of recognising that crucial thing, marital rape. The ‘sanctity’ of the institution of marriage works to legalise an act that is otherwise illegal, sending out strong anti-women messages even as the law tries to recognise that women’s bodily integrity cannot be violated. We are a strange country indeed.

Not all signals are bad. Two days ago, at a meeting of women writers — Dalit, transgender, Muslim, lesbian — in Hyderabad, more than half the audience was made up of young men, most from fairly modest backgrounds. In Delhi, the protests that followed the December 16 incident included both men and women, young and old, rich and poor and they worked squarely to bring women and women’s issues centre stage. In the months that have followed, increasing numbers of young people have sustained the movement, providing it with energy and enthusiasm.

It’s also clear that more women are coming out to report cases of sexual assault and violation. The legal intern in Delhi who spoke out against a retired judge has clearly been inspirational for others who have subsequently spoken out. Suzette Jordan’s brave step in coming out into the open about her rape in Kolkata has helped others to not be shamed into silence. The actions of Mumbai’s young photojournalist in reporting her rape, prompted others to speak out. The steadfast stand taken by the journalist in the Tehelka case is likewise important for others who may be caught in similar situations.

Most important of all is the fact that reports of rape and sexual violation are no longer scoffed at: somewhere there seems to be at least an acceptance, if not a recognition, that when women come forward and speak out, they need to be taken seriously and believed. It would be hard for people today to take the kind of view taken by the BG Verghese committee (which concluded that the entire story of rape had no basis in fact) on the Kunan-Poshpora rapes in Kashmir over two decades ago. It would be impossible today to dismiss allegations of rape in the Muzaffarnagar camps, just as it would be impossible to dismiss the story of gang rape in Birbhum.

Has all of this had any effect at all on our politicians? If not on their thinking, at least on their speech? It’s difficult to say, for the old political trick is to say something and then claim to be quoted out of context. But while some restraint may be apparent, there’s still a long way to go as the shocking statements by Aam Aadmi Party political figures show. Shocking not only for their content but also for the lack of condemnation by party leaders.

What’s clear is that women’s voices can no longer be so easily silenced — the changes we are seeing may be a drop in a very large ocean, but they are a beginning.

As time goes on, more and more women will speak out, more young men and women will ensure that the concerns of half the population do not disappear from the agenda, and perhaps then we will begin to see real change. As a young student in Rajasthan told me the other day, “We can see that something is changing, but we can’t quite identify what it is. But whatever it is, it’s exciting and challenging.”

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Published on January 31, 2014
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