The feminist will answer

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on March 10, 2018

Out of focus: The reason we hear so much about violence against women in India is also because of a very strong and dynamic women’s movement Image: Thulasi Kakkat   -  thulasi kakkat

Urvashi Butalia   -  BUSINESS LINE

The overwhelming resilient stereotype of the country is that Indian-women-equals-tradition-equals-violence-and-victimhood

A couple of weeks ago I found myself in Melbourne for its much talked about Writers Festival. I checked into the hotel and organised myself, and then did what many of us now do immediately upon arrival anywhere — check mail. I found a letter in my inbox from someone at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation asking for a brief interview. The mail said they wanted to discuss feminist publishing.

Being a feminist publisher, I always feel it is a good thing to talk about feminist publishing and for people to hear about it. I was about to agree when I noticed that the time they had suggested had already passed. So I wrote and said sorry, but too late and left it there.

Soon enough, another mail popped into my inbox to suggest another time, and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we managed to finalise a time on a live broadcast. I have to say that I did have a fleeting doubt — what could there be about feminist publishing that needed to be on a live slot? But I didn’t pay much attention to that little doubt.

At 11 at night, I arrived at the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Australia’s main television channel. I waited in the wings till my slot came up and the anchor, someone called Marge, called me in. The interview then began.

“So,” she said, “35,000 rape cases in India, what do you have to say about that?” (or words to that effect). I was a bit thrown. What did this have to do with feminist publishing? And where had she got that figure from? And how could I be answerable for statistics on sexual violence in India? But I had to respond. You’re on live television, you can’t let the silence stretch. I found myself saying the kind of thing that I don’t at all like to say, even if it’s true: that actually rape statistics in India are not as high as in many other countries (for example, the US, UK, Sweden and South Africa).

I reluctantly quoted some statistics — the rate per rape for 100,000 people in different countries — and said how India was quite low down on that scale. I didn’t know then that Australia has one of the highest rates internationally, but even if I did, I would not have liked to make that argument.

For the argument really is that even one rape anywhere in the world is one too many. It is not about nations and nationalisms — that nonsensical competitive thing of my country has less, yours has more. Why are discussions in the media cast in these terms?

I thought at the time that there are fruitful ways in which we can compare laws, histories, contexts, remedies, research and learn from each other to address this pervasive problem. Why am I being pushed into taking a defensive position on something that is not of my making and that I do not want to own? Why, I wondered, should I be held responsible or answerable for violence against women in India?

On the spot in that television studio, though, I could not deny that there is terrible violence against women in India. And yet, I did not want my words to feed into the continuing and resilient stereotype — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that Indian women are perennial victims of violence, and that much of this comes from tradition and religion.

The anchor had assumed these things, and basically she wanted me to legitimise her beliefs. This created a peculiar dilemma for me: I did not want to be dishonest or pretend that everything was fine. But, at the same time, I did not want to subscribe to the stereotype of Indian-women-equals-tradition-equals-violence- and-victimhood.

So I tried to explain to her the multiple and complex realities of Indian women’s lives — not easy in a five-minute slot! I tried to tell her that one of the reasons you hear so much about violence against women in India is also because of a very strong and dynamic women’s movement that has consistently kept it on the public agenda. But she wasn’t interested.

It’s odd how these things place you: as a representative of your country, as answerable for its ills, as a representative of the vast body of victims they see.

Later, I kept thinking of the question that I should have asked her, that I wanted to ask her but didn’t: What was she, a woman, doing asking me, another woman, to be answerable for her country’s statistics on rape when neither of us had had anything to do with creating those statistics?

Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan;

Published on September 16, 2016

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