This is a war on women

Swati Parashar
How is it that we miss the continuities between conflict-related sexual abuse and violence and that which occurs daily in our homes, backyards and in the public spaces we inhabit? (Representational Image)

In a country that has witnessed war-time sexual violence, rapes as regular feature of protracted conflicts, sexual tortures in several conflict contexts and an alarming regularity of rape and violence against women and children in non-exceptional and everyday settings, yet another rape seems to ‘shock’ us.

This is not a good time for ‘whataboutery’ when we are all angry, grieving and clutching at straws to justify that ‘rape culture’ is not as endemic as some people would like to believe. But certainly the visible social media outrage and candlelight vigils for the Hyderabad veterinarian beg the question: what is it about brutal rape and murders in Delhi and Hyderabad that outrages our conscience more than other cases? How is it that we miss the continuities between conflict-related sexual abuse and violence and that which occurs daily in our homes, backyards and in the public spaces we inhabit? How did we ‘normalise’ the idea that rapes and sexual violence occur in militarised conflict zones, while what occurs amidst the banality of everyday life is ‘exceptional’. I refuse to be outraged anymore, because somehow that would prove there was something exceptional about a veterinary doctor or a physiotherapist, living by the societal norms to be raped and then murdered with such impunity and brutality.

There is no outrage left anymore, neither is any outrage justified. This outrage is purposeless, misplaced and somehow gives the impression that something unusual has happened. Our anger (against what, whom?), petitions (for what?), calling for accountability (whose?), asking for better law and order (from whom, when criminals and thugs are in charge everywhere, from making legislations to implementing them), candlelight vigils (for the dead who could have lived?) and demands for justice for the dead (what does/can justice even look like?) do nothing to assuage the grief and anguish that is prevalent. Meanwhile, when we were busy outraging about Hyderabad, another 55-year-old woman was raped and murdered in Delhi, because she dared to spit at the rapists.

In case it has gone unnoticed, there is a familiar pattern in these ‘well-known’ or ‘high-profile’ rapes and murders that have received more media attention than the others that are consigned to tiny reports in vernacular presses in sections dealing with ‘aadhi abaadi’, or ‘women’s issues’ or maybe even ‘city crimes’. They could all have survived the murderous attacks after the rape, had they accepted their fate. In almost all these cases the nature of the attacks was fatal because the women dared to resist.

Let us not delude ourselves by the ‘outrage’ this time. We know that stories about women/children being raped and murdered are a regular feature in Indian news media. I check local Hindi papers (other vernacular media may report the same) every day and there are many such reports and commentaries about women and children, brutalised with alarming impunity. I only had to check newspapers from my home states (Bihar and Jharkhand) today to read how a soldier had killed his wife and her sister in a fit of rage, before killing himself. The media has already declared him ‘mentally ill’. The Muzaffarpur Shelter Home sexual abuse, rape and torture of at least 35 girls, reported early last year is still under investigation with no justice of any kind in sight for the girls. It has now come to light how government funding was misused by the perpetrators and the case drags on. There are many other cases if we cared to look, which hardly find mention in mainstream English media. In addition to these cases of violence and rapes, how many of us notice the ways in which women are being systematically erased and silenced out of public spaces?

Fact is we all live with fear and anxiety; we caution each other so often now. The political economy of ‘outrage’ has been exhausted; anger has consumed us and we are all tired of the familiar rhetoric after each such incident that the media selectively chooses to highlight. My home institution is in Sweden but I spend all my vacation, family and research time in India. It is where I grew up and the greatest familiarity I have of any society is the one I have come to fear now. I am afraid of traveling at night, taking public transport for long distances, doing anything that might be an apparent 'provocation'. Our ‘feminism’ prided itself on challenging social norms; now we self-censor, are at our cautious best, on guard all the time, looking for ‘safe spaces’ to speak out, to vent, to show our vulnerabilities.

We, who should have been inspired by the struggles of our sisters, who have come out so courageously in the #MeToo movement, are broken by this ‘war’ and violent backlash against our ilk. We are all trying to fit as best as we can, and yet one of us is raped every few minutes and some even murdered for transgressions not of our choosing. And no, we are no longer saying rape is about gender hierarchies and power, lack of gender sensitivity alone. The ‘sexual’, the act of forced ‘sex’ (words we dislike in the public domain) cannot be silenced or overlooked any longer in any discourse or analysis. An act of carnal ‘pleasure’ sought through inflicting violence on an unsuspecting, non-consenting individual, who forfeits the right to live because she dared to protest!

I have noticed women across the board using a different vocabulary now, of ‘minimising risks’, ‘avoiding risky behaviour’. All we have left now are silent prayers for the next ‘victim’ of rape and murder and a guilty realisation, maybe even shameful relief and gratitude that it was not us or someone we knew. This is many times worse than when we travelled in DTC buses with safety pins and pepper sprays, and folded our bodies into invisibility, silenced our tongues when faced with everyday harassment and violence. The outrage might be more visible, but many of us have silenced ourselves, muted our souls instead, so we do not feel anything. Feeling anger or pity or sadness will remind us of the million wounds that bleed, all at once; wounds that are never allowed to heal. It will remind us of a depraved society, dead in conscience, rotting steadily and cannibalising itself. There is NO HEALING. We just have to live through this, find something worthwhile in these moments of despair. Yes, this is a war on women.