Three years after she was raped, assaulted and thrown out of a moving car in Kolkata’s most tiny neighbourhood, the Park Street rape victim died of multiple organ failure on Thursday, the prime suspect still on the run.
What also died with her, however, was a woman who defied the ‘expectations’ we have of women, of mothers and wasn’t afraid to be labelled the ‘bad girl’, the non-adarsh woman if you will, who was repeatedly vilified for her life style.
The most public among them was chief minister Mamata Banerjee who called the entire incident cooked up and her commanders, who insinuated that the victim was of a questionable character and somehow had it coming.
More damning, though, was the response of Kolkata’s perceived-genteel intelligentsia. From colleges to elite clubs, people suggested that a single mother shouldn’t have been out that late at night, partying and cosying up to strangers, especially men. Opinion-makers wondered if it was a case of prostitution “gone wrong” – as if sex workers somehow auto-consented to sexual assault.
No one was willing to employ her, her landlord pressurised her to leave and she was ostracised by her neighbours – all in the otherwise deemed ‘safe for women’ city of Kolkata.
The problem was that she was unapologetic about her lifestyle, refusing justifications for why she was out partying or partaking in activities that society forbids mothers. She frequently appeared in the media, first to narrate her incident and then in solidarity for other rape victims such as Nirbhaya but not once did she toe the line that we expect respectable women to.
In these times of British-made documentaries when our discussions are dominated by how much we identify with the victim and how she didn’t deserve to be raped, it is crucial to recognise that no one deserves to be at the receiving end of violence. Our ideas of gender justice should not extend to just the kind of people we know and identify with or approve of, but everyone.
In this quagmire, the Park Street victim stood out and hence the “otherwise-liberal” Bengali society didn’t sympathise with a woman who was raped while out partying – not adhering to the boundaries that Bengali patriarchs had drawn. As waves of protests swept Kolkata after her rape – some outside the gates of my college – people couldn’t bring themselves to stand alongside a mother who enjoyed nightlife, who could love her daughters and go to nightclubs. Whispers of her questionable character simply refused to die.
Victim shaming is a very real problem in the country that puts a bigger premium on honour of the society and the nation over people – time and again, claims of honour are settled on the bodies of women, Dalits and queer people on an alarming basis. Any sympathy we show towards such violence always comes at a cost, with our concern reserved for the ‘right kind’ of women.
This teaches our men and powerful to extract revenge on those who defy the norm, the deviants; and such revenge is most conveniently always through sexual assaults. This is reflected not just during gruesome crimes but also in our everyday ideas of how to ‘safeguard’ women – by policing them, by restricting their movement, by governing their lifestyles.
The idea of respectability – most pronounced in Kolkata – is really a ploy to create a checklist of things women can’t do.
Pubs in Kolkata often don’t serve women alcohol if they are unaccompanied by men – an admission of the patriarchal attitude that women cannot be out on their own and take care of themselves without a male guardian. The ‘bad girl’ may be dead but the only way to honour her memory is to purge our modernism of such primitive thoughts.