The public slogans that emanated after the gang rape of a student on December 16, 2012, resonate with meaning even today, perhaps more urgently than ever before. But are we listening? After the rape, there was a vociferous demand for hanging the rapists. We have heard similar demands for decades and have even handed out capital punishment to rapists. But such developments haven’t changed the way people think about rape or women.
What was fresh — and defiant — were the statements that were seen on placards: ‘Don’t tell women how to dress, tell men not to rape’, ‘Woh kare to stud, main karun to slut?’ and ‘Meri skirt se oonchi meri awaz’. The message was clear: don’t take away our freedom in the name of protecting us; protect our fearless freedom instead. The spirit was also clear in slogans raised by women — and men: ‘Azaadi’ (freedom) from khap, baap, bhai (khap panchayats, dad, brothers)’; and the anger with which people met disgusting patriarchal utterances: “Dented and painted”, “a raped woman is a zinda laash”, “She [the December 16 victim] should have called them [the rapists] brother”; “freedom at midnight doesn’t mean women can roam free at night”, “rapes happen in India not in Bharat” Let’s face it: these slogans disturb the comfortable core of our being. And that’s what makes them valuable. These words should echo within us; they are the flame that the Delhi braveheart’s memory should light up in us — not only on the streets, but in our offices, homes and in the unruly recesses of our minds.
Those fresh young voices asserted that rape wasn’t about lusting for the forbidden. It came from the male sense of entitlement; the idea that sex is a birthright that no woman can deny a man. And that sort of entitlement isn’t confined to rape — it’s found in love as well when spurned lovers feel entitled to throw acid or rain axe blows on a woman. Even in the protective love that men bear for sisters and daughters, they feel entitled to tell the latter who to love, who to marry, what to wear, or how to live their lives. Campaigns against rape can’t stop at saying: ‘Respect women’. They have to say: ‘Respect the rights of those whose choices you might not find respectable’; respect the rights of women and LGBT people to love who they choose, however they choose; respect the woman in a short skirt or the man in a sari.’
We were outraged when one of the defence lawyers for the December 16 rapists said he would kill his daughter, if she went out for a movie with a man. Let’s remember that in Muzaffarnagar, the Sangh parivar along with khap panchayats who kill daughters for similar reasons, raised slogans of ‘protect daughters, protect honour’ to fan communal frenzy against Muslims, profiled as ‘love jehadis.’ Similar slogans were invoked in Tamil Nadu, where violence against Dalits was provoked on the pretext that ‘their boys’ might lure away ‘our girls’ in the name of love. Why should women need protection from love? Is it for the same reason, perhaps, that some claim women might need illegal surveillance and sarkari stalking to keep them safe from undesirable male friends?
Last year, many of the protesters confronted the rapes that most of the media avoid reporting: rapes by men in uniform in the Northeast, Kashmir, and Chhattisgarh. These are done and the rapists shielded in the name of the nation. The same goes for rapes of Dalit women, wives by husbands, or of gay people or transsexuals in police stations.
What’s changed since last year? I think we should avoid facile answers to this glib question. For one thing, the protests could happen because some things had begun to change. And some of those changes are still happening. The fact that a woman journalist, raped by her boss, could confide in her male colleagues, confident of their support, is a precious sign of change. Another sign is the fact that there’s an outcry when the Supreme Court bends to religious reactionaries and fails to protect the rights of homosexuals. That outcry — especially among young people — even forced political parties to break their silence and say the right thing. The netas who hold their ears and leeringly say ‘Shiv Shiv’ at the idea of homosexuality are the butt of ridicule even in the media.
Yes, we’re yet to see the change we’d like to witness, especially in institutions. With monotonous regularity, top police officers, judges, lawyers, politicians, even women’s commission heads, continue to make the most odious sexist remarks. Some tell us that regular complaints against male bosses would ensure that “women won’t be hired anymore.” Patriarchs tell us that, unlike feminists, they “value” women highly: “Women are like gold, you’ve to lock it up to keep it safe.” The National Commission for Women chairperson from the Congress echoes the RSS chief when she blames urbanisation for rape and sexual harassment. Sexists, in their defence, tell us, “But we’re the ones who want to hang rapists and jail juveniles!”
We need to tell them that we’re not interested because hanging rapists and jailing juveniles won’t make us any safer or freer. As long as you keep blaming women for rape and for raising their voice against sexual harassment, you’re playing on the rapists’ team. What has changed, though, is that such sexists are forced to shout louder – because they know they have to work harder to be heard above the slogans of “Bekhauf Azaadi”.
Kavita Krishnan is secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association
The views expressed by the author are personal