An early 20th century illustration of the pivotal scene from the Mahabharata where Dushasana drags Draupadi by the hair from her chamber.(Getty Images)
An early 20th century illustration of the pivotal scene from the Mahabharata where Dushasana drags Draupadi by the hair from her chamber.(Getty Images)

Review: No Nation for Women by Priyanka Dubey

Priyanka Dubey follows stories of human trafficking, corrective rape, caste violence, murder and child abuse to give the reader a greater understanding of what is wrong with India
Hindustan Times | By Avantika Mehta
UPDATED ON APR 05, 2019 05:33 PM IST
235pp, Rs 399; Simon & Schuster India
235pp, Rs 399; Simon & Schuster India

There are two kinds of journalists: those who care about a story, and those who care. With No Nation for Women, her debut collection of non-fiction stories, journalist Priyanka Dubey confirms she’s the latter. Dark and fierce, this book captures, in excruciating detail, the waking nightmares of every Indian woman.

Dubey, who writes on gendered crime and social justice, has been a journalist for over 10 years. Her book centres around 12 incidents of sexual assault against women, both adults and minors. Six years in the making, NNFW shows Dubey following stories of sexual assault of a numbing variety: human trafficking, retaliatory/corrective rape, caste violence, murder, child abuse. At the centre of it all are the women, children and families who have a hard road to justice before them.

Most of the stories recounted in this book are recognizable: details of the crimes were splashed across every newspaper and television in the nation. Other narratives took up a few inches in a local daily. Each account is a part of the larger picture that Dubey is putting together through the reporting of these stories. Her questions lead us to a sharp image of ourselves as individuals and as a society: Where is the line between our empathy and our apathy? Does it stop when a story takes place outside the known economic stratum, or is it based on the crime’s geological distance? It becomes clear that our empathy turns into deliberate, cynical neglect of what we cannot align with visions of a new #SelfieWithDaughter India.

Author Priyanka Dubey (Sukruti Anah Staneley)
Author Priyanka Dubey (Sukruti Anah Staneley)

The book starts in Bundelkhand, a land “stretching across large swathes of Madhya Pradesh and parts of Uttar Pradesh.” A place that is “no woman’s land.” News of corrective rapes in this area hit the country in 2011. Dubey describes with journalistic detachment how young Rohini was raped and burned alive for refusing to marry someone from another family in the neighbourhood. When talking about the girl’s parents and their fight for justice, and subsequent ostracism, Dubey allows her own thoughts to come through: “This is the only corrective rape case in which, as far as I know, the court has passed judgment. In 2011, the judge gave the benefit of the doubt to the accused.”

Dubey’s decision to include herself in many of these stories elevates them. Through each tale, she notes the impact that telling these tales of violence and brutality had on her.

From MP, she takes the reader through a variety of crimes against women, some of which are unimaginable. In Tripura, she speaks to women who, after standing for elections, were raped by rival politicians. Rape in police custody, caste-related molestation cases. She slowly, meticulously traces the growing network in India working to kidnap and traffick young girls.

The most striking story is the one about a group of Dalits of Bhagana, Haryana. Previously featured on Yahoo! Originals in September 2014, it is a heart-wrenching account of not just the events that led to a rape and the complicity in the crime of the village sarpanch, but a remarkable story of young woman’s fortitude and capacity to move on from trauma. The Dalits sat in protest for years at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar to seek justice for the gang-rapes and their treatment by the Jat community of Bhagana. Dubey’s accounts of visiting the camp, and her description of her attempts to speak to the young survivor who finally opened up to her after many months is a testament to empathic journalism. On being asked if girls ever played in the ground that became the excuse for their rapes, 50-year-old Teeja Devi notes: “Hum sirf maidan aur khel ki keemat chukayein hain, khelein kabhi na payein.” We pay the price, but we never get to participate.

The author is not intrusive; she is aware of the culture and traditions of the people sharing their stories with her. Her own takeaways from this incident also say a lot about the price women pay.

“I left them, but their eyes will never leave me,” she writes about the mothers still waiting on justice for their daughters. “You keep fighting,” she tells another mother whose child was raped and murdered by police. Dubey also often describes “feeling numb,” after interviewing survivors and their families. These accounts are as real as the ones she’s investigating. They’re an insight into journalistic fatigue, and negate the notion of hardened byline-hungry reporters.

Read more: Reporting India’s rape culture

Several of the stories in the book have won prizes. The Missing Girls of Lakhimpur, her investigation into a human trafficking network across India, won the 2014 Kurt Schork Memorial Award in International Journalism. Several other stories featured here are Red Ink Winners.

Dubey has a sensitive eye for detail and lies too. She also has a talent for writing empathetic protagonists. Yet, these stories mostly contain interviews with the family, or the kind of investigation that works for a long-form crime story. Several of the cases featured here have been documented before, and many are over a decade old. A follow up on the present circumstances would have significantly benefitted the narrative of each woman and family and would have provided the reader with a fuller picture.

Despite this shortcoming, No Nation For Women is a book that must be read to understand the extent of violence against women in India.

Avantika Mehta is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

Story Saved