How to silence women
From Unnao to Wayanad, the lesson is clear. Women who speak up against sexual assault are sought to be silenced by men who are backed by institutional support
When classics professor Mary Beard tells the story of Tereus who, in Greek mythology, cuts off the tongue of Philomena after raping her, it is to point to a particularly grisly example of how women were silenced in ancient culture.
That culture persists. Evidence lies in a Delhi hospital where the Unnao rape survivor and her lawyer remain on life support after the car they were travelling in was crushed by a truck, killing two other women in it.
In Kerala, the Franciscan Clarist Congregation of the Catholic Church has expelled Lucy Kallappura, one of the five nuns who led the protest against bishop Franco Mulakkal, on bail on charges of raping a fellow nun. Sister Lucy’s sins? Publishing poems and learning to drive. The other four nuns have already been transferred.
From Unnao to Wayanad, the lesson is clear. Women who speak up against sexual assault are sought to be silenced by men who are backed by institutional support.
Survivors of sexual assault already know that speaking up invites public scrutiny. Is she part of a political conspiracy (the Unnao defence)? Was her reaction after the alleged assault appropriately stricken (the Tarun Tejpal argument)?
As Tejpal awaits a Supreme Court verdict on his plea to dismiss rape charges against him, the Unnao story is a cautionary tale of the abuse of institutional power with a depressingly familiar timeline from the refusal by Uttar Pradesh police to file a First Information Report and the death of the woman’s father in police custody to the framing of charges against her family for “falsely” claiming she was a minor at the time when she says she was raped by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Kuldeep Singh Sengar and his henchmen back in 2017.
Sengar has finally been expelled from the BJP, though the party claims he had been suspended a year ago. It doesn’t explain why he continued to receive such visitors as party MLA Sakshi Maharaj in jail. On TV debates, BJP spokespersons continue to defend UP’s administration. This is not one powerful politician against a woman. This is an entire system against her.
Most silencing efforts are not so brazen. Indeed they are insidious, ingrained in daughters by families. Stay quiet about sexual molestation. Don’t complain about a beating from your husband. After all, family “honour” vests in daughters.
“Our culture trains women not to exist,” writes Deepa Narayan in Chup. Their silencing is systemic and cultural, and will take collective action to break.
Unnao is a chilling demonstration of what happens when women speak up. Is it a coincidence that two years after a woman accused Samajwadi Party’s Gayatri Prajapati of raping her and her minor daughter, the woman withdrew her complaint earlier this month?
Last week, UP police visited various schools, telling students they should speak up. In Barabanki, a brave schoolgirl had a question: “How will you ensure justice?” she asked. “How will you guarantee my safety?” There was no reply.
Namita Bhandare writes on social issues
The views expressed are personal