Unpacking gender-based violence and trauma voyeurism in the Manipur conflict
Manipur's viral video highlights the systemic pattern of using women's bodies as battlefields. The response must be survivor-focused and challenge patriarchy
War and ethnic conflicts are masculinist projects. They are critical components of the processes of the geopolitics of nationalism, State building, and an ethnic community’s shared belief that they have the ‘natural right’ to territory necessary to live in and govern. The abhorrent graphic viral footage of two Kuki-Zo tribal women forcibly paraded naked and allegedly gangraped by Meitei vigilantes in Manipur testifies to a systemic pattern of groups with an imagined collective commonality and shared identity marking its territorial boundaries not just on land but on the bodies of the ‘othered’ women. As imagined ‘outsiders,’ the women of B Phainom Village in Kangpokpi District were terrorized and used for retribution, expulsion, and disciplining of the ‘enemy.’ Enmeshed between the intersections of their gender as women and ethnic identities as Kuki-Zo tribals, they became signifiers of ethnic and socio-cultural differences between the warring communities.
The use of rape in war and armed conflict is a cross-cultural language of patriarchal ideology to demoralize, dehumanize, and ‘emasculate enemy men’ by ‘defiling’ the women they could not protect. History shows us that opportunistic rape and pillage of previous centuries have been replaced by rape as an orchestrated tactic in modern conflict— Japanese rapes of Chinese women in the Nanjing Massacre (1937), rapes by the Allied and Axis armies during World War II (1939-1945), “genetic imperialism” through forcible impregnation of Bosniak women by Serb paramilitary units in Bosnia (1992-95), rapes of Tutsi women by the Interahamwe militia and members of the Hutu population in Rwanda (1994), and sexual crimes in the Russia-Ukraine conflict (2022).
Although rape and other sexual violence are prohibited under international humanitarian law (IHL) in international and non-international armed conflict, its prevalence in the Manipur conflict foregrounds the endemic and intransigent weaponizing of women’s bodies as battlefields to assert physical and symbolic control. Strategic rape has been wielded as a ‘weapon of choice’ by militia and mobs because women’s bodies and sexualities are assumed to embody their community’s (read: masculine) honour and shame.
Shaming women is akin to shaming men, shaming the family, and shaming the community. As patriarchal ideology posits women as biological reproducers (to quote Joane Nagel, “nationalist wombs”) and cultural transmitters of values from one generation to another, they remain vulnerable to defilement, assimilation, and co-option by ‘enemy men.’ As symbols of the community’s home and hearth, the ‘outraging’ of a woman’s ‘sexual sanctity’ invariably becomes a matter of collective and communal interest.
Coverage of rape cases in the Manipur conflict, including the repugnant viral video, treats the horrific instances as isolated phenomena— a byproduct of the ethnic conflict between the Kuki-Zo and Meitei communities. Such canons of information conceivably overlook critical ideations of what Cynthia Cockburn calls the “continuum of violence”—violence can be experienced as a continuum of time and scale. In particular, socially and economically marginalized women are often the most vulnerable to sexual crimes during pre-conflict times, conflict and flight, and encampment at relief camps.
In patriarchal social systems, unequal gendered power structures generate cultures of corrosive masculinity that have the potential to exert deadly control on women both during peace and wartime. Specifically, conflict-related rapes often reflect the inherent disregard for the sexual autonomy and ethnic identities of ‘othered’ women and the chronic and routinized subordination they are subjected to in pre-conflict times. Thus, sexual violence during armed conflict often mirrors experiences of racial or ethnic bigotry and oppression throughout women’s and marginalized communities’ lifecycles.
The Manipur conflict began on May 3 and multiple war and atrocity crimes have been committed. However, most Indians and media groups became privy to the massive human rights abuses only after the graphic video of the Kuki-Zo tribal women went viral. One wonders whether the consumption of and fascination with distressing images and explicit visual representations of sexual assaults are the criteria to awaken political leaders, state officials, and apex government bodies to the full scope of violence against women and garner momentum for accountability.
The victims/survivors were neither consulted nor actively consented to the release of the extremely invasive video. Yet the entire nation gawked at their naked bodies and breached their fundamental right to privacy, protected under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Intentionally or unintentionally, viewers and sympathizers possibly engaged in 'trauma voyeurism' and ‘victim re-traumatization' and turned their deeply personal pain, humiliation, and body into the property of the public domain.
Further, public response evidenced a lack of understanding and perceptions about rape. Some engaged in ruthless victim-blaming and rape culture myths— the women invited the assaults as retribution, and rapes were an inevitable part of the conflict. Others resorted to typical fallacies about male perpetrators’ inability to control carnal urges. Many failed to recognize that rape is fundamental to the patriarchal domination of women and the general lack of men’s regard for female sexual autonomy. As Susan Brownmiller reminds us, rape is “an act of power” based on the fraudulent notion that female sexuality inherently deserves to invite rape as it exists in a perpetual state of consent.
Other observers and allies (albeit coming from a place of genuine outrage and concern) continued to evoke anachronistic and sexist language such as “outraging modesty,” “dishonoured,” “chastity ruined,” and “akin to a death sentence” and conflated the human rights violations of the victims with “desecrating” the entire ethnic community. Such postulations reinforce the idea that only women’s bodies and sexualities are entrusted to bear the burden of a community’s “honour.” The concerns elicited a puritanical notion of how patriarchal codes of honour and conduct have been disrupted rather than present a victim-centred and survivor-focused narrative.
It’s almost as if women deserve respect only for their socially assigned identifications as mothers, sisters, and daughters, and without such invocations, endowing value on their self-worth is suspect. If one is truly invested in endowing ‘dignity’ to the survivors, one must move beyond the stigma and stereotypes of rape victims as weak and helpless and trust that they can regain control, heal, and rebuild their lives in their own time and on their own terms.
Democratic and constitutional States are legally obligated to protect their most vulnerable citizens, including women, children, the elderly, persons with disabilities and other minoritized groups. Manipur state has failed them on every level. When women report sexual assault cases, they must be believed. Believing in victims does not mean that the allegations should not be investigated.
Instead, it asks us to avoid the default response that people who speak up about sexual violence lie. Members of the perpetrators’ community inclined to rationalize the grotesque sexual crimes, especially the female dupes of patriarchy, with ‘rape of the enemy’ supportive attitudes, must liberate themselves from the prisons of patriarchal ideology and strive to break the causal links that shape rapists in war and peacetime. Our trauma voyeurism must transform into a collective responsibility to challenge the tradition of impunity and create transformative, sustainable futures as we continue to stand in solidarity with the victims, survivors, and those demanding justice.
Dr Josephine Kipgen is assistant professor, department of women’s and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire, USA. The views expressed are personal