A friend asked me that question when I told her I’d be curating @genderlogindia for what, Nilanjana Roy tells me, is its last week before it goes into hibernation.
Her question was not ‘Why are you doing this?’ but a more fundamental ‘Why?’
Why have such a site, such a feed – what does it do, what does it solve? Why discuss and debate? What good has all this discussion and debate done since we started “paying attention” in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape of December last year?
She is not the only one among people I know who, once active participants in the conversations that sprung up around Delhi, have retreated into silence.
I see their point. But.
The Times (London) once published this letter, signed ‘respectfully’ by ‘An Earnest Englishwoman’:
Sir, Whether women are the equal of men has been endlessly debated; whether they have souls has been a moot point; but can it be too much to ask for a definitive acknowledgment that at least they are animals?
Many Honorable Members may object to the proposed Bill enacting that, in statutes respecting the suffrage, ‘wherever words occur which import the masculine gender they shall be held to include women’ – but could any object to the insertion of a clause in another Act that ‘whenever the word “animal” occurs, it shall be held to include women?’
Suffer me, through your columns, to appeal to our 650 (parliamentary) representatives and ask – Is there not one among you then who will introduce such a motion? There would then at least be an equal interdict on wanton barbarity to cat, dog and woman…”
Historian, professor and author Joanna Burke, who quotes this letter in the preface to her book What It Means To Be Human: Historical Reflections from the 1800s To The Present, provides context for this letter:
The Earnest Englishwoman was angry because animals had more rights in law than women did. In fact, the status of women was much worse than that of the rest of the animal kingdom. Regulations prohibiting cruelty against dogs, horses and cattle were significantly more punitive than laws against cruelty towards women. …. Her heartfelt cry, therefore, was for women to be allowed to ‘become animal’, in order to reap the benefits that they were being denied on the grounds that they were not part of ‘mankind’.
That letter, asking for women to be granted equal status with animals, was written in April 1872.
We have come a long way, baby. Maybe.
THEN AGAIN, maybe not – did you happen to read the story of the husband who over a period of nearly a dozen years prostituted his wife for sexual abuse and rape, in order to win a small promotion, a small apartment, a small plot of land?
Did you read this other story of a woman who offered her 13 year old daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder?
How about the story of a father who began raping his daughter when she was about 15, because he was told it would bring him prosperity? Of how the girl’s younger brother joined in, and of how the mother stood by passive, accepting of the serial assaults on her own daughter? Of how the rape continued for the better part of nine years before the victim finally spoke out?
Did you read of how Rahim Mollah, 23, recently celebrated his purchase of a new bike?
Did you hear of the wannabe godman who raped a university student because god told him to?
Did you read of the child, six years old, raped by a 40 year old man? Of how the village elders in their wisdom decided that the abused child should be married to the rapist’s eight year old son as palliative? And of how, while these ‘negotiations’ were going on, the man raped the child again?
Did you read of the policewoman who was accompanying the slain body of her brother in law when she was waylaid, robbed, raped?
Does the word ‘chattel’ come to mind? How different is any of this, fundamentally, from the situation the anguished ‘Earnest Englishwoman’ was writing of?
WHILE researching her seminal book Against Our Will, journalist Susan Brownmiller spent a year reading, and researching, coverage of rape in the popular media.
In the immediate aftermath of Delhi, I tried a similar thought experiment: A Google search for ‘rape’, and an email alert to deliver compilations on a daily basis. (The stories I linked to above are from that daily feed). Try it for a spell; see if you have the stomach to sift through the day’s collection of stories of man’s inhumanity to one half of ‘mankind’. (Or simply spend a random hour going through this feed).
After even the briefest period of immersion, it will begin to feel like there has been a vast escalation in the incidence of rape and abuse. Newspaper reports of how, in this city or that state, more cases have been reported in the first six months of this year than in all of the previous year lend some superficial credence to the trope that rape and abuse – in both frequency and brutality – has increased in the aftermath of Delhi.
But what if the real increase is in the number of reported instances? What if the real change post-Delhi is that the media has begun to focus more, devote more newspaper real estate to these cases? And what if this ramped-up coverage has begun to liberate more victims to come forward, to protest their abuse and to stand up to their abusers?
The most horrific story you come across today? It has happened before, in our own immediate circle. The daughter abused and raped by father and son (in the case I am thinking of, father and three brothers) while the mother looked on? I knew that girl, back in 1975. The girl raped in school by her teacher? It happened, to my knowledge, some four years prior to the above. The neighbor who abused a child he was ‘baby-sitting’? It happened in our colony back in 1984.
These stories now coming to light are our stories; we’ve known of them and lived through them in an earlier age, when suffering in silence was preferable to enduring the ‘social stigma’ attached to going public. The difference is that then, we spoke of them in hushed whispers, if we spoke of them at all.
SUNLIGHT, United States Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis once said, is the best disinfectant. He was speaking of public policy, but the thought is equally applicable to rape, to abuse.
He has a point – Delhi, thanks to the location of the crime, its unimaginably horrific nature, its larger story of the systemic breakdown of the policing systems designed to protect us, was perhaps that first shaft of disinfectant. (I exaggerate? Romanticize? Okay, how many of you truly remember any or all of the cases – many of them as horrific or more so than Delhi – that I mentioned in this earlier blog post?)
Writing in FirstPost of the need to broaden and deepen the conversation, Jay Mazoomdar said:
“Every assault that goes unpunished anywhere is an encouragement to rapists everywhere. It is really all or nothing — no woman will ever really feel safe if another does not.”
True — and the first step to punishment is that the crime be acknowledged, and brought to light, in the first place.
Much of the media coverage has an underlying (and in some cases, even overt) edge of prurience. Some of the coverage has been downright insensitive to, and disrespectful of, the survivors.
But the stepped-up coverage, basic and even insensitive as it is, has had some beneficial effects. It has encouraged more people to speak out against their abusers; it has to at least a limited extent empowered survivors – Suzette Jordan is just one example — to step into the sunlight, to reclaim their identities, and to reach out a helping hand to those similarly affected.
And that perhaps is the best answer I can give my friend, who asked me ‘Why?’
The real question is, can we afford not to have such conversations. Can we afford to blot out even these admittedly random shafts of sunlight?
PS: As it turns out, this is the last week of @genderlogindia before a hibernation enforced by external factors. Over the next six days, at our request, friends of Genderlog have volunteered their time and their energies to writing of the various issues that surround the subject of abuse, of rape, of violence against women.
Look out for their contributions, on @genderlogindia , beginning tomorrow.
For now, for those who believe – enjoy Ganesh Chathurthi. And be safe.