Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022

Raped And Shamed: The Price We Pay For Being ‘India’s Daughters’

Nearly a decade since the infamous ‘Nirbhaya kand’ which led to a string of amendments to criminal law to prevent such instances from happening, not much has changed in the country when it comes to ensuring women’s safety and physical autonomy.

Who is saving India's daughters?
Who is saving India's daughters? PTI (File Photo)

The 2012 Delhi rape victim, may she rest in peace, unintentionally and unfortunately, became known as “India’s Daughter”. It is easy to mourn the death of this particular Indian woman, and to feel at least a shred of empathy for her situation. Imagine, for a minute, that she miraculously survived her horrific experience. She would then be blamed for wearing jeans, heels, being out in the evening, that too, with a male companion, and undoubtedly, the parent who wrote to St Xaviers Kolkata, who was recently moved to complain against a woman teacher after he found her photos on his son’s phone, would be clucking away like an enraged hen about the possibility of bikinis and other objectionable garments being responsible for encouraging the monsters who violated and murdered her.

Nearly a decade since the infamous ‘Nirbhaya kand’ which led to a string of amendments to criminal law to prevent such instances from happening, not much has changed in the country when it comes to ensuring women’s safety and physical autonomy. The rapists of Bilkis Bano were recently released to welcoming garlands and cheers. In a Kozhikode Sessions Court in Kerala, the judge whilst granting bail to a sexual harassment accused, noted that the offence didn't count because there had apparently been photographs of the victim clad in ‘sexually provocative’ clothes. What does this kind of a statement mean, especially when coming from a judge?

Are we actually saying, in the case of Kozhikode, that it is somehow acceptable for sexual violence to have taken place because the man couldn’t “control” his impulses upon viewing some photographs? If so, he should be locked away so that he can no longer “lose control” over such a minor matter, and traumatise more women. The issue lies with him, his choices, actions, and behaviour. The issue does not lie with the survivor. It appears that we are strengthening the victim-blaming narrative as opposed to upholding the woman’s basic right to be safe. If that man is set free, he will find another victim, confident that even if he is caught again, he will get away with it, leaving another victim revictimised; first by him, secondly, by a system that failed her.

Given the current political climate, and recent verdicts, I would not be alone in stating that the probability of women receiving justice for sexual and gender based crimes is dependent on who you are, who you know, and which community you align yourself with. Similarly, 498A works, and is sometimes misused, depending on the aforementioned factors. Victim-shaming, morality speeches, and bullying play a significant role in dissuading survivors from pursuing legal recourse. There is no protection or privacy guaranteed to survivors, which plays an additional role when it comes to seeking justice. According to a response in the Lok Sabha in March 2022, over 2.26 lakh cases registered under POCSO Act were pending in POCSO Courts as of 31 January 2022. The Unnao rape survivor, instead of being supported, has been all but forgotten. She has had multiple cases filed against her for non-appearance in court, with demands for her to return to Unnao where her life is clearly in danger. Skewed notions around morality play a huge role in revictimising survivors and assuring their abusers of their silence.

I started my journey as a concerned citizen activist when I was eight-year-old. In June 2022, after decades of work, my campaign, 'One Million Against Abuse Foundation' was registered as a trust. This journey, like those of so many others whose voices have been (on rare occasions) heard, but are mostly silenced, takes root from 15 years of horrific sexual assault which I endured from the age of 4-19. It began after multiple suicide attempts and failed attempts at getting justice (in my day there was no law against CSA). I wish to fight this battle till the day total victory is achieved and considering where we as a country stand when it comes to sexual abuse awareness and justice for survivors, I feel the fight will be a lifelong one.

I also realise that the fact that I managed to be heard has much to do with my privilege based on my family background and social status. A large number of women coexist with us whose voices, opinions, and challenges are not highlighted enough. I am certain that if one were to direct the question of physical-sexual autonomy towards a woman living with disabilities (including chronic illness), women from less privileged backgrounds, Tribal and Adivasi women, Dalit women, women who identify as LBTQI+, trans women, and others, the common answer would be “no we do not enjoy physical or sexual autonomy”. As diverse as our backgrounds may be, the evils of patriarchy serve to bind and impact us all.

It's important to make women aware of their own rights and bodies. I love and appreciate my body and use it to make a point about women's sexual and physical autonomy and body positivity. The boudoir shoots and photographs I share on social media of my own volition definitely rile a few people up, interestingly more women than men. The men will write creepy “Shontu” comments, but the women will use the content to rip me to shreds. I call out comments, and hold people accountable, and have facilitated the lodging of over 600 complaints, and multiple arrests of such people. ' Shontu: United against Sexual Harassment ', a Facebook page I run, receives daily complaints and screenshots from women. I help out by providing guidance on registering complaints and using humour to call out this regressive behaviour. I also intend to campaign for stricter laws against online harassment as our current laws are vague and ineffective. Online harassment is a serious issue and perpetrators must be held accountable.

The attitude in India towards women has always been regressive, and no number of adjective-laden word salads or flashy campaigns around “woman empowerment” will serve to contradict the fact that one can only be called “India’s daughter” if one is self-sacrificing, quiet, ornamental, non-intrusive, and living an inoffensive life that is in line with patriarchal norms.

(Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman is a Kolkata-based women’s rights and body positivity activist who works with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence under the One Million against Abuse Foundation trust founded by her. She also manages online platforms to help victims of online sexual abuse)

(As told to Rakhi Bose)