Dear young women and men of Delhi,
Thank you for the courage and the honour you have brought to Rajpath, the most dishonourable street in our city. You changed Delhi yesterday, and you are changing it today. Your presence, of all twelve thousand of you, yesterday, on Rajpath, that street that climbs down from the presidential palace on Raisina Hill to India Gate, getting soiled by the excreta of the tanks and missiles on Republic Day each year, was for me a kind of purificatory ritual. It made a claim to the central vista of ‘Lutyen’s Delhi’ as a space for democratic assertion in contravention of the completely draconian, elitist and undemocratic prohibitory orders that make the heart of this republic, a zone of the death, not the life and sustenance, of democracy.
From now onwards, consider the heart of Delhi to be a space that belongs, first of all, to its citizens. Yesterday, when thousands of you gathered peacefully, intending to march up Raisina Hill to the president’s palace, you were charged with batons, tear gas and subjected to jets from water cannons. The violence began, not when protestors threw stones, but when the police started attacking people. Stones were thrown in retaliation. The television cameras that recorded what happened show us the exact chronology. The police were clearly under orders not to let people up Raisina Hill. Why? What is so sacred about Raisina Hill? Why can a group of unarmed, peaceful young people not walk to the gates of the president’s palace? So, lets be clear. Violence began when the state acted. Of course, the protest got hijacked by hooligans. But of course it had to be. When hooligans in uniform are let loose on an unarmed crowed, there can be no possibility of averting the possibility that hooligans out of uniform will respond in kind.
But do not let this stop you, or distract you. Do not be scared away from the heart of the city by this violence. Prevent the hijackers from taking over your anger and twisting it to their purposes. But most importantly, never, ever be scared again. You have all given us the gift of a fearlessness. This city is no longer what it used to be, and it is so because of you. Rajpath is yours. This city is yours. its days and nights are yours. Do not let anyone take this back from you. Keep the city. Keep the city safe, make it safe. Make it yours and mine again.
Thank you for doing this in the name of an anonymous 23 year old woman. She is someone like you, like millions of others who wants to lay claim to this city, by day and by night. You demonstrated that the presence of women and men, out on the streets, in public, is the only guarantee by which everyone can feel safe in this city, or in an city for that matter. It is not by making pubs close early that this city will be made safe. It is by ensuring that as many women can be out and about in any place in the city, at any time of day and night, in buses, on the metro, in public spaces, in work spaces, cinemas, theatres, at home, and even in pubs, that this city will be safe for all of its citizens. By being together, in public, as free and equal men and women, in the place where prohibitory orders and Section 144 forbid you from being, you made sure that this city belonged to the 23 old woman who was asked by the men who raped her (Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh) what she was doing out and about at nine at night. You were together, as young women and men, safe, secure in each others company, drawn together by friendship and solidarity, and by your friendship and solidarity with the 23 year old woman who is fighting so bravely for her life. She could have been one of you. Any one of you could have been her, or her injured and brave friend. The young men amongst you demonstrated that you were not there to assert your control over women. The young women amongst you demonstrated that you could hold your own with young men, and feel the opposite of being threatened and insecure. Our city, so ashamed of its reputation for misogyny, can only be grateful for this organic, spontaneous and public demonstration of the solidarity between the bodies of young women and men.
You made me proud of Delhi again, just as much as the men named Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh had made me ashamed a few days ago by the way in which they brutally raped and nearly killed that anonymous young woman, and assaulted her companion. They cannot be called beasts, because no animals behave as terribly as these men did. They make us ashamed to be human, and make me ashamed to be a man. I am ashamed by them just as much as I was ashamed by the bystanders on a busy street who pulled down the windows of their cars to gape at a nearly naked and clearly injured woman and man, or just stood around, staring, but could not find enough humanity within themselves to come up and offer help, or comfort, or even cover the two young people on a cold December night.
But yesterday, you, the twelve thousand mostly young men and women who came to Rajpath to express your anger showed the world that Delhi has a different face as well. Thank you for restoring humanity to this city. Today, the several more than yesterday’s twelve thousand have been joined by a fringe consisting of the storm troopers of some political parties, especially the BJP, and the agent-provocateurs of the Congress, neither of whom have any hesitation in fielding people with accusations of rape against them for elections. Here, in this fringe, you will find the ABVP, the Bajrang Dal, the NSUI, the Ramdev Wallas, the hooligans of the unfortunately named Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, the anti-corruption brigade, all manner of busy-bodies, goondas and do-gooders, and some goondas who are do gooders. Do not let them distract you. Overwhelm them with your numbers, make your protests decentralized, and impossible for them or the police to direct and control. Do not, under any circumstances let them speak for you, or tell you what to do, or dictate the agenda. Take back the protest by making it go viral all over the city.
Do not forget that when Sushma Swaraj, the BJP leader made the disgusting comment ‘ uski zindagi maut se badtar ho chuki hai’ (‘her life is now worse than death’), in Parliament, she was actually endorsing the Patriarchal value system that produces rape. It is your responsibility, and the responsibility of all of us, to ensure that Sushma Swaraj’s political career dies it’s deserved and timely death just for that one remark. Let us make sure that she can never be elected to any office again, that she can never insult and humiliate the young women of this country with her patronizing platitudes. She, and other politicians like Mamata Bannerjee, who have questioned rape victims testimonies in recent times, do not deserve our confidence, they deserve an eternal political exile. Just as brutal rapists only deserve an eternity of imprisonment and confinement in solitude in order to reflect on the violence that they have committed.
Remember, the rapist’s intention is not sexual pleasure (because the ONLY way in which pleasure can be had is through the reciprocity of desire, through love, through erotic engagement, not through taking away someone’s agency by force and without consent). Rape is not about sex, it is about humiliation, its intention is precisely to make the raped person think that now that they have been subjected to sexual violence, their life will no longer be worth living. The rapist and Sushma Swaraj are in perfect agreement about the worth of the life of a rape victim. The reason why some men rape women or others who are in their power is because they believe that some lives are more important, worth more, than others. That is the key to patriarchy.
Dear young women and men of Delhi, I am writing this to you so that in the middle of all your anger you can find a space to reflect on the force that patriarchy has over all our lives, and I hope that you will find the means, burnished by your anger to dethrone it from its underserved position of power in this city. I want yours to be the generation that changed Delhi forever. And i know you can make that happen, and that is why I am writing to you.
Let us think about patriarchy together. Patriarchy is what makes you ashamed, not delighted when you have a period, because your traditions teach you that a menstruating body is a polluting body. Patriarchy is what tells you that there are things you cannot or should not do because of the way your body or your desires are shaped. Patriarchy is the secret to your nightmares, the reason for your deepest, most personal fears and anxieties. It seeks control of your body, your mind, your speech, your behaviour, even the ways in which you raise and lower your eyes. Behind this lies a clear identification between property and the sexual body that patriarchy tries to perpetuate at any cost. When anyone says that a raped person, say a woman, is defiled, what they mean is that the violence done to her sexually is identical to the violation of their personhood, which ‘properly’ understood, is the property of someone who can legitimately ‘husband’ her body and being. Any woman, according to this view, either is, or will eventually become some man’s property. If she is ‘defiled’ she will become ‘broken goods’, the legitimate claimant to the property which her body constitutes will no longer have any interest in ‘husbanding’ her. That is why they say that her life, laid fallow and waste by rape, will no longer be worth living.
That is why courts in India are so reluctant to admit marital rape. They are bewildered by the reality of marital rape because they cannot understand how someone can ‘violate’ their own property. To understand clearly this you have to think about kinds of injury other than rape.
How is it that violent attacks, or injuries that are non-sexual in nature, do not lead anyone to say that their ‘life is now worse than death’. Imagine an injured soldier, a war veteran whose legs have been blown off, being told by a mainstream politician his ‘life is now worse than death’, and you will immediately see how ridiculous the identification between the destiny of your sexual being and the worth of life is. The injured soldier is feted, decorated, celebrated. The rape survivor is made to feel something quite different. An episode of rape is horrible, but it is not necessarily always more physically painful than a blown off limb. The only reason why women are disciplined and made to fall in line with the threat of rape dangling over them (either by their rapists, or by their would be ‘protectors’) is because rape is seen as a crime against property. And the property in question is inevitably patriarchy’s right over the woman’s body, over the body of any person that patriarchy deems to be without agency. The woman who is raped is made to feel ashamed because she was not vigilant enough to safeguard the orifices of her body from being accessed by an inappropriate other, or a stranger against her will (not that her will counts, necessarily). Had it been an ‘appropriate’ other, say a husband, or a boy-friend, she could be made to feel equally ashamed for the revulsion she might feel in submitting to his sexual will, on occasion, or at any time at all, against her own wishes and desires.
The reason why Sushma Swaraj and others like her hyper-ventilate in this way is because they are the architects of the patriarchal order that produces rape. If Thakur, Sharma, Sharma, Singh and Gupta have committed the rape that needs to be condemned by everyone, than Swaraj needs to be held accountable for perpetuating the value system that leads Thakur, Sharma, Sharma, Singh and Gupta to think that rape is the natural and normal thing for them to do. After all a vast number of men in India, routinely rape their wives. And Sushma Swaraj throws Karwa Chaut parties to celebrate the thrall which patriarchy allows husbands to hold over their wives. No young self respecting woman in Delhi should ever take anything that someone like Sushma Swaraj ever says seriously.
Dear young men and women of Delhi, When you see your legitimate protest contaminated by the BJP cadre, ask them about how they are going to deal with their misogynist leadership. How are they going to deal with those who justified the rape and murder of Muslim women in Gujarat? Ask them about how they intend to deal with the fact that even in the recent Gujarat elections, one of the victorious MLAs (the sitting MLA for Dhari) Mansukh Bhuva, has a charge of leading and participating in the gang-rape of the wife of a panchayat member of Amreli district by seven people.
Investigation in this case is currently in progress, and while the MLA has said that the charges are false and politically motivated, does it not indicate that a party like the BJP is actually not committed in any way to taking the rights of women seriously when it gives a ticket to a man who stands accused of gang rape. Should it not have waited for this man’s innocence to be proven before blessing him with an election ticket? Ask Sushma Swaraj, ask Narendra Modi, dreaming of Raisina Hill and Lutyens Delhi, what they have to say about Mansukh Bhuva.
Even as I write this, some people are expressing their concern at the way in which your protest is getting out of hand. They are saying that you should not be indulging in violence. On Facebook, I see young Kashmiri men and women ask whether or not the authorities in Delhi will now begin to say that you have been paid to throw stones at the buses of the Delhi police by the Pakistani ISI (after all, that is what was said when young people in Kashmir throw stones at the forces of law and order after the administrations insensitivity in rape cases forced young people to take to the streets, so it is quite natural that they should ask this question when you throw stones in Delhi.)
Learning from your peers in the frontiers of this unfortunate union (governed in part by an unwieldy, creaking but sort-of-working constitution and in part by the precise and lethally efficient Armed Forces Special Powers Act), to throw stones at the force that needs stones thrown at them is not something I feel you need necessarily to be ashamed of. A Tehelka investigation (‘The Rapes Will Go On’) by G. Vishnu and Abhishek Bhalla pointed out in April 2012, that several police officers in positions of responsibility in this city and in the National Capital Region (Gurgaon, Noida, Ghaziabad and Faridabad) think that when women get attacked it is their fault. While writing this, I checked with one of the correspondents who had filed this story. He told me what I had suspected. The Delhi police did order a departmental enquiry, and the concerned officer was ‘transferred’. Not suspended, demoted, punished or reprimanded. No disciplinary action of any consequence was taken. The Gurgaon, Ghaziabad, Faridabad and Noida police were even more ‘sensitive’ to the morale of men in uniform. They did nothing at all. A force that does not punish those amongst its ranks guilty of making such statements, and thereby perpetuates a naked sexism, deserves all the stones that get thrown at it in retaliation for its egregious use of batons, tear gas and water cannons against a peaceful gathering.
But throwing stones at policemen is one thing, and having your protest hijacked by the storm troopers of political parties like the BJP and the Congress is quite another. I think you need to think carefully about how you can prevent your anger from being abused by political opportunists of all stripes for their own ends. Do not lose your resolve. Do not let lumpen political mercenaries ride the wave in the the upsurge that is your anger.
Many of you carried banners that asked men to think, with which I whole heartedly agree (and I am writing this in order to do this thinking with you, and as the mark of my gratitude to you) and some of you asked for capital punishment for the rapists, a demand that i cannot agree to, but am willing to argue with you about, in friendship and in solidarity. The rapists should in my view, spend their entire lives in prison, in isolation, considering what made them do what they did. Hanging, (which one of the accused has even demanded for himself) is the easiest way out for them. It will be the least severe punishment that we can imagine for these horrible and violent men. Moreover, if would-be rapists think they might be hanged, they will go the extra mile to kill their victims, in order to destroy the possibility that someone may testify against them. Under no circumstances has the death penalty ever been known to reduce any crime. It is not the death penalty that will stop rape. To stop rape we have to think about the attitudes that make rape imaginable, that normalize rape. But we can debate this question in depth at another time (and I will be thinking with you a little bit about what these attitudes might be and where they come from later in this piece). Right now I want to think about what your presence on Raisina Hill means to me.
The water cannons that dowsed all of you on today and yesterday’s cold december mornings were cleansing – not you, but this filthy, disgusting state, that can guarantee only the insecurity of its citizens. Remember, that this is not the only rape and murder that has shocked our conscience in recent years. Remember, Manorama, a woman in Manipur who was allegedly raped and then murdered by soldiers of the 17th Assam Rifles Regiment. This happened in 2004, a full eight years ago. Eight years have passed and the rapists and murderers of Manorama have not even been produced in court. They have not been produced in court because they are not civilians like Sharma, Sharma, Thakur, Gupta and Singh. They are men in uniform, not bus drivers, fruit juice vendors, cleaners and gym instructors. An enquiry was ordered and conducted, and its contents still remain secret.
But immediately afterwards, the defense authorities, petitioned the Supreme Court with a ‘Special Leave Petition’ against further proceedings in this case. Here was the state, and the army, doing the opposite of what needed to be done to speed up the course of justice in a matter that had to do with rape and murder. In the summer of this year, eight years after Manorama was raped and murdered, the Supreme Court permitted the special leave petition to be heard, and the proceedings in the Imphal bench of the Guwahati High Court, and the opening of the Upendra Commission enquiry had to be suspended. This enquiry into her rape and murder remains, as far as I know, suspended and wrapped within secrecy. Manorama’s family are exactly where they were eight years ago, as far from justice as it is possible for anyone to be. I do not know what progress there has been on the hearing of the Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court. There seems to be little information available on the matter apart from stray reports that the Supreme Court was hearing the SLP. I would be curious to know what the apex court decided. Whatever be the outcome, we can say this much for certain - the Manorama case did not get ‘fast track treatment’.
So when Sushma Swaraj demands ‘fast track courts’ to treat cases of rape and sexual violence, ask her why she is so disinterested in making sure that ‘fast track courts’ can track Manorama’s rape and murder. Is it because the fact that when rape and murder are deployed as instruments of national security policy in order to contain insurgency, different standards are automatically assumed to apply? Is it because the BJP thinks that rape is ok as long as it is done in the interests of national security (as in Manipur and Kashmir) and in order to uphold the honour of Hindutva (as in Gujarat)?
Remember the Kunan-Pushpora rapes in Kashmir, which occurred on February 23, 1991, twenty one years ago? You probably don’t, because Sushma Swaraj, nor any other prominent politician for that matter, has ever thought it necessary to demand ‘fast track courts’ to try the guilty rapists of Kunan Poshpora. At least fifty three women were raped on that night by soldiers of the Fourth Rajputana Rifles. No police investigation was conducted, despite a complaint by the villagers. A district magistrate and a sitting chief justice of the Jammu and Kashmir high court conducted their own enquiries and found that the soldiers of the 4th Rajputana Rifles had ‘acted like beasts that night’. But no cognizance of their reports was taken by the civil or military authorities in Jammu and Kashmir, or at the centre.
The charges were dismissed as ‘baseless’. Three months after that incident, the Press Council of India was invited by the Army to conduct an enquiry, and the Press Council of India found that the charges were baseless. Not a single soldier of the Indian army has ever been booked for Kunan Poshpora for all of these twenty one years. Now imagine that the Delhi police and administration invite the Press Council of India, or let us say, the Metereological Survey of India to determine whether or not the unnamed 23 year paramedic was raped on a Delhi bus. How can a mass rape by soldiers be investigated and judged by a body designed to look into complaints regarding the running of newspapers and media organizations? This is what ‘justice’ in cases of rape has by and large meant in the outlying territories where the writ of the Indian Union runs. Now, we are facing a situation that alarms us in the very heart of the republic. Perhaps it is time we learnt that we cannot have different standards at play in Delhi and Kunan Poshpora. And that if that is how they do play out, then it is time to admit that those who run this country run large parts of it as if they were colonies. If you, the young women and men of Delhi can begin to understand this, as a result of what you have been experiencing today and yesterday, then all the tear gas and water cannon jets that you faced may well have been worth the while.
Granted, public memory is short, but how short? Remember the rape and murder of Nilofer Jaan and Aasiya Jaan in Shopian, Kashmir, as recently as May 2009, which saw a cover up and reversal of forensic findings at the highest level, with the connivance of the highest levels of the security forces, bureaucracy and the political establishment, so that two raped, killed women could be shown to have ‘drowned in ankle deep water’ in an apparent ‘accident’. You can read the entire contents of a carefully written ‘citizens’ report on the Shopian Rape and Murder case here
Remember how the enquiry report on Nilofer and Aasiya Jan’s rape and death was tampered with so that suspicions about the women’s ‘character’ could be inserted to make it appear that any evidence of sexual abuse could be wished away as the natural consequences of the ‘waywardness’ of young women? Remember, that Omar Abdullah, Rahul Gandhi’s dear friend, who sanctioned and endorsed these lies, continues to be in office, presiding over the violent occupation of Kashmir. Remember that the denial of rape and murder is a key element in his strategy of governance. Remember all of this when politicians and the media praise you for your idealism, and condemn you for throwing stones. Remember that when your peers in Kashmir or Manipur throw stones out of the same anger that motivates you today, their stone throwing is met not with water cannons and tear gas but with bullets and condemnation, but their ‘idealism’ never finds praise in the salons and studios of New Delhi. Remember now that here, now, this winter of 2012, is the time for you, in the streets of Delhi to find a kinship with your friends, your peers, in Srinagar and Imphal. Remember that the safety and freedom of a young woman is always more important than the safety and security of the abstraction that you have been taught to think of as a nation. Remember that a raped woman is deserving of your friendship, your solidarity, you courage and love, wherever she may be, in Delhi, Srinagar or Imphal.
For the last few days, I have been wondering how I can even begin to think about the rape and assault that the brave twenty three year old paramedic (who is now fighting to live, and to live well in a Delhi hospital) and her friend had to undergo. You have asked all men to think. I am a man. I am not a celibate man who can wish away his sexuality. And so I am trying to think this through with you. I hope that all men in Delhi join me in this exercise.
As a man, I have looked at myself in the mirror, each of the past days, and thought about whether, ever, under any circumstances, in any condition of sobriety or intoxication, I have ever entertained even the thought of compelling a woman, a man, a boy or a girl – a lover, a friend, an acquaintance, a colleague, a neighbour, a relative, a stranger to act against her (or his) consent. I think every man should look at himself and think hard. All of us men have to think because only men rape. Only men entertain the thought of rape. They (we) rape mostly women, and girls, but they (we) also rape other men, and boys, and those of indeterminate gender.
They (we) rape, not because rape has anything to do, as I have said already, with sexual relations, but because rape has to do with the assertion of power, of the compelling power that can make one body do what another body wants against its will. And just as only upper caste men and women can insult and commit violence on to those they consider lower than themselves in a specifically ‘castiest’ way, so too only men can rape, because they (we) think of themselves as occupying the summit of a sexual pyramid.
This pyramid, which we could call patriarchy, is built out of the sexual equivalent of slavery. The protocols of slavery indicate that some bodies be seen as being bereft of agency. Sometimes these bodies are marked by racial difference, at other times by gender, or by other markers. What is understood is that these agency-less bodies (howsoever their agency-lessness is constituted) can be transacted at will by other bodies that are deemed worthy of agency.
Wherever and whenever a certain kind of body (a woman’s body, a child’s body, a prisoner or captive’s body, a slave’s body, a ‘junior’s’ of ‘freshet’s’ body in the ritual of ragging or hazing on campus, a gay man’s body, the body of a caste or race ‘other’) can be thought of automatically as an object that one can bend or break or punish at will, just because of what it is, there and then lie the foundations of rape. The reason why an upper caste landlord can demand his ‘right’ over a lower caste woman’s body and simultaneously insist that she is ‘untouchable’ has to do with how he understands the difference between his body and hers. He rapes her to punish her husband for trying to assert his rights as a tiller over the land he thinks he owns. Or he rapes her because the thinks he can, and because she is there. Thakur, Singh, Sharma, Sharma and Gupta, the men who raped the unnamed paramedic, did not do anything that has not been done before. Men like them did it in cities and in villages, in fields, warehouses, plantations and factories, under trees, beside wells and rivers, in thickets and in clearings, in public and in private, in ruins and bedrooms, even in temples and kitchens, for thousands of years. They did it, not only to strangers and captives, but to their wives and their sisters and their daughters too.
This understanding has nothing biological about it. It is hard-coded into the cultural protocols that teach a man, even as a young boy, which kind of body has agency, and which kind of body is there for the taking.
Our dominant traditions denigrate a character like Ravana who would not touch the abducted Sita without her consent. At the same time it valorises the Rama who exiles the same Sita when his advisers suggest that the population is not convinced of her ‘purity’ because she had spent such a long time in the home of her abductor, the same Ravana. Here, Rama is the one who underlies the code of rape. He cannot understand that a man can actually not rape a woman within his ‘power’. His decision to abandon Sita is based on the idea that she cannot not have been in sexual contact with Ravana. Ergo, either she willingly had sex with her captor, or if she did not, she must have been raped. In either case, being thus defiled, and broken, she is no longer fit to be his ‘property’. In other words, just as Sushma Swaraj said, her life, either is, or must be made, worse than death.
The assumption that women are automatically available for sex at the appropriate ‘clean’ time is hard-coded into the Hindu tradition. Rama as an upholder of that tradition, cannot act outside its dictates in the way in which women’s agency is viewed. Remember that the Brhadarankya Upanishad says – “..surely a woman who has changed her clothes at the end of her menstrual period is the most auspicious of women. When she has changed her clothes at the end of her menstrual period, therefore one should approach that splendid woman and invite her to have sex. Should she refuse to consent, he should bribe her, if she still still refuses, he should beat her with a stick or with his fists and overpower her, saying – ‘I take away the splendour from you with my virility and splendor’
(Bradaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter 6.4.6 - see especially pages 88 and 89 of the Patrick Olivelle translation of the Upanishads published by the Oxford University Press, 1996)
When one thinks this passage through, it is not difficult to understand why rape should be such an endemic practice within our society. Marital rape is the original, scripturally sanctioned template on which all rape is founded. The fear of death penalty can never be a deterrent when you have scriptural and cultural sanction for the codes of property and agency that underlie the control that some bodies are armed with over and above others. In our society, this includes the sanction for the control that men have over women, adults have over children, and that dominant castes have over others. This normalization of domination and control is the key to the phenomenon of rape and humiliation. In such a situation, carrying placards that demand death penalty for rapists is the easiest thing to do. The difficult, challenging and interesting thing to do, the real thing to do, is to try and understand what are the cultural factors that actually go into the making of a rapists mind. Thakur, Sharma, Sharma, Singh and Gupta were not eccentric, abnormal characters. They were normal young men. One of them even functioned as an occasional priest in a neighbourhood temple. Think carefully of the traditions that he would have imbibed that would have helped, not hindered him in doing what he did.
On the very day after Thakur, Singh, Sharma, Sharma and Gupta did what they felt like doing. We had reports of a Mohammad Rashid who raped a six year old in Turkman Gate in Delhi. A father was found to have raped his daughter in Kerala for over a year. All of these men had found ways of telling themselves that whatever they were doing could be done. A few days ago, a garment trader in Metiabruz, Kolkata, cut off his sister’s head because he suspected her of having an affair with someone he did not approve of and walked with her decapitated head, sword in hand, to the police station, in defense of his family’s honour. There are people who have praised him for his commitment to his family’s honor. None of these men were deranged, or otherwise criminally inclined. They were all, all honorable men. We need to figure out what gives them this idea of honor. We need to understand and confront the ways in which men read codes of tradition and honor and translate them into the grossest forms of misogyny and the generalized hatred of women.
Dear young women and men of Delhi, if you want rape to end, you will have to confront those traditions. Confronting those traditions, confronting the known history of patriarchy is not the same thing as demanding capital punishment. In fact, they can be the opposites of each other. By demanding ‘death’ for the rapist, you are tacitly entering into a compact with those who see rape not necessarily as a crime against a free agent, but also as a property crime, as an assault on honour and dignity. My understanding is, and my appeal to all of you is - stop treating rape as a matter of honour and dishonour altogether, and expose and boycott those who would insist it is a matter of honour and dishonour. Treat it as ordinary, disgusting, evil violence, as the naked expression of power, and you will see that the expression of power is never challenged by the demand for death. It is easy for those who think of women as property to demand death for those who violate their property rights over women. That is why many men who will demand death penalty for rapists will happily go home and rape their wives. (Because in their understanding they cannot ‘rape’ their wives, only strangers can rape ‘their’ wives.) If you want to end rape, to end the forced sexual subjugation of one human being by another. You will have to look elsewhere than the gallows for comfort.
Rape and sexual assault, and other kinds of violence cantered on the enjoyment of humiliation are different from other kinds of violence. You could be in the company of violent men, as a man, in a bus, and they would not necessarily slap you around just for the heck of it (unless you ‘looked’ racially different, or were different because of the way you expressed your sexual orientation). But imagine or remember what it is to be a woman on that bus, or to be the ‘wrong’ kind of male – queer, child, racially other, submissive because you are held captive – and things can suddenly go wrong. This is what happened on that bus that the 23 year old paramedic and her friend had boarded. This is what happened when Sharma, Sharma, Singh, Gupta and Thakur and their unnamed juvenile accomplice, decided to assert their position as bipedal upper primates on top of their imagined sexual pyramid. Let us not forget that the matter spiralled when one of the assaulters taunted the woman and her friend for being together at night in Delhi. In their eyes, she had broken the code of sexual slavery, by being a person who had acted as a free agent, as someone who could choose to enjoy her claim to the city, its entertainments, with a companion who happened to be male.
Of course she need not have acted as this free agent for this horrible event to happen. She could have been at home, confined within narrow domestic walls where most rapes in Delhi, and India occur. (I have yet to hear of policemen and politicians advocate the abolition of marriage in the same breath as the closure of pubs, although more rapes happen within marriage than do at or around pubs, clearly neither marriage nor pubs are in themselves the causes of rape, but it is always curious that one should be asked to be banned, though sometimes judges do ask rapists to marry their victims, though no one has yet asked a woman who was attacked or molested at a pub to return to the place where she was assaulted). In this instance, were we to go by the law of statistical averages, the brave 23 year old paramedic was not, but could easily have been the sister, niece, daughter, daughter-in-law or wife of one of the accused. Because the majority of those who get raped in our society are sisters, daughters, daughters-in-law, nieces and wives – and they are raped by brothers, fathers, uncles, fathers-in-law and husbands. Or she could have been a worker raped by her boss, or her colleague. She could have been a student raped by a teacher, a patient raped by a doctor or a warden in a hospital or clinic, an undertrial raped by a policeman, an insurgent or suspect raped by a soldier. She could have been dressed in clothes that she felt helped her enjoy and assert her sexuality, or she could have been dressed in work clothes, she could have been dressed in a burqa, a sari, salwar kameez or in a nun’s habit. She could have been a three year old infant, a teenager, a young woman, a post menopausal woman, even a grandmother.
Anybody at all, other than a man in a position of real or imagined power, can be raped by a man in a position of real or imagined power. We might as well call this the first and most important law of rape.
This means that you can be raped in order to punish you for having broken the code of sexual slavery (patriarchy) – which is what happens when you are ‘accused’ of being up and about in the night in the city with a man who is not related to you. Or, on the other hand, you can be raped, in order to enforce it, maintain it, irrigate it, generally show the world – how it works, who’s on top – which is what happens when rapes happen within the four walls of homes, work places, institutions and prisons.
Where does this sense of impunity that seems to govern the actions of so many men come from? It cannot come from biology alone. Because, thankfully, not all men, not even all men in positions of real or imagined power, are rapists. Rapists choose to access a cultural code of permission. There is something in the cultural baggage or vocabulary available to us all that normalizes sexual violence, even renders it trivial, as a bit of horseplay at worst, or the hallowed order sanctified by tradition, at best.
Dear young men and women of Delhi. There are things you can do to stop rape.
- Shame any man who casually passes misogynist, sexist, remarks. Shame all those cowards who try to humiliate anyone because of the way their bodies or desires are. Shame them in public.
- Young women, do not retreat from public space. Take back the night. Insist on being out and about. Insist on the conditions that enable your safety. Ask why there are no women bus drivers, women cab drivers. Ask what the Delhi police is doing to punish misogynist officers and constables.
- Young women, please understand that when you hear songs that are violent and misogynist, you can choose to boycott the radio stations and recording companies that put them out. Leave a party or a celebration that plays a Honey Singh song. If you are young man who is a friend of a young woman at any such gathering, leave the celebration with your friend. Call the radio stations, phone in and demand that they stop playing misogynist songs.
- Demand more public transport. Demand a thousand more buses that ply all night. Demand a metro system that stays open late into the night. Demand street lighting. Ask why the car lobby in Delhi can systematically stymie the expansion of public transport in Delhi. If there are not more public buses and metro trains, understand that those who run this city are responsible for rape and assault.
- Take your traditions seriously, and recognize that every religion teaches the subjugation and humiliation of women. Ask men and women of religion what they are going to do to recognize the misogyny in their traditions, to confront and challenge them. Insist that under no conditions can any woman pollute anything around her. insist that women are not property. Not of their fathers, brothers, boy-friends or husbands. Not of the state. Not of God. Understand that people can never be property and must never be viewed as such. Combat and confront anyone who says they can be.
- Shame and expose those politicians and police or army officers who try to cover up cases of sexual assault and rape in Kashmir and the North East and elsewhere. Do not create a hierarchy of more and less important victims.
- Young men, decide now, and for all time, that you will treat the women you encounter first of all as friends, as equals, as people who have as much right to your city as you. Learn to respect a woman’s right to pleasure. To her right to say yes and no. Do not think that ‘no’ means ‘yes’.
- Young men, if you confront a situation in which any man harasses another woman, or any other person, make sure that you will stand up and protest, call attention to what is going on, and make sure that this stops.
- Young men, and young women, do not reduce the matter of confronting rape and molestation to one of asking the attacker whether or not he has ‘sisters and daughters’ at home. Rapists prey on their sisters and daughters just as easily as they do on strangers.
- Young men and young women, do not ever let anyone tell you that under any circumstances, that your life is not worth living.
I hope you change Delhi forever. I hope that the rest of the country follows your example.
I remain hopeful because of what you did yesterday and today. Do not disappoint me, do not disappoint yourselves. Make your protest viral. Take it everywhere, to workplaces, schools, streets, parks, the metro, to dark and unlit streets, to lit streets and corners. Take over the city. Make it a city that belongs to you and me and the brave 23 year old paramedic still fighting for her life.
This piece first appeared at Kafila