At the time of writing this, a five-year-old girl, a rape victim is clinging on to life by a slender thread. Cynics scoff saying she is already dead but one can put that down to a loss of faith in the Government view. Delhi has erupted in a Nirbhaya-like inferno. Nirbhaya refers to the December 16 Delhi rape of a student in a moving bus, who subsequently died of her injuries in Singapore. Today, righteous indignation and outrage manifests itself in protestors pushing against police barricades in Delhi, with strength brought on more by fury than muscle power.
It is apt then to rewind to last week when the cultural initiative of the Mumbai Press Club called Culture Beat organised an evening centred around the subject: Violence Against Women. The discussion was held on the terrace of the Press Club in South Mumbai. Culture Beat was founded three years ago by two journalists and poets, Anju Makhija and Menka Shivdasani with the aim of igniting discussion and looking at various issues through an arts and literary prism.
With so much being said and written on violence against women, it was the cultural kaleidoscope that aimed to breath life into a very relevant though much thrashed about subject, “So that we could see how people from the arts too are affected by this violence,” explained Makhija. The comments and arguments by panellists which included journalists, teachers, theatre actors and directors resonate louder today than ever, as reports about rape following the assault on the five-year-old continue to capture headlines with sickening consistency. A four-year-old girl was raped in Madhya Pradesh recently, then two men assaulted a teenage girl and threw her in a gutter in Jammu & Kashmir for resisting rape...
Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, theatre producer, actor and director opened the discussion with a theatrical presentation of the Hindi version of the long-running play, ‘The Vagina Monologues’. Mahabanoo read a piece of dialogue with practiced flourish. It was all about breaking down the barriers of confining sexuality and the ability to say the V-word.
Mahabanoo then spoke about the issue which raises eternal debate, about whether a woman ever ‘invites’ sexual assault, because of the way she is dressed. Mahabanoo spoke about how the short skirt is not an invitation. “It does not say anything, not even mein is type ki ladki hoon (I am this kind of girl) she said. Short skirts are my right to be free and sexy, you have a problem with that?” asked Mahabanoo in a riposte obviously to those are judgmental about women in short skirts.
There was simply no skirting this issue then, post Mahabanoo’s peppy opener, after which journalist, columnist and author Kalpana Sharma spoke about the challenges of reporting (writing in a newspaper) about the crime of rape. Sharma began, “It is a challenge. How do you go about addressing this issue? How does one stop the victim from being exposed to more trauma? How do you stop yourself from becoming a voyeur and how can one adequately convey the horror that the victims go through?
These are the questions facing the journalist writing about the crime,” said Sharma. Sharma also spoke about how one could engage the “people who are not your normal audience” when writing about this crime. She referred to her long running newspaper column called, The Other Half where she addressed gender issues.
“A lot of the feedback surprisingly came from boys as young as in the tenth or twelfth standard, and that proved they were asking questions, thinking about these issues. You can plant the seed that starts them asking questions. During the Nirbhaya case of December 16 and subsequently when the victim died on December 29, a young man of 21 wrote to me on the email address given below the column saying: ‘I write not only as a 21-year-old of young India…’ he was part of the protestors following the Nirbhaya rape.”
Sharma cited examples to show that contrary to expectation, young men too were following the column, debating, thinking and talking about issues, which one might mistakenly think applied or interested only women. Like every journalist/columnist who puts oneself in the public space, in this cyber age inviting comment and biting criticism, Sharma added, “that all the feedback has not been good or positive. There has been plenty of bashing too when one writes on subjects like these, especially from groups who fight for men’s rights, full of rage about how women use legal sections wrongly against men.”
Journalist and writer, Sameera Khan concentrated on women and public spaces, talking about how men have much more access to public spaces, something like just hanging about on the roads while it is ingrained in women that they should not loiter about. “Loitering women are bad, mad or dangerous to society,” said Sameera highlighting the perception.
They cannot, as Sameera stated, “hang out with no purpose in mind.” Sameera’s viewpoint highlighted just how conditioned women are to go back home, stay indoors (in a literal sense) that those spaces are safer for women and standing in groups on public corners or simply, to use a colloquialism roaming around, are something that they cannot or should not do.
The lines both physical and mental are drawn early by society and women’s space then shrinks considerably. They simply cannot access a city in the same way and with the same freedom a man can and does. Sameera too read a piece on short skirts and this piece actually spoke about how women in short skirts may be perceived in different areas of the city. Here, skirts really became much more than attire, it showed how hemlines wrongly s become a definition of what kind of girl she is: good or bad. Short = bad (put that bad in inverted commas) while long = good (put that too in inverted commas).
Theatre personality Dolly Thakore then read from Eve Ensler's, ‘I am an Emotional Creature: A Manifesto to Young Women and Girls.’ while the man on the panel, Kaizad Kotwal, co-producer and co-director of The Vagina Monologues, who said that he had been, “swept into this minefield on violence” stated that he might sound jaded or cynical but he did not believe that the Nirbhaya protests were a nation changing moment. Kotwal added, “One factor is because we are still not addressing the problem of marital rape.” Kotwal’s arguments produced an ashes-in-the-mouth feeling, so vehement was he that our progress on many fronts was negligible at best. Kotwal said there have to be attempts to “chip away at patriarchy.”
The best part of a debate or discussion is what one can take away from it. Culture Beat’s event showed that despite all protests and calls for change, patriarchy is an affliction of the mind and society is still extremely judgmental about violence against women. When sexual violence is perpetrated, there is categorical condemnation only by a few.
There are still riders attached to that condemnation like: what was she wearing (hemlines is one example of that), what was she doing at a certain time and place, why she was there and why she transgressed certain boundaries set by years of conditioning on women. Dolly Thakore in fact spoke about how she would wear, “very tight trousers and off-shoulder tops, when I was much younger and had a partner. Yet, when I was alone without a partner, I did not wear those ‘kind’ of clothes, I was more covered up” indicating that she did feel vulnerable or subject to more scrutiny when showing more skin, once single.
Journalists spoke about how much women had moved ahead in their profession. How GenNext girls took their rights as a given, so there were slivers of sunshine, it was not all dark. One man in the audience stated that figures of rape here in India, “were lower than in some other countries with progressive societies” and another stated that, “"the media too was hyping up things to a large extent.” Sameera retorted that, “figures do not tell the entire story. These are figures for ‘reported’ rapes there are so many that go unreported.”
Menka Shivdasani spoke about sexual abuse ‘within’ a family, an uncle whose touch was not quite right... “When girls complain about such things they are routinely dismissed or not taken seriously, shirked off as a figment of the imagination.” Organised religion and its role in discrimination against women was touched upon, something that even newspapers do not report on freely.
This is a topic that will simmer, cleave and provoke especially in this charged atmosphere. Someone said, “Violence against women is a national security threat.” Makhija ended that, “There are no easy solutions or no one end. Yet, the aim of such an event is not to clap and go home or find that one definite answer, but open up more questions and new ways of looking.”
No end in sight
Madhya Pradesh: A five-year-old girl is currently battling for her life in a hospital at Nagpur and her condition is deteriorating, say doctors. The girl, who lives in Seoni district in MP, was allegedly raped by Firoz Khan (35) and dumped at a farm on April 17. Doctors treating her say she is not responding to treatment and they are unable to carry out tests to check her brain’s functioning because her condition is yet to stabilise. Khan was arrested in Bihar and will soon be transported to MP.
Delhi: The five-year-old girl who was raped and starved by two men for two days, is now in a stable condition, say doctors at AIIMS where she is currently being treated. The two accused had even tried to strangle her and slit her throat. Doctors say her wounds are healing well, her vital signs are normal and her general condition is stable. The victim was raped from April 15 in the house right below her home. The two accused are now in police custody.
Nalasopara: A teenage girl set herself ablaze when her alleged rapist threatened to make public obscene pictures and video clips featuring her. The girl had been repeatedly raped by her uncle since February and even became pregnant. The accused allegedly made the threat to stop her from revealing the truth. The girl doused herself with kerosene and set herself on fire in the kitchen. She succumbed to her burns four days later. The accused is absconding.
Bihar: A young man’s mother and sister were kidnapped and gang raped as revenge for the man eloping with the sister of one of the accused, named Suresh. The two women were kidnapped and taken to Suresh’s house on April 19 where Suresh and his associates raped them. Three of the accused, including Suresh, have been arrested while one accused is still absconding.