Aug 27, 2013


Flavia Agnes, Asian Age

The rape victim opted for life than to become a martyr at the altar of sexual purity and has challenged the judicial premise that virginity is the most priced possession of an Indian woman

Since the gangrape of a photojournalist in Mumbai on August 22, I’m constantly being asked two questions by the media — print media, television media, international media, the British, the American, the French, the Australian, the entire lot.

The first question: Has there been any change at all since the public protests following the gruesome gangrape of a young women in Delhi in December and the law reforms that followed or does one get a feeling of déja vu? And the second: Is Mumbai going the Delhi way and losing its sheen as a safe city for women? And the associated question — Will this incident change the way women in Mumbai think, feel, work and will their lives be ruled by the constant shadow of rape that will hover over them?
I hope not. I believe that women of Mumbai are made of sterner metal and one such incident cannot change the way they think or work. Incidents such as these are not unusual for Mumbai or any other city for that matter. We have had a fair share of them. Many go unreported, and even if reported, many don’t get a lot of media attention — most at best get a three-line report on the ninth page of the newspaper, which no one notices.
But what has changed now is the media attention, both national and international, and the curiosity and voyeurism masquerading as concern. As a photojournalist and an acquaintance of the survivor responded, shrugging her well-built shoulders during a talk show on television, “Not at all, why should this incident change my life? I have surmounted worse hurdles and have emerged a winner. Why would this incident mar my life?” This summarises the spirit of a working woman in Mumbai whose labour holds up this financial capital. How can five lumpen youth from poverty stricken and marginalised families shake its base?

The blood-thirsty media has splashed photographs of old and frail women in their meagre dwellings in a vulgar display of this flashy and opulent city’s underbelly of poverty and subhuman existence for us to gloat over. They seem to be making the point that it is these women and their dwellings that breed rapists. And it appears that once again we will be braying for the blood of a teenaged boy on the cusp of maturity to cleanse the city of sexual crimes rather than ponder a viable scheme of income redistribution and poverty elevation, so that every poor child’s basic needs are fulfilled and an innocent child is not turned into a drug addict, a murderer or a rapist.
Why did the youth rape her? Because they thought they could get away with it. It is for the same reason that fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins, neighbours, boyfriends, acquaintances, teachers, wardens, jailers, politicians, policemen, bosses, men who wield any type of power over a vulnerable woman think they can rape. Because reporting rape causes greater stigma to the victim and navigating the justice delivery system is an ordeal only the few brave ones can endure. Only when women learn to survive rape with courage and dignity, and when the justice delivery mechanism is able to sensitively respond to their need, will the situation improve. Opting out of work or not venturing out at night will not, since most rapes occur within the domestic space or in the neighbourhood. But, ironically, these rapes do not invoke the same type of media attention as the ones where the victim is from the middle class and the accused are lower class. The class bias in the media glare is very disturbing indeed.
The hordes of television cameras parked outside Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai to catch a glimpse of the young woman or her family members, threatening to intrude into their privacy, must be an equally frightening thought for the young woman as the threatening advances of the gang of five. Reporters have visited not only the scene of the crime, but also the girl’s residence. They have spoken to the watchman and are baffled that he and other residents were not aware that a woman from the building was raped the night before. Well, thanks to the media, now they know! In a recent case, popularly referred to as “the Spanish woman’s rape case”, while awaiting the test identification parade before flying out of the country, the young woman and her support person went around the city in a burqa to shield themselves from the intruding cameras which always seem to lurk round the corner as she got in and out of the car. This constant intrusion was her biggest nightmare, post the incident.
What has changed since the December incident? Well, that our women parliamentarians did not screech in high-pitched voices and proclaim that the woman has become a “zinda lash”, a living corpse; that threatened with a broken bottle, the young woman did not think that she must fight till she dies to save her honour and her virginity. Sensing danger, she acquiesced. She opted for life rather than to become a martyr at the altar of sexual purity and has challenged the judicial premise that virginity is the most priced possession of an Indian woman. What has changed is that she has pledged from her hospital bed that she will not let this incident ruin her life and that she is eager to get back to work. (The hounding by the media will hopefully stop by then!) This is the most important lesson this incident has taught us.
It may take a few weeks, a few months or even a few years to overcome the trauma, but hopefully, when she does, she will be able to tell us the story of how she survived rape and became a survivor.

The writer is a women’s rights lawyer

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