Dear Shenaz Treasurywala, “A Collective Thirst For Blood” Isn’t The Solution, “It’s Our Shame Too”
I woke up yesterday morning to your open letter. It was all over my Facebook feed. As I read through your personal experiences of molestation as also of some of those who are dear to you, I could connect to every single word of those accounts. As I am sure every single woman who read your letter would also have connected with – the frustration of being helpless, the anger of societal indifference and the guilt we are made to feel. You correctly pointed out that the victim has nothing to be ashamed of. It’s the perpetrator’s shame. Your letter will give courage and confidence to a lot of young women like myself, to talk about sexual violence and not be quiet about it. We, as victims, have nothing to be ashamed of.
However, I would disagree that we as women from middle class India have nothing to be ashamed of. I think it’s our shame that the police officer responsible for the rape and brutal sexual torture of tribal activist Soni Sori is today a presidential medal awardee and we kept mum.
I think it’s our shame that people responsible for the rapes of Kauser Bi and Bilkis Bano are today our national political heroes. I think its our shame that while we expect Uber to do background checks for its drivers, we kept quiet when a rapist was given a cabinet berth despite his background check clearly revealing rape charges. I think it’s our shame that we allow for a law that provides impunity for rapes to our army in Kashmir and Manipur. I think it’s our shame that we produce and consume objectification of women in our movies and other forms of media.
Every time we choose to be silent against impunity we contribute to the culture of sexual violence and rapes, which haunts us all. We, the women from middle class India, need to drop that “I could have been that woman” attitude that allows us to raise our voice against rape and sexual violence only when it happens in spaces that our class is likely to occupy.
Our fight against sexual violence has to go beyond our elitism and we need to use our privilege of belonging to a certain class to empathize and not give up until this country develops zero tolerance to sexual violence. We need to stand up against unchecked sexual violence in the bedroom, in areas of conflict in this country, in custody, in the khaps as well as in our community spaces.
I also think that sexual violence cannot be understood in a narrow men vs women dichotomy. Yes, change the laws. Criminalize marital rape, include provisions for punishment of custodial rape and repeal AFSPA. We will be fooling ourselves if we think that the solution lies in hanging a couple of rapists and making an example out of them. I agree that anybody who is responsible for rape should be severely punished and the Uber driver shouldn’t have been out on bail. But I do not think that changing the law and bringing death penalty is the answer. In fact the late Justice Verma Committee that was set up to recommend changes to our rape laws post the December 16 rape in Delhi considered the option of compulsory death penalty for rapes and then decided against it because it was realized that it wasn’t the solution. It is a myopic solution to the grave problems of patriarchy in our society. Rape is only a symptom of that patriarchy.
Castration, which was also on your wish list, on the other hand is a disastrous step in the wrong direction. It reinforces the wrongful notion that rape or sexual violence is only about sexual gratification. Sexual violence needs to be understood in the larger framework of our power structure.
If death penalty would have been the answer, then the suicide of Dec 16th rape accused Ram Singh in jail would have deterred the uber driver who, in fact, even used the reference of that horrific incident to threaten the victim. Rapes and sexual violence in India are highly under-reported. One of the big reasons for it is that in a lot of cases the victim is raped by somebody she is known to. In the wake of a compulsory death penalty, reporting of sexual violence will further be affected. It is a misconception that death penalty will end rapes. I understand your anger.
In fact I empathize with it. Being a woman, a victim of sexual assault and working with various other victims, I feel that rage daily. But is vengeance really the solution, or will we end up doing more damage to our fight against sexual violence by suggesting solutions coming out of knee-jerk reactions? Death penalty makes us more violent as a society. It’s a patriarchal symbol of a collective thirst for blood. How is something that makes us more violent and patriarchal supposed to make the streets of this country safer for its women?
So lets take this debate against sexual violence forward. Ask for changes in law in the right place, work towards gender sensitization, introspect on how we contribute to sexual violence and stand up for zero tolerance against sexual violence. But lets not be governed by our desire for revenge.
Sexual violence needs a much more objective answer.
Thank you again for speaking up.