Claiming Freedom From Violence And Fear:

Kamayani Bali-Mahabal– Women Feature Service


After the brutal gang rape of a young woman in December 2012 in New Delhi, following which she succumbed to her grievous injuries, there was a great upsurge of people protesting on the streets. It was the graphic, vicious nature of the crime, as opposed to the ‘normalcy’ of everyday violence, which brought everyone out in large numbers. But even as voices confronted the patriarchal state, many public figures, from a self-styled spiritual guru to a high court judge, made ‘rape culture’ emarks and, in fact, criticised the victim for being out late in the evening with her ‘boyfriend’.

Despite these remarks, the wave of anger was not to be contained. From day one, placards and slogans demanding an end to gender bias – ‘why are women blamed for sexual violence unleashed on them?’ or ‘why should girls restrain themselves from living their life to the fullest?’ – were being raised. And the effects of this rage were felt and witnessed across India.

National outrage

Previously, there have been major mobilisations against rape, like in Manipur in 2004, against the custodial rape and murder of a woman by the Army, or at Khairlanji in Maharashtra, against the public rape and massacre of a Dalit family in 2006. But in those instances, the media, unlike in the Delhi case, did not cover the protests as reflecting ‘national outrage’.

So in a sense, the Delhi incident, often referred to as the Nirbhaya case, has brought about a change in the way the Indian society is tackling violence against women. According to noted feminist and scholar Uma Chakravarti, who delivered the Sixth Anuradha Ghandy Memorial Lecture titled ‘Sexual Violence in Contemporary Indian Society’ earlier this year in Mumbai, this case has firmly brought home the issue of a woman’s autonomy, something that the women’s movement has been working tirelessly over decades to establish.

The reason the New Delhi rape triggered such massive outcry from the public, generating extensive media coverage and thereby increasing awareness about gendered violence, can be traced back not only to the sheer brutality of the crime but also to the socio-economic class of the victim and perpetrators.

The defendants were men from poor backgrounds, while the victim was a middle-class, educated woman. “The attention brought to this case may be attributed to the higher social class of the woman in comparison to the men, illustrating the tension between social classes and the violent backlash resulting from the success of modern female urbanites,” she observed.

However, the fact remains that most rapes do not involve poor men and middle-class women, but instead are those of poor women, often by men in uniform, by men of a higher caste or higher class (for instance, domestic workers employed in middle-class homes). So, to bring about an all pervasive transformation, Chakravarti asserted it is “not enough to oppose rape but to oppose it in ways that change patriarchy” – something that was visible in the post-Nirbhaya movement.

Although the nature of public discourse around violence against women in India, especially rape, has been evolving over the years, there have been two distinct markers of change. The first one was the Mathura Rape Case of 1980 through which the women’s movement was able to highlight the issue of custodial rape. It was a major victory when this crime was understood not in terms of it being a “worse rape” but rather it was acknowledged that in custody, the question of consent cannot be interpreted in the conventional sense – under detention, to claim that the victim had consented to sex because there were no signs of struggle was absolutely bizarre.

From that success to 2012, it’s been a long drawn struggle towards confronting the notion of protection of women, which is how gender crimes are couched. Right from the start of the Nirbhaya movement, besides calls for the death penalty, slogans opposing the whole agenda of ‘protecting women’ came out quite spontaneously.

In fact, there was a collective cry for ‘azadi’ or ‘freedom without fear’. Women demanded different kinds of freedom – to be out in public spaces, to wear what they want, to voice what they feel, to marry of their own choice…

What infused a sense of vigour and a hope for change was the participation of many first-timers, particularly, school- and college-going girls. They waved handmade posters declaring: ‘Don’t teach us how to dress, teach men not to rape’ and ‘Your gaze is the problem so why should I cover myself up’. Clearly, this angst was not being directed at the one incident, it was actually raising larger questions about why a woman is put in the dock every time there is a case of sexual violence and why is there a discussion on what she could have done to avoid it.

The women’s movement has spent years challenging this idea of ‘risky behaviour’ and even now there is a certain section that adheres to this narrow way of thinking. Even so, things are definitely moving forward. What is needed today is a way to expand the arena of women’s fundamental rights. But in order for that to happen a closer look has to be taken to understand the relationship between the existing socio-economic structures and ideologies.

Explained Chakravarti, “We need to identify linkages between violence against women and the ideology coming out of neo-liberal economic policies. Neo-liberalism has a lot at stake in controlling women’s sexuality, sexual labour, reproductive labour, and, of course, women’s labour in the global marketplace. And surely there is also the question of pre-existing traditions like feudalism which collides with neo-liberalism to further create a particular environment for violence in India.”

Gradually, though, the laws are working to mitigate these regressive concepts. The recommendations submitted collectively by women’s organisations across the country to the Justice Verma Committee, which was set up in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape case, has brought about many positive changes especially regarding the definition of sexual crimes, be it rape, stalking, voyeurism or parading or disrobing women.

Significantly, the new law has given a clear definition of consent – it has now been articulated very explicitly so that unless it is very clear from words or gestures that the woman is consenting, it cannot be imputed through her conduct or otherwise.

No stigma attached

The number of women reporting sexual violence has risen dramatically, which means that women are breaking free from the culture of silence fuelled by shame. Women and their families no longer attach stigma to sexual violence. As a result, the issue of violence against women can no longer be denied. Women are learning to assert their rights and seek justice – and that is always a good thing. At the same time, the resistance and backlash from the system continues, albeit with each passing year it’s one step closer to equality.