I did not wish to write this. I did not wish to write anything at all. Since waking up to the morning bulletin on Saturday, all I wanted to say was sorry, all over again. It did not come out. Until Saturday, her life was our only fig leaf. Then, there was nowhere to hide. No apology or anger or analysis to make us feel less miserable.
Today, we are left again to our fickle resolve. The protests, by the outraged and the opportunist, will continue till we move on. And move on we will because there can be no logical conclusion or closure to this. The rapists will be punished. But even if all our demands — a special session, stricter laws, fast-track courts, more cops on the road for commoners — are met, our lot will not change.
If it is change that we really seek, if we are serious that women should feel safer, we cannot lie about ourselves anymore. I write this today because it is time to face the truth and I do not care if this hurts sentiments.
Until Saturday, I did not care what a Sushma or a Jaya thinks because she so unabashedly refused to die. Far from the living dead cowering beneath some indelible scar, she insisted on seeing for herself if her friend was alright and pointedly asked if her assaulters were nabbed. Her inevitable end seemed impossible because, after everything, she told her mother she wanted to live.
Today, I ask the enlightened millions, who are scandalised by a Bengal MP’s puerile comment, if they even blinked when an agitated Sushma or a teary Jaya promptly murdered her spirit on the floor of the House? The TV anchors, who smarted all day at the Bengal MP’s audacity and made him apologize on air, did not bother to even question the other two.
Unlike junior Mukherjee who sneered at the protesters, the two women MPs demeaned the victim herself. Are the protesters more sensitive about their liberal selves than the dignity of those who survive rape? Or do we actually share the values that pity a rape victim as a jeevit laash? Is that why we demand blanket death penalty for rapists, knowing that they won’t think twice before murdering their victims (read witnesses) because they would get death anyway. Does the survival of living dead even matter to us?
Between the extremes of our reaction to Sushma or Jaya and Mukherjee, we are suitably outraged by another Bengal MP who dismisses a rape charge as negotiation gone wrong, a state Congress leader who professes evening curfew for women and a BJP MLA who wants to ban skirts at school. While most of us are stuck to our respective layers of regression, even the most vocal liberals refuse to see that these values are not aberrations that can be screamed away. We are people like us.
There is no other explanation for the moral, cultural or religious codes of conduct prescribed by so many in the last two weeks. Can we respect women in a system that does not respect anything but money and power or make them feel safer in a predominantly violent society where men are no lesser victims? Can love police on Valentine’s Day protect girls? Do Surpnakha’s, Sita’s or Draupadi’s stories give women hope? Even one of our most popular deities is worshipped in the phallic form because, according to Bhavisya Purana, he was cursed to that effect by the sage woman he raped.
The other end of this regressive spectrum is the neo-feminism that wants to legitimise commodification of woman as a right with total impunity. Over four decades, feminism has done a complete U-turn from burning advertisement hoardings that flaunted bikini-clad women to seeking right to expression in item numbers. Yes, these industries are run by mostly men. True, a woman walking naked is no justification for rape. But if we stereotype flesh as a rule in popular media, we have to account for some stereotypical male reaction too.
We have to accept that the default male behaviour in all advanced species is violent. Boys are mean; they fight. Some rapists are driven by sex. But women would be much safer if lust was the only impetus for rape. It is more of a power statement. Men rape women who ‘belong to’ other men. Men rape women as punishment. Men rape women because they can.
That is why most rapes happen within families. Strangers also rape and the startling majority of them belong to forces and militias. It has been going on in Kashmir, the North-East and along the red corridor from Bihar to Andhra Pradesh. Not only the armed forces, police and insurgents but feudal armies are also at it across the length and breadth of rural India.
Yet, our protest waited till she was brutalised in a Delhi bus on busy evening roads. Granted, the fact that something so brazen could happen in the Capital reflects the extent of lawlessness in the less governed parts of the country (and the protest likewise has pan-Indian ramification). Also, a late tipping point is better than no tipping point. If only our outrage could collectively rise above our selfish concerns.
Even the sincere mainstream of this protest is mostly concerned about the safety of the urban middle class. Forget those lakhs of victims raped and assaulted all across the hinterland, did we ever bother for the underclass in our big, bad cities? The domestic helps who routinely turn up battered; the vegetable venders who are forced to pay hafta in ways only women can; or the homeless who are picked up in the night by cops and ruffians alike? No, it took a middle class victim in a middleclass situation at a middleclass hour to shake us up.
There is nothing wrong in feeling scared when there is every reason to be afraid. But rape, or any gender issue, cannot be fought selectively. Women will never be safe if the physical and psychological safety net is supposed to cover one particular class better than the other. When we vent our anger against the VIPs, when we raise slogans that the only women safe in Delhi are Sonia and Sheila, we forget that millions of rural or poor Indian women may feel the same about their well-to-do city sisters.
When it comes to gender, there cannot be any hierarchy of safety or sensitivity. A stupid Mukherjee cannot be more outrageous than an impassioned Sushma. Accepting a shorter skirt cannot be liberal as long as the length remains an issue. Our religious tradition of female deities cannot help if it fosters inhuman demands of virtue. Sentencing Delhi bus rapists cannot bring her justice if a thousand others continue to walk free.
The mind that rapes only rarely possesses a rapist. But at all times, it keeps alive the possibility and feeds on every assault that goes unpunished anywhere. That is why no woman can ever really feel safe if another does not.