What Nirbhaya and Bilkis Bano judgements say about our attitude towards sexual violence
Rape is used as a weapon of war - whether this is between nations or communities.
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This last week, we have seen two specific conversations around rape on national and social media, in response to two judgments. In the Bilkis Bano case, the Bombay High Court upheld the life sentences of the 11 convicted, and also convicted seven more for tampering with evidence. In the "Nirbhaya" case, the Supreme Court upheld capital punishment for the four convicted.
The first conversation focuses on the nature of capital punishment and mainly argues that the state cannot do what it would consider a crime when done by its citizens. The second focuses on the distinction between two judgments, both concerning gangrape and murder, though in one case it was the rape victim who was also murdered (Nirbhaya) and in the second it was the family members (of Bilkis Bano) who were murdered.
This second conversation asks why the case of a supposedly middle class victim attacked by "lower class" men in a city is seen as the "rarest of the rare", and therefore merits the death penalty, while an attack on a Muslim woman when part of an attack on her entire community is not given that same status.
One has only to look at the history of Partition violence, or the Rwandan or Bosnian genocides, or at communal attacks like those in Gujarat or Muzaffarnagar, or by armies attempting to control secessionist populations, as in Kashmir or Manipur, to know that rape is used as a weapon of war - whether this is between nations or communities.
Rape is a weapon. When women are stalked on the streets or trolled online, one of the most common threats made is that of rape. When we focus on sexual assault as a fate worse than death, we play into patriarchal values that prize a woman's sexual virtue over all else.
The recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee suggested that attacks against women be seen along a continuum, and in keeping with these recommendations, stalking and acid attacks were included under the purview of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013. Tellingly, the committee's suggestion that rape committed by armymen in regions where the AFSPA is imposed be tried in regular courts, did not make it to the new law.
Families are anxious not only about daughters being violated, but also about daughters making independent choices in consenting relationships with men not chosen by their families. Rukmini S's survey in 2014 for a national newspaper on reported rape cases in Delhi showed that a third of the cases dealt with consenting couples, where the parents accused the young man of rape.
Neha Dixit's expose in 2014, about the young Hindu woman in Meerut who was forced by her family to file a case of abduction and gangrape against her Muslim boyfriend, and was used as an example of "love jihad", reveals ever more complex layers to rape cases. Interestingly, marital rape is yet another crime recommended for inclusion by the Verma Committee that did not make it to the law.
In Uttar Pradesh, the new government purports to keep women safe by instituting anti-Romeo squads. In many villages and towns, local women are sought to be protected from themselves by denying them the use of independent mobile phones or two wheelers. The focus is on controlling women and preventing them from making sexual choices, rather than on safety as women would define it themselves.
My own work on women's access to public spaces has suggested that while safety narratives have taken over the mainstream media conversation on gender, these narratives focus disproportionately on the danger that awaits women in cities, especially from strangers.
The fear of rape then becomes a way in which loving families restrict their daughters. When families ask their daughters to stay home after dark, they might easily say something like "Better safe than sorry, remember Nirbhaya", but if we include the fact that the greatest proportion of all violence - including sexual violence - takes place at home, we would know that rape is not something that one can avoid by just "staying at home".
(Courtesy: India Today magazine.)