In a society where violence is normalised, survivors of rape are plagued by questions such as ‘what were you wearing?’ and ‘why were you out so late?’. The United Nations found that in cases of sexual violence, three out of four respondents agreed with the statement, “women provoke men by the way they dress”, and two men out of five agreed with the statement, “women moving around at night deserve to be sexually harassed”.
Thus, violence against women is viewed by many not only as commonplace but also as a direct result of the ‘insolence’ of women who resist patriarchal oppression. And so we are met with the view that Nirbhaya ‘would still be alive if she hadn’t resisted the rape’. That it is up to women to take steps to avoid rather than resist violence perpetrated by men.
Annapurna, a young woman from Madhya Pradesh, is a leading light in her village. She organises other women and works with ActionAid India against patriarchal violence. She is driven by her own harrowing experience in which her would-be rapist brutally cut off her hand in anger at her resistance, and irreparably damaged her legs. Acts such as these are intended to silence. In the same way, women who reject men are attacked with acid, and mutilation is used as a tool to curb defiance.
‘Good girls don’t fight’
Silence in the face of violence is expected of women and girls. They are taught to be cautious, to accept violence and simply to mourn their fate when it occurs. Hence a great part of the suppression of women’s resistance is in the normalisation of patriarchal violence. The rape and sexual harassment of women factory workers and migrant labourers, for example, is accepted as part of the game – they have to be on offer all the time. In some communities, migrant women are even coerced or persuaded to remove their uteruses in order to avoid pregnancies resulting from rapes.
When violence is viewed as inevitable, resistance begins to seem futile. Hence underreporting poses a major setback to progress against patriarchal violence. The risks of reporting are generally perceived as vastly outweighing the benefits and, unfortunately, dismal conviction statistics only serve to confirm these fears. Even in the light of an increase in reporting in 2016, when 39 crimes against women were reported every hour, the conviction rate, at 18.9%, was the lowest in a decade (Crime in India 2016 report, NCRB). It is no wonder that women are frightened to report violence in a society in which uncertainty of justice is often coupled with social repercussions and even further violence.
There are some notable exceptions to the relative historical silence surrounding violence against women. The case of Mathura, a tribal girl who in March 1972 was raped by two policemen in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra led to great outrage across the country. It was the spectacle of the state and especially the criminal-justice system coming down to defend the accused that sparked nationwide outrage and created a whole paradigm shift by defining “custodial rape” and shifting the burden of proof onto the accused. Bhanwari Devi, a social worker in Rajasthan, was gang-raped in September 1992 by upper caste men who objected to her work against child marriage. Thanks to the resulting Vishakha guidelines, now the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2013), many women like her are able to carry out their work with reduced fears of sexual harassment and abuse.
The courage, resilience and resistance of women like Mathura and Bhanwari Devi, have led to positive change for all women.
Good girls fight back
Despite her attacker’s attempts, Annapurna’s fighting spirit was not quashed. She won her case with an exemplary judgment and is now continuing the struggle on a wider level, while supporting her peers to do the same. In her own words, “I will stand on my feet again, organise women against violence and will continue the fight.”
People like Annapurna are what one might call ‘unlikely fighters’. Avenues of resistance have historically been closed to women from marginalised communities, but today they are revolutionising the struggle against patriarchy. These are not ‘bad girls’. In fact, the very binary of ‘good girl’ or ’bad girl’ is passé. Throughout history, women have been set up to fit a false binary of good girl and bad girl. A good girl is to submit and stay quiet, perhaps even commit suicide when violated, because patriarchal honour is more precious than a mere female life. To speak out, to lose one’s temper, is unladylike.
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Today, we celebrate women who fight, and support them as they use methods that may have caused them to be labelled ‘bad girls’ in the past – that may in fact previously have been impossible for them to work with. Why question whether she’s a ‘good girl’ when she’s fighting the good fight? In fact, we should establish a new norm – good girls fight back!
“I lost my temper and confronted him in the classroom, where he accepted all the allegations and texts, and begged me”. These are the words of an anonymous Delhi University student who has spoken out against the sexual misconduct of her professor, under alleged threat of suspension by the college administration and fearful for her future as a sportsperson.
Despite her anonymity, her words are powerful. For years, women have been silenced using language that seeks to place them in a box of femininity, within which ‘losing one’s temper’ or acting ‘irrationally’ makes a woman ‘bad’. This student is re-appropriating that very language to take ownership of the fight against violence. Today, women against violence today are losing their tempers. They are bad women no moew, and their resistance is shifting the power balance.
‘I am because I fight back’
We are witnessing a paradigm shift in the minds of girls and women. We are seeing girls now who have the temerity to demand justice, to demand the punishment of their oppressors and to demand their right to say no. Young people and large numbers of young women took to the streets in Delhi to protest the wilful murder of Jessica Lal in 1999 and the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012. Resistance to moral policing was epitomised by the Pink Chaddi Campaign ridiculing the violence unleashed on dating couples in February 2009 and later by the “Kiss of Love” movement, which started in Kerala in 2014. The Pinjara Tod collective started in Delhi in 2015 to protest restrictive and regressive hostel and paying guest accommodation regulations for adult women.
In 2017, the #MeToo movement started in Hollywood and spread across the world including India, demonstrating through a social media “show of hands” the extent of the problem of sexual harassment. In its wake, we saw lists by Indian women emerge on the internet, naming people in academics who were alleged to have committed acts of sexual harassment. This was controversial and uncomfortable, as it did not offer the listed a chance of defence, but in terms of breaking the culture of silence, a definite step forward.
The militancy of Annapurna, who lives in rural India and comes from an excluded community with tenuous access to institutions and processes of justice, is of a completely different order. We need to celebrate and champion the courage of women from marginalised sections of society, so that they not only take their rightful place in the struggle but also take ownership of it and move into leadership positions. There are many women like Annapurna who emerge when their community steps forward in support of them, when their personal struggle for justice meets with solidarity and they are linked to the struggles of others.
Individual resistance, a community that is committed to building safe public spaces, the support of institutions of justice to women of vulnerable communities and rehabilitation programmes that help women stand on their own feet will help ensure that resistance becomes the new norm.
Sehjo Singh is a veteran women’s rights activist and a filmmaker who is currently heading the Programme and Policy units of ActionAid India. Tabitha Hutchison is with the Communications Unit with ActionAid India.