Do you know who Aruna Shanbaug is?
For those of you who do, do you remember her? When did you remember her? Just now when you read her name? Or do you think of her each day and let your blood boil because nothing was done to avert a repetition of what happened to her?
For those of you who don’t, she was a junior nurse at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Parel, Mumbai. In 1973, she was sexually assaulted by a ward boy. Since then, she has remained in a vegetative state. The ward boy who assaulted her was Sohanlal Bhartha Walmiki. He was caught and convicted, and served two concurrent seven-year sentences for assault and robbery. But he was not hauled up for rape or sexual molestation, nor for the “unnatural sexual offence” that the Indian Penal Code explains as sodomy, which could have got him a ten-year sentence by itself.
39 years after Aruna Shanbaug’s case, a 23 year old girl has been gang-raped, brutally assaulted and thrown on the side of the road. She is in a coma with many of her organs damaged. Today she is in the news. Today, the country puts up status messages on Facebook and Tweets its support for her. Today, the country wants castration or death as a penalty for a rapist. Today we will walk the streets and hold up posters. Today we will write op-ed pieces and indulging in shouting matches on the country’s news channels. Today we will unabashedly promise our undying support to fight for this cause.
We will forget. We will move on. She becomes a statistic, a memory, someone who goes into law books and the annals of newsprint archives.
Stop right there.
WE CANNOT AFFORD TO LET THAT HAPPEN. If we want change, we need to be resilient in our demand for change. And how?
For starters, it does not make sense to keep pursuing miscalculated demands from the legislature if we don’t change the prevailing social attitude. Rape is not only about legalese, or fighting a case in a court. A robust security sector reform or creating more laws or policies are not enough to solve anything. What we need to do is to understand the ethos that surrounds such behaviour, the reason that these things happen with alarming regularity. And when we understand that, we need to put that knowledge to use to change the way our society thinks, enough to avoid the occurrence of such incidents. Every time there happens a rape, it is a grim reminder not of the lack of laws, but of the lack of education. Why is it that there are so many Indian men commit rape routinely? We talk of the empowerment of women being pervasive. We use statistics of the number of women in workplaces and of women who are financially independent. We applaud women in politics and admire women who demand their rights. And yet, she is still vulnerable to attack, still vulnerable to stigma, still vulnerable to being dominated. Women are progressively empowering themselves, doubtless, but this empowered status is becoming difficult to digest, for many a male counterpart, it appears.
In a country that still looks at a girl child as an aberration when born, in a country that still deems women sex symbols fit best to dance to raunchy songs, there is a thriving hotbed of privilege among men. The continued perception of women as being unwanted, except for sexual connotations and sexual favours is a continued thumb pressing down against any room for change. If a woman continues to display her vulnerability, she is welcome, she is acceptable. The moment she asserts herself, throws an open challenge to the ‘accepted stereotypes’, she sends a subliminal slap to the ego of the male. And that immediately pulls the wind out of the sails of the man who in his perception ‘rightfully should’ be superior: a sense of emasculation, a sense of defeat, a sense of losing power.
And this is not just in India: think about it. A recent example for your reference would be Malalai Yousufzai. She was shot because the Taliban couldn’t stand the thought of an educated girl and the threat it had to their show of brute force. The idea of castration or a death penalty or torturous punishment may seem a neat vent for anger. But it will not help a thing. If it would, why are rapists continuing to mushroom when Dhananjay Chatterjee was executed by hanging? If it hasn’t been established already, Law remains a paper tiger without implementation. And for that implementation, the first precondition is inducement of education.
This ‘education’ is the creation of an understanding that an empowered woman is not a threat, but a boon. An empowered woman is the fount of an empowered family, and the empowered family is the fount of an empowered nation. This ‘education’ is the inculcation of an understanding that empowering a woman is not a bad thing, but that the heinous treatment of women is a bad thing.
For that to happen, we need to rise up in arms to demand that as a country, we are on the same page when it comes to the empowerment of Women. To begin with, when we act or speak out, we need to stop degenerating into jingoism. This is not to say that I am against protest walks or status messages or speaking out – I’m ALL for it and indulge in it myself. But we need to stop and think for a moment about making these individual efforts one strong voice – otherwise, it falls and fails.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we’re all speaking out, we’re all protesting, and we’re all fighting against the culture of impunity that allows crimes like this to thrive. But we’re still not there yet. Why? Because we’re scattered in our efforts. We hold the same views, we fight with passion, but we hold back from standing steadfast in our fight. Whether due to fear or just a sense of disillusionment with the idea of action and its lack of results is not something I’m capable of deciphering. We have so much anger. Why can’t we stop making this anger momentary, but turn it into something that leaves a lasting positive impact?
Which takes me back to what I asked you at first.
Will you remember Aruna Shanbaug? Will you remember Hanufa Khatoon, the Bangladeshi woman who was gang-raped by employees of the Railways? Will you remember Bhanwari Devi who in 1992, was raped in Rajasthan for attempting to prevent a child marriage? Will you remember every one of those children in Nithari, who were sexually assaulted and abused, and then killed brutally? Will you remember Hetal, who was raped and murdered by Dhananjay Chatterjee? Will you remember this 23-year-old girl who lies in the hospital today?
You know the truth. I know the truth. And all truth is actionable.
Will you remember them, and take action for them?