India’s crime bureau chief said, last week, “If you can’t prevent rape, enjoy it.” His comment inflamed an already tense atmosphere at a time when horrific rape incidents are making more and more headlines. This is not to say that rape is all of a sudden more common in India or that the media is suddenly doing a good job of covering the larger context of the problem. In fact, most of the news coverage concerns only middle and upper class and upper caste women, celebrities or white visitors. Even when there is coverage of Dalit women like the Gulabi Gang, important factors (social, economic and historical conditions, as well as the incident frequency for minority women) are erased from the narrative entirely. This, in no way, is to dismiss the real experiences of the women who did speak out and inspire public outcry that caught the attention of the world. These women face repression also and we realize that it is often traumatizing and re-triggering to speak about assault and rape.
However, very huge communities of women who experience rape and sexual harassment on a daily basis, and have no conventional tools of redress, have been forgotten by the public, the media, and even by many activists–both in India and abroad.
A contributor for Bay Area Intifada visited India this month and spoke with a local activist about the extreme conditions of Dalit (untouchable), Adivasi (indigenous), and Muslim women and what these women are doing to survive. Due to extreme repression against any form of activism in these communities, we will refer to the activist as “Maryam.” We have also omitted the region where she works and all other details about her life.
Warning: Some of the images and descriptions below are very graphic.
BAI: In the English media, we’ve been reading about domestic and/or sexual violence in India. What I’ve been hearing about since the beginning of my visit, is that the uncovered stories of Dalit (untouchable) women in India, especially in northern states like Uttar Pradesh, are pretty horrific. But these stories don’t seem to be circulating so much in the international narratives. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s going on?
Maryam: It’s important to look into separate and different trajectories of violence. When upper caste men commit violence against Dalit women, the intention there is to relegate them into a subordinate position as women within the caste hierarchy. Muslim women, on the other hand, in some ways have a more recent postcolonial history compared to the Dalit sisters. Since the creation of Pakistan, Muslims have by-and-large come to be represented as “the enemy within.” I guess within that context, Muslim women are targeted in communal riots–that is Muslim-Hindu riots. Raping and mutilating Muslim women becomes symbolic of performing Hindu nationalism. Also, given the cultures’ patriarchal backgrounds, committing violence against women, especially against minority women–be it Dalit or Muslim, connotes the honor of the community as a whole. So these instances are not about violating an individual’s sexual autonomy; this violence has implications about disrespecting and desecrating their communities.
Dalit women form the second largest layer of illiterate women in India, and by literacy, we mean people who can write their own names. Muslim women, according to the Sachar Committee Report of 2005 [PDF of the report] lag behind even Dalit women. One, of course, cannot ignore the political economies of these identities. Some scholars, such as Dalip Menon argue that the oppression of Muslims in India is a continuation of oppressing lower caste people, because the majority of Muslims come from convertee backgrounds. Unlike most Muslims who migrated to Pakistan, they do not come from historical trajectories of power and privilege. Class and identity in contemporary India are closely linked. So it shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone that Dalit and Muslim women particularly find themselves at the lower end of the ladder.
Another thing that both Dalit and Muslim women constantly suffer from is the lack of their voice whatsoever in mainstream media. As mentioned before, they have distinct histories of gendered violence. However, they share a common platform when it comes to erasure of their oppression by upper caste right-wing elements. A lot of Dalit and Muslim women activists, while supporting the Delhi protests of 2012 and 13, also feel that they have yet to witness a day in India when peple will talk about how they are systematically targeted–not just in crimes of passion, but with deliberately calculated violence.
BAI: Deliberately calculated violence? What do you mean? Can you give some examples so I can have a clearer picture?
Maryam: There are many examples of everyday violence, but two of the biggest examples that come to my mind are the Gujarat Genocide of 2002, which the media tries to downplay as a “massacre” [or as “riots” which were met with necessary government clampdown] and the Khairlanji violence of 2006. There was state involvement both directly and indirectly.
In the latter case, that is Khairlanji, the police were found to be complicit with upper caste men of the village who brutally raped and mutilated both men and women of a Dalit family. [BAI Note: A film will soon be made with historical treatment similar to that of Shehkar Kapur’s Dalit Queen.]
And in the Gujarat riots, which were on a much larger scale–that is not to suggest there is no large scale violence against Dalits, but this is just what I remember from the top of my head– the bureaucracy police and even the chief minister of that state were directly involved in a genocide that took place over three days in five major Gujarati cities.
BAI: So what exactly happened to the women in these situations? Do you mind sharing?
Maryam: In the Khairlanji incident, there were speculations that before raping and killing a relatively lower middle class family of Dalits, they forced the boys of the family to rape their own mother and sister. Later, the boys were killed, perhaps even raped, whereas the mother and their daughter were raped by the entire lot of upper caste villagers and their bodies were mutilated even after they had died– just to show them as an example: a warning to other Dalits in the area.
BAI: That is…The word “terrible” doesn’t seem appropriate. I have no words. And in Gujurat?
Maryam: Regarding the Gujarat riots, in a relatively vagurer way, a magazine carried out a story of how they had recorded Hindu right-wing men discussing and sharing videos of how they sodomized and mutilated poor Muslim women. One of them very proudly claimed–by sharing a video–that with his sword, he cut open the womb of a woman who was pregnant, threw the fetus in the fire, and then proceeded to rape her while simultaneously pulling out her intestines. He then burned her with the rest of her sisters who were already burning in the fire.
By the way, there is a difference between caste and class.
BAI: Sometimes it’s hard to understand how these people are human.
About the distinction, I was wondering about the difference between caste and class. Glad you brought it up. Can you give more details?
Maryam: Sure. Because of recent Dalit quota policies (in businesses, governments and educational institutions), there has been a very small population of Dalits that has managed to recently climb the class ladder in India. In fact, in this case, the upper caste men in Khairlanji were irked to a large degree to see the rise of the economic mobility of a Dalit family right before their eyes. Unlike most Dalit families, this family was fairly educated and family members were aspiring for professional jobs.
BAI: Got it. So back to the awful Gujurat incident: can you point us to that article and video?
Maryam: Well, the magazine, Tehelka, was too scared to share the video, but they have released a few excerpts of the interview. [Read about Tehelka’s undercover investigation and recordings here. Warning: very gruesome.]
BAI: What do you mean by “scared?” Who are they scared of?
Maryam: People, including the government here, are afraid of the right-wing goons. They have a lot of power and influence and are hugely popular among Hindu working classes as well as American-Indian diasporas. They’re also able to appeal to the middle classes and the elites with their rhetoric of “India Shining,” which is basically a campaign promoting a neo-liberal economy, where upper-caste Hindus would become welathier and continue to maintain their privilege. These days, they are also trying to co-opt lower caste community members into their fold by promising them both economic and social mobility.
The present government, instead of presenting themselves as a secular contender to the right-wing in India, tries to represent itself as a soft Hindutva alternative. The “soft Hindutva” approach means they engage in a passive or negative politic, such as not giving minorities jobs or failing to develop their ghetto infrastructure (water, electricity, roads). Also, part of this platform is that while they don’t engage in outright violence themselves, they also don’t prevent violence by right-wing elements, either. By right-wing elements, I don’t necessarily mean political parties, but rather organizations that identify themselves as Hindutva. In some cases we have seen in the past couple of years, the present government has cowered under what can be termed as Hindu fascism.
For example, Bal Thakrey, a leader from the notoriously violent Hindut organization Shiv Sena, recently passed away. A young Muslim woman put up a Facebook update wondering aloud why was the whole city of Mumbai shutdown on the occasion of his death, given that he behaved more like a dictator and a nuisance for the citizens. Another South Indian woman [South Indian ethnicities face regional discrimination from leaders of this said organization] “liked” her status. Both of them were arrested by the police while the Congress government, which is in power, did nothing to stop this.
BAI: So is there never any penalization or repercussions for these violent crimes?
Justice delayed is justice denied. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, for centuries, activists from these marginalized communities have been fighting for millions of Dalit women who get paraded naked in their villages and raped. They even get raped by the police when they go to lodge complaints there. This has become a common story these days, to which nobody reacts anymore. Similarly, many of those who came out to protest rape culture in India and Delhi in 2012 and 13, calling it an extraordinary crime, are the very people who are numb and apathetic towards atrocities against Dalit, Muslim, Adivasi (indigenous), and one can even say northeastern women.
Recently, there were riots in Muzaffarnagar against poor working class Muslims. These riots came after the circulation of hate-inciting CDs by the Hindu right, who portrayed them as “jihadis” who would kill all Hindus unless Hindus don’t react first. Several people were klled, but what remained unreported in a majority of Hindu outlets was the rape of some 19 women in that locality.
[BAI located a report about the deliberate engineering of communal riots in Muzaffarnagar. The report was prepared by Rina, a Muslim news agency, after their recent fact-finding mission. Read the full report here [PDF] or a summary here.]
There is a lack of moral consistency in our outrage to the so-called rape culture in India when it comes to our minorities. You will find nobody protesting on the streets and showing solidarity at the large scale level that we saw with the Delhi protests, which was mostly a movement carried out by bourgeouise urban students.
BAI: Woah. This sounds familiar. Is this typical of bourgeouise urban activists and students? Is there little support generally, for the struggle of these minority women?
Maryam: Well, there is a sparcity of left-inclined universities in India. But Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi is certainly a very strong center for left politics among students, many of whom go on to become activists. In their rhetoric, there is a consciousiness of critiquing mainstream media, the system at large, as well as members of the press who discriminate against ethnic minority women. However, even in these pockets, when these well-intentioned activists try to mobilize people from more privileged classes to join in solidarity struggles with ethnic minority women, very few of those priviliged people bother to turn up. This phenomemeon is now being called “PLU.” PLU stands for “people like us.” The bourgeoise, although aware of discrimination faced by minority women, express rage only when he/she feels that those impacted are urban middle/upper class women like them.
BAI: So the state sucks, like usual. The pigs re-enact violence–also familiar though different in other countries. And even the activists aren’t listening. So is there anything that these women are doing to support each other or to fight back?
Maryam: My favorite example of resistance is middle-aged and elderly Manipuri women [northeast Indian women] stripping themselves completely naked with a huge banner across their chests, walking together, chanting, “Indian army: rape us!” This banner and these protests where nudity was a cultural symbol of shaming the Indian army for objectifying and exploiting northeastern Indian women, came into light after the greusome death of Manorama Devi, a social activist who dared to question the oppression of the Armed Forces Act of 1958, which basically gives the army impunity in Kashmir and northeastern Indian states to torture and imprison people without going to trial. [One mother involved with the protests tells her story here.]
Another example is the Red Brigades of Lucknow. This movement, which began in the very poor suburbs of Lucknow, has both poor Hindu and Muslim girls learning self-defense to fend off sexual harassment on their way to school. Often, they stand with lathis (wooden sticks) at the key corners of their slums so that other girls could go to school safely without the fear of sexual assault. It has played a huge role in instilling confidence in these young women.
Lastly, there is what has now became a rather famous case of resistance: the Gulabi Gang movement. Usually, people talk about this movement in the context of rural women combatting domestic violence. There are some key elements that are not highlighted. That is that the Gulabi Gang movement is primarily one of rural Dalit women who shape this movement in the context of rising neoliberalism in their villages.
The men in their villages were getting paid wages in alcohol at industries recently planted in these regions. This led to rampant alcohol abuse and the increase of rape and other forms of domestic violence. The Gulabi Gang didn’t just form in order to combat domestic violence; they also attack corrupt police officials and government officials. Besides using verbal tactics of shaming men when they treat women with disrespect, they also attack liquor shops, which they blame for intoxicating their men, who in turn become more neglectful of other responsibilities.
BAI: I know as a Muslim woman, I find it difficult to navigate bringing up patriarchy which exists in the Muslim community, because it is so often used by the war machine, as well liberal (and sometimes radical) feminists to attack Muslim communities as a whole. Do you know of any examples of Muslim women resisting within India, without the help of these Western “saviors?”
Maryam: Yes, there are several examples of that. For example in Tamil Nadu, women have started what they call the Counter Male Sharia Courts. They derive their inspiration for justice from the Qur’an. They claim that Sharia, which simple terms means “welfare,” was meant to constantly evolve for the welfare and equality of members of the Ummah [Muslim community]. However, the priestly male class tried to hijack the faith to fulfill their self-interested patriarchal needs. Therefore, these courts try to reclaim what they feel is the rightful space within the Islamic community.
Another example that comes to my mind regarding ecclesiastic progressive discussions within the Indian Muslim community is the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board. They have a nuanced discourse, where they kindly tell women from outside the Muslim community to piss off while they engage internally with the community over
dialogues around divorce, property rights, etc.
Other organizations, such as the Awaaz-e-Niswaan in Mumbai, especially look into the means of poor working class women. This organization is run by these actor themselves, instead of a bourgeoisie vanguard. They release explicit statements every now and then about how Hindu communalism is a threat for Muslim women, particularly given the gendered nature of crimes during communal riots. In addition, they also have started marketing the produce of local slum dweller Muslim women, such as handicrafts. Often, they have asked factories to improve the working conditions and wages of poor Muslim women in slum areas.
BAI: I really appreciate you taking time to share all this. I’ve heard so little of this from the English media and even from the radical news circulations. How can people show support/be in solidarity with these communities?
Maryam: Firstly, the English media is complicit in perpetuating the image of India as a “rising power” or “India Shining.” The last thing the country wants is for the reality of their minorities to be brought to light.
Secondly, comrades in the West should be aware and combat the festishism of Hindu spirituality, which venerates the image of the nodding head, yoga-practicing, peace-loving Indian, and which marginalizes any identity contrary to what the West has conjured up about Indians. When I try to explain to people in the West about the
conditions of minorities, they look at me in disbelief because it’s difficult to come to terms with a reality contrary to what the tourism industry has manufactured about our culture.
Finally, comrades in the West need to realize that islamophobia does not only affect Muslims residing in America. It impacts Muslims across the globe, especially in countries where they are the minorities. America is the center for knowledge production and the knowledge that America produces is often appropriated by right-wingers elsewhere, in an effort to legitimize, and in some ways desensitize people against some very real problems that Muslims face.
BAI: Thank you so much for sharing all of this. Inshallah, your hands will be strengthened and you will continue to win and find more solidarity both inside and outside of India.