The Winds of Change for Fearless Freedom Won’t Be Stopped by the Wall of Reaction
“What has changed since last December?” is the question everyone is asking a year after the brutal gangrape and murder that sparked off a massive movement. After all, the number of rapes and sexual assaults are higher than ever, and women certainly don’t feel safer.
In fact, the changes are enormously significant and precious. The winds of change that made last year’s slogans of fearless freedom possible, continue to blow strong, in spite of the many obstacles.
Last year, many had wondered why only a handful of the most brutal of gangrapes where slumdwellers were perpetrators, made it to headlines, while the everyday sexual degradation faced by women, or sexual violence by powerful men passed unnoticed. A year later, 16th December saw sexual harassment by a retired Supreme Court judge making it to the headlines and editorials. The fact that sexual harassment and violence faced by women at the workplace, and the need to end the impunity of the more privileged perpetrators, has emerged as a matter of public concern is an important and welcome change.
In the past year, many women have spoken of how the protests made them feel more empowered to raise their voice against sexual harassment and violence. The lawyer who wrote of the harassment at the hands of Justice Ganguly has spoken of how the protests of last December might have helped her to go public. “What has changed,” she said, “is that women ...feel there is a small group, a small segment of society that will stand by them. Of course, that number is still very small, but for those who have been at the receiving end, it means a great deal.” The journalist in the Tejpal case could talk of the violence she faced to her male colleagues – confident of their understanding, support and solidarity, and they stood staunchly by her. Soni Sori, the fighter against custodial rape by Chhattisgarh cops, was greeted with long applause this year at a Delhi gathering of last year’s protestors, as she told them, “I got strength from the movement you have sustained since last December. The torture had demoralized and shattered me physically. In jail, I realized there are women in worse conditions than me. I reached out to you and you responded. The movement you launched and the strength I got from it kept me going.” The fight against sexual violence is still long and hard – but it is significantly less lonely, and the ranks of the fighters have swelled.
The other immensely significant change can be witnessed in the spontaneous outburst of outraged protest against the Supreme Court’s Section 377 verdict re-criminalising homosexuality. In another day and age, a Supreme Court ruling that homosexuals are criminals would have further isolated and demoralised an already marginalise d group of gay rights activists, who could not count on support even from some of the largest women’s organisations. This year, days before December 16 2013, enormous street protests declared that the Supreme Court ruling bends shamefully to religious reactionaries and fails to protect the rights of homosexuals. Public opinion has forced even most ruling class political parties to break their silence and at least say the right thing. Some prominent supporters of the BJP among young celebrities, who had been touting Modi as the leader of ‘modern, young India’, have been embarrassed by the BJP’s retrograde support for Section 377 and BJP leaders’ homophobic utterances. Even in the mainstream media, the dominant opinion is that Section 377, that declares homosexuality to be ‘unnatural’, is a relic of a patriarchal, unscientific, and discriminatory colonial order. Such a law had no place in India prior to colonial rule, and should certainly have no place in modern democratic India. In a world where even the Pope is having to modify the Catholic Church’s homophobic stances, personal freedoms and constitutional liberties cannot be violated to defer to the opinion of a handful of religious leaders and godmen. A significant section of India’s younger generation finds it troubling that the Supreme Court, which chooses to be vocal about red lights on cars, should ‘recuse itself’ from protecting people from an unconstitutional law.
Last year, some of the slogans were nothing new. ‘Hang rapists’ is something we’ve heard for decades. We’ve even hanged to death a rapist before. It didn’t make much of a difference to the way people thought about rape or about women.
What was fresh and new and defiant last year were the placards that told us ‘Don’t tell women how to dress, tell men not to rape’, ‘Woh kare to stud, main karun to slut?’ and ‘Meri skirt se oonchi meri awaz’. It was the clear message to the government, politicians and parents alike: “Don’t take away our freedoms in the name of protecting us; protect our fearless freedom instead.” It was in the defiant slogans raised by men and women together, ‘Azaadi’ (freedom) from ‘khap, baap, bhai’ (khap panchayats, dad, brothers). It was the anger with which people met every disgusting patriarchal utterance: ‘dented and painted’; ‘a raped woman is a zinda laash (living corpse)’ ‘she should have called them brother’; ‘freedom at midnight doesn’t mean women can roam free at night’; ‘rapes happen in India not Bharat.’
The ‘azaadi’ (freedom) slogans make us uncomfortable: and that’s what makes them the most valuable. They’re the words that should resound within us, they are the flame that Jyoti’s memory should light up within us: not only on the streets, but in our workplaces, in our homes, in our minds.
Those fresh young voices demanding asserted that rape wasn’t, after all, about ‘lusting’ for the ‘forbidden.’ It came from men’s sense of entitlement – the idea that sex is a birthright that no woman can deny a man. And that sort of entitlement isn’t confined to ‘rape’ – it’s found in ‘love’ as well, when the spurned ‘lover’ can feel entitled to throw acid or rain axe blows on a woman who says ‘No’ to him. It’s found even in the protective love that men bear for sisters and daughters, when they feel entitled to tell the latter who to love, who to marry, what to wear, or how to live their lives. Campaigns against rape, then, can’t stop at saying ‘Respect women.’ They have to say ‘Respect the rights of those whose choices you might not find ‘respectable’; respect the rights of women and gay people to love without fear; respect the woman in a short skirt or the ‘man’ in a sari.’
Last year’s slogans of ‘protecting women’ and ‘hanging rapists’ have a more ominous resonance today. We were outraged when one of the lawyers for the December 16th accused said he would kill his daughter if she went out for a movie with a man. Well, let’s remember that in Muzaffarnagar, the Sangh Parivar along with khap panchayats who actually do kill daughters for similar reasons, raised slogans of ‘protect daughters, protect honour’ to fan up communal frenzy against Muslims, profiled as ‘love jehadis.’ Similar slogans were invoked in Tamilnadu, where violence against Dalits was provoked on the pretext that ‘their boys’ might lure away ‘our girls’ in the name of love. Why should women need ‘protecting’ from love? For the same reason, perhaps, that some claim women might need illegal surveillance and sarkari stalking to keep them ‘safe’ from undesirable male friends?
So, the forces of patriarchal reaction too are gathering their forces, they too are claiming to ‘protect’ women. Communal and casteist forces seek to curb women’s freedoms and unleash violence on minorities and oppressed castes in the name of ‘protecting women.’ The communal rapists of Muzaffarnagar are yet to be arrested. Dalit and adivasi women battling rape continue to struggle for justice. Rapes by Armed Forces continue to be shielded by the AFSPA – the AFSPA that is imposed not only in Kashmir and Manipur but has also recently been given an extension in CPIM-ruled Tripura. The Chairperson of the NCW, herself a leader of the Congress, echoes the sentiment of the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat when she blames rapes on urbanisation and advises women to keep themselves safe by adhering to ‘Indian culture.’ Justice Ganguly sticks to his post as West Bengal Human Rights Commission Chairperson in the face of sexual harassment charges that have been upheld by a Supreme Court panel – and a former Speaker and a former Chief Justice are part of his team of defenders. A Central Minister and senior judges alike warn that if women complain against sexual harassment, they won’t get jobs.
Still, these forces of reaction are forced to shout louder – because they know they have to work harder to be heard above the slogans of ‘bekhauf azaadi.’ The battle for fearless freedom is a long one, by no means easy – but the fighters’ ranks have swelled, their voices have grown more confident, and their spirits are high. The winds of change won’t be stopped by the wall of reaction.