If there is one thing that is clear from the recent and continuing protests that have been unfolding in the city over the gruesome rape in the capital, it is the painful absence of any independent and progressive women’s movement in the country.
The autonomous women’s movement that existed in the 1970s and 1980s which took up several campaigns from the rape of a tribal woman in a police station to dowry to sati and domestic violence was vitiated and almost completely destroyed from the 1990s onward with the rise of the NGO-isation and the specific categorization of ‘civil society’ organizations in India, gendered or otherwise. However flawed and limited it was, it was a crucial force in the task of social transformation.
This is why there was no feminist leadership and consolidation of the protests at India Gate that chilled some of us even more than the actual gruesome rape did. The thugs who took to stone-throwing and random violence on vehicles and Republic day poles were not as worrisome (that sort of behaviour is expected from political party goons) as the so-called angry “common citizen” simply venting ire that we were asked to cherish and uphold.
It is interesting how the populist celebrators of this “common citizen” protest claim it both as spontaneous and non-affiliated and at the same time progressive and organised. The fact of the matter is that if one studies all the signs and posters, the gestures and the language, the ‘demands’ and the outrage what becomes clear is how ill-informed and violent and how sexist and deeply patriarchal most of it was.
From calls for death penalty to castration, from mindless calls for revenge and counter-violence (the endless proliferation of calls for kangaroo court and mob justice - the rape of the victims, the public lynching, sodomising, hanging of them) to middle-class feminism-informed calls (for more access to public space, to wear what one wants to wear, come out at whatever time one wants to), the failure of several decades of feminism in this country became obvious.
Feminists have painstakingly fought (and continue to fight) for legal and democratic changes in the realities of women’s lives but it seems to have touched no one from the state to the ‘common citizen.’
Politicians predictably repeated the sexist pieties of sarkari appropriations of feminism which really are frightfully obvious anti-feminisms.
Government posters on sexual violence asking men to be ‘real men’ and Sushma Swaraj talking of raped women as live corpses are to be expected.
But young women calling for castrations and counter-rapes and murder and young men throwing bangles at the state shows how little feminism has circulated in our culture.
What the protests showed was that it was not just the ‘Other’ (the lower caste, lower class, the migrant labourer) male who needs schooling in feminism but men and women across classes and castes in the capital, many of whom claim to be gender-sensitive if not feminist, who need it.
What it showed was that highly progressive and Leftist organizations also believe in death penalty for rapists.
What it showed that there was no thinking and reflection on the specific need for a gendered education and transformation of the spaces and people that constitute Delhi.
What it showed, most disturbingly, was the culpability of these very ‘common citizens’ in the violence against women and sexual minorities in the capital and the complete absence of feminism from their lives.
Let alone finding in them a recognition of their complicity with the violence against Dalit and adivasi women and Kashmiri and Northeastern women sexually violated across the country (which many pious responses asked for), one cannot find in them even a recognition of how their calls for instant justice echo terrifyingly the very calls that propelled the rapists in offering their version of instant retributive justice to the girl for daring to be out late.
The references to bangles, the calls for counter-rape and violence, for torture and genital mutilation and death, the calls for mothers to educate their daughters (and sons) also partake of this. It is as if feminism never happened at all. It is as if all the campaigns that feminists led since the 1970s have disappeared, all their insights evaporated.
The worst injury (apart from the steady stream of more and more absurd statements from every possible ‘common citizen’ in Delhi afflicted with the common Indian disease of an opinion and the itch to voice it, the latest being a woman scientist who said the girl should have submitted to the rape) is news of more and more rapes and sexual assaults on women every day in Delhi since the great protest that rocked Raisina Hill!.
What we need is to rebuild the women’s movement piece by piece. This is not done by demands for instant justice or expressions of instant outrage. It requires the hard work of working with ‘common citizens’ across the city in every nook and corner of Delhi to change their attitudes, to inform them of the law and push for legal education and implementation, to work with sensitization campaigns with the police, in colleges, in schools to make of them citizens aware of feminism’s insights and advancements over several painful decades of legal failure and achievement. It is not just about calling for an adhering to due process but actually ensuring that due process happens.
Most importantly, all of this has to be informed by a feminist perspective This perspective is not something achieved but always in process, that we have to hone constantly in ourselves as much as others. For it is only when we are aware of how much we partake of patriarchy in all its class, caste and gendered forms that we can hope to generate change in our political, social and legal vocabularies.