In a room packed with reporters, she broke down, her sobs accentuating her every word. It was clear she was bogged down by the enormous weight of having to talk publicly about a horrific incident that happened to her two years ago.
“I did not commit any mistake. Yet they humiliated me and paraded me in front of everyone at the police station,” the woman said as blinding flashes from the still cameras in the room kept hitting her. Her face hidden by a white cloth, she could barely blurt out more than two sentences at a time before it was clear she was not in a mental state to talk about her ordeal.
Once again, a shocked modern Kerala looked on as a poor, not-so-educated woman in her 30s, accompanied by her husband, struggled profusely to recount a series of events that began with her gangrape followed by shaming by the police and the eventual forceful withdrawal of the case. At one point, one of the police officers is reported to have asked the woman which one of her rapists gave her the most pleasure. The accused, one of whom is a local leader of the CPM, threatened to leak the video of the rape if she took the case forward. Under intense pressure of the accused and the cops, the woman alleged she was forced to withdraw the case.
The irony of the matter is that the woman’s heartbreaking public ordeal comes just two days after Kerala proudly celebrated its 60 years of formation. It was an occasion when the state’s praiseworthy indices of development including its record on gender equality were heralded as a sort of ‘model’ for the country to follow. But the truth is Kerala is still a paradox — yes, the only state where women outnumber men, where female literacy soars above 91%, where maternal mortality is the lowest in the country and yet one in which women are not as liberated as empowered as they should have been. Sure, it’s better than some of the northern states, but Kerala has its delusions with respect to women.
According to a 2009-10 data set of the government, just over a fifth of the women in the state are working, paving way for male dominance in workplaces and unequal wage systems. In spite of self-help group movements like ‘Kudumbashree’ (which employs one of the largest women communities in Asia), women are restricted to doing menial jobs and rarely in-charge of households. The 80s and 90s were replete with films with scenes where women (mothers, wives or daughters) were rebuked for even joining a discussion with the men in the house.
What should cause greater alarm are the state police’s statistics released recently that showed an astonishing 910 rape cases being reported till July and nearly 7900 cases of crimes against women this year. Even as the state is appreciated for due reporting of crimes and the registration of FIRs, these numbers are not justified in Kerala where gender mobility is said to be far more improved than its northern counterparts.
As for the state police force, the rape survivor’s serious allegations of mental harassment reveal chinks in the armour. That a woman could be subjected to such inhuman treatment points to either a clear lack of awareness among the police force in dealing with sensitive issues or a deliberate ploy to weaken the mental strength of the complainant. That a state like Kerala which has a rich history of matrilineal and women-centric traditions would be witness to a woman’s public anguished cry for justice is indeed shameful. Not to forget, the bigger web of corruption, deceit and malfeasance that’s at play here if the woman’s allegations are to be believed.
If anyone thinks Thursday’s incidents were an aberration, it’s sadly not. Several months ago, the state had plunged into a similar trough of depression when media reported on the cold-blooded rape and killing of a young Dalit law student. And just a month ago, people of the state stood in disbelief as the Supreme Court commuted to life the death sentence of a convict who had pushed a young woman out of a train and sodomised her in the darkness of the night. These are not aberrations. These are signs that the gender structure in Kerala is fast eroding and that some climacteric steps by the government may be in order. We can’t not pretend to hear the wails of the woman at the press conference. Or else, it will haunt all of us just as it haunted me.