The photograph of a sky blue dupatta enveloping 20-year-old Shabina’s (name changed) face, with empty eyes staring at the camera, placed amid the crumbling walls of her house near Kolkata, confronts visitors at the Plaza Steps of India Habitat Centre (IHC). Eight years ago, Shabina was gagged and raped. She was later threatened with murder if she revealed the crime to anyone. Fearing for her life, Shabina kept quiet, not realising that she would soon be pregnant. Upon finding out, family members and neighbours forced her to marry the culprit. The perpetrator’s family supported the marriage to save their son from imprisonment. Niqah followed, but Shabina continued to stay with her parents as she was never accepted as a wife by her offender and his family. A year after the incident, her family finally lodged a police complaint and took the man to court.
“This man was arrested but soon came out on bail and later remarried. It is surprising to see that despite knowing those who raped our daughters, families give their daughters to them,” says photojournalist Smita Sharma, who has captured the experiences of 24 rape survivors in her project titled “Chronicles of Courage”. Many of the images and testimonies from her project are part of the exhibit “Unearthed Stories of Moral Courage in the Face of Sexual Violence” at India Habitat Centre (IHC), which opened on December 16 and concludes today. “The idea is to give voice to the women who are shamed and ostracised for life,” she says.
With the help of school teachers, health workers and activists, Sharma has travelled across remote villages of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh to reach her subjects. “In villages, most girls are raped when they go to relieve themselves at night or in the wee hours of the morning, or while returning from far away schools,” says Sharma, who spent hours waiting in hospital corridors and court rooms to chronicle these lives. “When these girls are taken for examination, they are treated as saboot ka tuqda (piece of evidence) and not as humans. Doctors and nurses display brutal behaviour and have no empathy. I have heard women doctors say,’Aye, kapde utaar’ (hey, remove your clothes). There are no special rooms for rape survivors. I remember a victim from Bihar was once slapped by a doctor at AIIMS for arriving at 1 am for treatment,” says the 35-year-old, who divides her time between Kolkata and New York.
Sharma herself was molested at 18 by a senior professor in her college. “I was judged and called a spoilt girl by those whom I complained to,” she says. But when her 17-year-old cousin Kamalika Das, who was molested by a schoolmate and later blamed for reporting it, committed suicide by jumping off the seventh floor last January, she decided to double her efforts for the project. “Because of this incident, I did not want to give up. It was in her memory and so many others,” says Sharma, who adds that, through this project, she wants to bring the face of survivors to the people. “Why don’t people talk to them and treat them as normal human beings? Let us see them, know them and understand them,” she says. Through her project, Sharma wishes to open discussions, build empathy, change mindsets and work towards solutions, “hoping that no more Kamalikas end their life in the future,” she concludes.