When public figures speak violence, the fallout goes beyond their immediate targets. In ways seen and unseen, those most affected are often women.
Recently, we saw an illustration of this during the Jat quota stir. In a sea of men blocking highways and railway tracks, women were invisible. In fact, they were not there at all. Yet, they figured, not as participants but as targets. Although everyone seems to deny that any molestation or rapes occurred at the end of February, there are several reports that suggest that women were attacked and that most of them will not speak out.
That is hardly surprising. Did we not see that in Muzaffarnagar in September 2013? In the communal riots preceding the 2014 general elections, only after the violence had subsided, an estimated 60 people had died and 60,000, mostly Muslims, had been displaced, did the stories of rape begin to be told. Till today, there has been no closure. Just a few days ago, one of those cases was closed because the survivor and her family “turned hostile”, another way of saying that they were either intimidated, or decided to keep quiet for fear of consequences.
Despite changes in the rape law, and an increase in general awareness after the 2012 gangrape in Delhi, the reality for rape survivors who fight for justice is either endless delay and humiliation, or threats forcing them to withdraw charges. Statistics of the low conviction rate amply illustrate this reality.
Muzaffarnagar and Murthal tell us the same story. When there is public violence, by way of riots or agitations, the consequence is often heightened levels of violence against women. This is not unique to India. Studies around the world have established this reality in multiple locations. The most ghastly in recent memory is Rwanda, where during the genocide in 1994 when Hutus systematically eliminated Tutsis, in the course of 100 days of violence, an estimated half a million women were raped or killed. The legacy of that violence has still not been erased.
In the current atmosphere in India, where statements are made almost on a daily basis about chopping off heads, slicing tongues and taking revenge, there is real reason to worry. This kind of heightened violence, much of it going unchallenged and even endorsed by the very people who should be stopping it, leaves all women vulnerable, not just those belonging to the targeted groups. What this does is that it makes violence acceptable as a way of settling scores. If ministers in the government speak such language, and they get away without being reprimanded, and are not even hauled up for hate speech, then what is to stop any person from assuming that such talk, and the actions that follow, are permissible?
While data has established that the majority of incidents of violence against women occur in the home or familiar neighbourhoods, a heightened atmosphere of violence affects women’s access to the public space. At such times, the problem is viewed as a breakdown in law and order. In fact, it is a direct fallout of a culture of political violence that is deliberately perpetuated and thereby becomes the norm. The government needs to recognise this and address it because it undercuts its stated efforts to “empower” women. Beti bachao and beti padhao will remain empty slogans if girls fear stepping out to go to school or women are terrified at the thought of giving birth to another girl who will have to confront increasing violence, at home and outside.
A survey conducted by the group Breakthrough in 2014 in five states and 15 districts in India indicated that girls on their way to school had to fight off sexually explicit verbal comments, stalking and, sometimes, molestation. The unsafe spaces women listed included bus stops, railway stations, open toilets, public toilets, markets and streets. In other words, practically all public spaces.
In election season, women will be more constrained and restricted if these public spaces that they must necessarily negotiate every single day also become the sites of political violence. The fear of molestation and rape will hold young girls back from attending school, prevent women from going out to work, and in myriad other ways directly affect their mobility.
The more dangerous aspect is not just the random violence in the public space, but the targeted one, when women become a part of the plan to wreak vengeance by one group of men on another. This is what we saw in Muzaffarnagar. And this is what could repeat itself as the electoral temperature rises, particularly in Uttar Pradesh.
These realities are constantly obscured in the continuous talk about achievement and empowerment of some women, or in the increasingly empty and consumerist agendas that now dominate the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8.