RIP Indian Jane Doe
She was only twenty three, and she is dead now, for no fault of her own. She won’t have a career, be married, be ever sad or happy again. She is gone but not forgotten. I refuse to call her Damini or Braveheart or Nirbhaya (Fearless), or any of the other other names seeking to deify her and cloak her in the mantle of a righteous hero. She was a perfectly ordinary, every woman, an Indian Jane Doe, who was nevertheless robbed of her life, her only fault, being a woman. She was just trying to get home from the movies. She was not in a war zone, unless India has declared a war against all its women. Yet she was brutally raped, battered and beaten and left to die. The many faces of the women protesting, seemed to be saying, there but for the grace of God go I.
There is plenty of blame to go around. The perpetrators who did this should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. The politicians in charge of Delhi, are to blame too, as are the police. The dismal rate of conviction for rape, and the medieval procedures for criminal investigation of sexual assaults, is enough to let you know, that the law such as it exists is no deterrent.
We don’t know her name yet and her funeral was very hush-hush. Her departure to the Singapore hospital where she died is another head scratcher. Why all the secrecy, why are powers that be, behaving like it was this woman who had something to hide, as if she had done something wrong. The administration’s response both at the state and the central level has been ham handed and tone-deaf at best and the response of the opposition not much better. The leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj called her a living corpse, stigmatizing her, when she was still alive and fighting for her life.
Movie stars are expressing their outrage and that’s very nice, but the movie industry both Hindi and regional is to blame for peddling the most tired tropes about women and sexual assault, so save me all the fake piety and tears. Indian movies regularly depict sexual assault for titillation and a nauseatingly familiar trope is having the woman (usually the hero’s sister or sweetheart) who has been assaulted, commit suicide. This then becomes a vehicle for the hero to launch into a righteous rage and avenge her death. Stop portraying death as the only viable alternative for a woman who has been sexually assaulted. The Indian media has not covered itself in glory either in reporting this incident or others like it. For starters, she was a woman, not a girl and please stop with the cutesy names for her.
While it is tempting to blame the changing mores or economics for the recent spate of violence against women in India, it is hard to overlook the disrespect for women in India’s cultural DNA. For example, consider how Sita was treated in Ramayana, one of the two great Sanskrit epics. Her husband, the supposed ideal Indian man, abandoned her when she was pregnant with his twins. She was blamed for her abduction by Ravana and even a trial by fire was not enough to prove her innocence. She was discarded like yesterday’s trash, even being a queen could not save her. The fate of Indian women today is not much different than Sita, if anything it is worse. Sita’s daughters are as expendable as Sita herself was. And Sita by far is not the only example, indicative of the second rate status of women. There are plenty of examples both past and present, fictional and real that illustrate the same point. If you don’t believe me, check out majority of Indian movies or soaps on TV or open any Indian newspaper.
Women are discriminated against by their own families from the time of their birth till the day they die. Female infanticide, dowry deaths, the treatment of widows, the rampant harassment, innocuously labeled eve-teasing, that women have to face on the streets day in and day out, the preference for male children, the victim blaming in cases of physical assault and rape, the list is seemingly endless.
The message to the Indian woman is clear, you are not worth much, keep your head down and don’t make waves. If something bad happens to you, it is your fault, because you are a woman. We will blame you if your husband dies or if someone assaults you. These attitudes make a perverse kind of sense if you accept either subconsciously or consciously that a woman is not a living, breathing being with her own agency but a fragile object to be guarded by the men in the family. According to this school of thought, a woman who is not a virgin is damaged goods and hence worthless and a bringer of shame to the family name. Enough, there is more to women than their reproductive systems.
Changing this deep seated misogyny is going to be anything but easy. But is something that needs to be addressed because even one more case like this, is one too many. May be, just may be, the mass protests that we saw are the beginning of the change that women in India have been waiting for.