‘Death to rapists!’
‘Death to rapists!’
‘Death to rapists!’
I wrote these words on a placard at a protest rally in Delhi post December 16, 2012. The day will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of a generation shaken by the brutal gangrape and murder of a medical student in India’s capital.
The fact that it happened on the same route which I took to my school for 14 years gave me multiple anxiety-filled sleepless nights. I remember lying in bed and talking to a friend about torture techniques that could be used on rapists. I, like millions of others, was deeply enraged and the only thing that could satisfy our ‘collective conscience’ was revenge.
Eight years later, with the revenge we so wanted about to be served, do I feel satisfied? Has justice truly been served? Do I feel safer now? Will the hanging of Nirbhaya’s rapists make India any safer for women?
Unfortunately, I now know that the answer is ‘no’. However, I’m not going to turn this into a debate on capital punishment but dig deeper into the movement that led us to believe that asking for capital punishment for rapists was right.
We successfully dehumanised and ‘other-ed’ the rapists in this case but failed to acknowledge our own roles in perpetuating rape culture. Every time news of sexual assault grabs headlines, parents often turn to their daughters and say: “Stay safe.”
But I have never heard a family turning to ask their men, “Have you ever found yourself in a position where you thought you could violate someone’s agency? Or do you know anyone who has?”
We asked for fast-track courts, capital punishments, chemical castrations, public flogging and more, but never stepped back to understand what is that emboldens men to act with such sheer cruelty towards women.
So here we are, at the end of a revenge saga with a victory without peace and justice without change. What could have been a watershed movement for women’s rights in India ended up being just another episode of Crime Patrol.
Where did our movement falter? What went wrong? Why are women still being raped, tortured and murdered? And if capital punishment is the solution for rape, what is the solution for all the other kinds of violence women are subjected to? How did we decide that a woman taking beatings of a husband will always be more honourable than a single woman who was raped? These are some very uncomfortable questions with even more uncomfortable answers.
Blinded with rage and hate, we forgot to ask and introspect.
A lot of answers to these uncomfortable questions lie in our collective response to rape. The first thing we do is to dehumanise both the victim and the perpetrator. The man who rapes become the demon, and the woman who is raped loses all her honour and agency. In this process of dehumanisation, the only identities of the perpetrator and victim that exist are ‘rapist’ and ‘rape victim’. We forget that the perpetrator has multiple other roles and identities in the society which have shaped and influenced his present identity of a rapist. He can be a son, a father, a husband, a friend and all his interpersonal relationships have a role to play in making him a rapist.
Also read: ‘Unbelievable’ and the Aftermath of Trauma
Similarly, the ‘rape victim’ will not always remain one. She has and will perform multiple other roles in a society which will be impacted by what happened to her. The justice we seek for this crime of rape only acknowledges these two identities and forgets that before being a rapist and a rape victim, we are dealing with two human beings, where one needs to be transformed and the other needs to healed.
Our fixation and obsession with the judicial system being the only answer to how we deal with rape culture is not only flawed, but extremely inhuman. We equate punishment with justice, and revenge with healing. Over the last eight years, we have seen too many rape cases with disturbing similarities to what happened in December 2012. While we were engulfed with disgust and horror, there were men who have taken ‘inspiration’ from the horrendous act, even though it has been established multiple times that the rapists will be hanged sooner or later.
If stricter laws and swift judiciary are supposed to change society, anti-discrimination laws would have led us to a truly equal and just world. Instead, see where we stand right now.
Unbelievable, the Netflix miniseries that released in 2019, follows an investigation around a series of rapes in Washington and Colorado. The show hauntingly brings out the lack of empathy in the so-called ‘fast-track’ judicial system of the US. It is heartbreaking and frustrating to watch a system so ill-equipped to deal with the trauma of rape.
But why are we surprised? The judiciary is, at best, an extension of our society. And if our society is still ill-equipped to deal with the trauma of rape, why do we expect better from the judiciary?
Rape is one of the many tools of oppression that is used to subjugate women, but how we respond to rape is very different from how we perceive other tools of oppression like domestic violence. Our anger and disgust towards rape is not only because it violates a women’s agency, but because it is rooted in the notion of taking a women’s ‘purity’ and ‘piousness’ away.
A rape victim is considered to have lost something irreplaceable, whereas a victim of domestic abuse still remains very much ‘intact’ even after going through years of abuse. If we truly believe in the emancipation of women, we must address and commit to remove all tools of oppression, and if capital punishment is the way, won’t we soon have a country without men?
So how do we dismantle power structures to create an equal empathetic world where something like rape would cease to exist?
Let us start with humanising every space we occupy, and hopefully we will get there some day.
You say I am a dreamer…
But I am not the only one.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of one of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.
Featured image credit: Reuters/Sivaram V