YouTube Raps, Bamboo Stick Vigilantes And Girl Gangs - India's Got A Feminist Movement, And It's Big
The Debrief: The documentary India's Daughter might have painted a picture of Indian women as victims, but there's a whopping great movement of Indian feminists; we spoke to just a few of them…
‘If I walk alone at night – you say I'm irresponsible and lame/ Yet when I’m seen with a man/ To my family I’ve brought sham’
Two Indian women in tank tops stand in front of a bleached-out wall and rap. This isn’t a Grammy-nominated hip-hop anthem. This is what The BomBaebs - Pankhuri Awasthi and Uppekha Jain, feel they have to do: ‘We’re not rappers – no/ We’re just a couple of girls tryin’ to open your eyes/ You need new heros to idolise/ And it's time our society got more civilised.’
Indian society’s treatment of women has long been troubled, but in the past month, all eyes have swivelled to the subcontinent thanks to a documentary, India’s Daughter. The Indian government has banned the film, made by British director Leslee Udwin, because the comments within it were deemed: ‘highly derogatory and are an affront to the dignity of women’.
The documentary is an hour-long look at the 30 days of anti-sexual violence protests that followed the gang-rape and murder of Jyoti Singh on a Delhi minibus in 2012. The film has an interview with one of the killers, Mukesh Singh, who said things like: ‘You can't clap with one hand – it takes two hand.’ His lawyer, ML Sharma, wasn’t much better, convinced in rapists’ entitlement to women: ‘We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.’
The interviews were hardly displayed to condone the rapist’s opinions. But, that said, Indian activists working to topple gender equality still have problems with India’s Daughter.
‘Of course [rape is] pervasive and heinous and needs to be dealt with strongly,' says Sameera Khan, co-author of Why Loiter?, a book about the lack of safety for Mumbai’s women in public space: 'But I feel what we need to pay more attention to is the everyday violence that women in India have to face – violence that we are often told to ignore as part of the “inconvenience” of being a woman in private or public space.’
Sameera, who also gives lectures on how to make public space safer for women, continues: ‘In crowded places, you may be touched, groped, and molested. At times, she may get followed. And of course in severe cases, she may be stalked regularly, or sexually assaulted and raped. So a woman, out, even in relatively friendlier Indian metropolitan cities like Mumbai, knows that she has to learn to negotiate public space.’
And if she doesn’t? She might become a victim; doubly. The rate of people reporting rape India is 2 per 100,000 people. It’s tiny compared to Britain’s 24.1 per 100,000, but it’s also deceiving. Many victims of rape won’t come forward because it really is taboo to talk about being a victim of sexual assault. Suzette Jordan, an anti-sexual violence campaigner who was gang-raped in 2012, refused to be silent, but was castigated for it. When she reported the rape to police, they were sexually suggestive and took days to accept the report. When she went to the press to put pressure on the authorities to act, some factions of it humiliated her.
Those around her joined in, stalking her to the point she had to move house. MPs rejected her story, saying stuff like ‘What was she doing at a nightclub so late at night?’ and that this was ‘not a rape but a misunderstanding in a professional dealing between a lady and her client.' Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, said she was a liar trying to make the government look bad. Indian press has referred to this treatment, even after her attack, as a ‘double rape.’
Suzette refused to be silent: 'I am tired of hiding my real identity. I am tired of this society's rules and regulations. I am tired of being made to feel ashamed. I am tired of feeling scared because I have been raped. Enough is enough!' she told the BBC. She died last week of a rare form of meningitis, and won’t get to see India become more equal. But there is hope. There’s got to be, in a country that rates 135th on a list of 187 countries for gender equality.
The Bombaebs tell The Debrief: ‘Indian women are now ready more than ever before to take on the world regardless of their socio-economic background or profession.’
‘Accordingly, if MPs can themselves begin outreach programmes that help further women empowerment and progression in our society, it will positively bridge the gender inequality gap. It would be wonderful if they championed movements to educate the masses and help reform old mindsets.’
And some MPs are listening to their people. Maneka Gandhi is the Women and Child Development minister and proposed the government install 660 rape crisis centres in a country of 1.27 billion people. The government thought it was a good idea…to install just 36 rape crisis centres. Jagmati Sangwan of the All India Democratic Women’s Association said it was ‘an impractical solution to a problem of mammoth proportions.’
But the Indian government has other feminists to agitate for change; Kirron Kher, a Bharatiya Janata Party member told parliament just last week: ‘We have to tackle this problem right from the grassroots from where the mindset becomes such that you insult women.
‘They give consent the right to their bodies to give consent is theirs. It cannot be abnegated to someone else. They need to be able to feel safe at all times.’
President Modi has said he is ‘deeply concerned’ about a spate of violence across West Bengal. Though one incident is the gang-rape of a Christian nun, the rest are incidents of sectarian violence against Christian Indians. Could it be that the president cares more about religious harmony than women being treated on a par with men?
The frustration of dealing with a government that doesn’t seem to want to tackle sexual violence head-on with practical solutions has manifested in violence. Away from the protests like the one following Jyoti’s murder – the protests which see police using water cannon and beating people with sticks – there are YouTube videos of Indian men being beaten up or tied to posts to be publicly humiliated by older women from a community.
This policing of perpetrators of ‘Eve-teasing’ (a belittling nickname given to sexual harassment of women ranging from catcalls to gropes) and rapists alike isn’t isolated. There are co-ordinated vigilante groups behind this meting out of mob justice.
The Red Brigade, headquartered in Lucknow, was founded by Usha Vishwakarma after she was victim of an attempted rape aged 18. The group teaches self-defence to women and helps young girls – whose parents are otherwise too afraid to send them off to school – arrive at classes without any harassment.
Meanwhile, The Gulabi Gang, dressed in pink, is active across the north of India and comprises about 270,000 people. Working in pink saris (to denote strength) and wielding bamboo sticks, they’ve stormed police stations to release anti-sexual violence protestors, stopped child marriages and have protested against the dowry (where a man pays for a wife with cows) and female illiteracy.
Sampat Devi Pal, who helped found Gulabi Gang, tells The Debrief: ‘India is a super democratic country. People should respect all aspects and take distinction according to our constitution.’
‘This type of rape case [the Delhi bus rape] is a question mark for humanity today. We require the most powerful to act to control this type of case.’
Social media might be guilty of perpetuating the myth of Indian women as universally downtrodden victims. But it’s also being used by Indian women to empower themselves in their quest for equality. The Bombaebs tell The Debrief about their video, which at the time of writing has amassed 150,000 views in just two days: ‘The enormous support and encouragement extended has been very humbling. We really hope this inspires every man and woman to speak up against injustices.’
And it’s not just these YouTubers using increased connectivity to spread their message. Suzette found her way to sexual violence support services through a Facebook group, Survivors For Victims of Social Injustice. Young female readers of Why Loiter? use Facebook to organise meet-ups where they simply stand in the street to protest the infringements on their right to be there without harassment. Meanwhile, groups like Gulabi and the Red Brigade use email newsletters to inform their members of protests and activism that can really help draw attention – and people – to their cause.
Because, to get critical mass, they’re going to need people.
As Sameera tells us: ‘Women are constitutionally equal citizens of India and deserve to be born, have equal access to resources, make their own choices, take their own risks, and not be blamed for their gender but instead be valued and cherished as human beings.’
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