In all the reports about the recent communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar, little has been written about the trauma suffered by women.
Imagine if you are a woman with several children and a riot breaks out. You can run, carry one child, hold the hand of the other. But what about the rest? Who do you leave behind? How can you make sure they will be safe? How do you live with the choices you made in that moment of terror and panic?
These are the harrowing choices that hundreds of women must have faced when the communal violence flared up in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district last month. As Muslim families fled, leaving behind their homes, some were also forced to abandon members of their own families. And now they have no idea what happened to those they left behind, whether they are alive or dead.
This is one of the more disturbing accounts that comes through in a small report prepared by a group of 11 women working in U.P. with different non-governmental organisations whose focus has been gender. The report is impressionistic; it does not pretend to be a balanced fact-finding report. Yet, in its very simplicity, it conveys some of the trauma and immense sadness that is a reality for the thousands who continue to shelter under shaky tarpaulin shelters in the humid heat of September.
Titled “A human tragedy unfolds as the State watches”, the report describes six relief camps; three each in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. Calling it a Preliminary Citizens’ Report, it narrates what the inhabitants of these camps told the team. Possibly because the team consisted only of women, the report gives us a small but essential insight into what women experienced. For instance, they quote a number of women telling them how they had to leave children behind. Yet, even after the violence ended, the district administration has not been able to help them trace missing family members or even to prepare a list of people who are missing.
Also unspoken and unwritten are stories of sexual violence. They are not easy to record. Some of the women spoke hesitatingly about rape, about having their clothes torn off. But they were afraid to go into more details or to register cases.
We cannot forget that it took a team of women to visit Gujarat soon after the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 to write a comprehensive report on the sexual violence perpetrated on women. Their report, “The Survivors Speak: Sexual Violence Against Women” is still relevant today even if the searing testimonies of the survivors in the report relate specifically to Gujarat. For through these testimonies we understand how women become the collateral damage during such communal conflagrations.
In Muzaffarnagar, too, such a follow up will be needed so that this ugly side of communal violence, that scars the bodies and souls of so many women, does not go unrecorded and hence unrecognised.
It is so easy to miss women’s narrative at a time of heightened political competition in the run up to the general elections next year. Yet each recording of such testimonies informs us that regardless of the location, there is a common theme that runs through them — that men and women experience violent conflict in different ways. And there can be no real healing or rehabilitation unless this difference is noted and recognised.
The displaced women in Muzaffarnagar have no voice at the moment. Given the status of women in that region, where men fight feuds and their women are part of an unwritten “honour” code, they might never find a voice. Yet experiences around the world have underlined repeatedly, that women must have a say in the aftermath of conflict and in building a peace that lasts.
Currently, the dominant theme of discussion around Muzaffarnagar and the fallout of the violence is politics — who gains and who loses, who started it, who fanned the flames, who is to blame. Yet, the real politics of such violence is the grief a mother feels when she is compelled to abandon her child; the nightmares a young woman confronts each day as she recalls sexual violence; the harsh daily reality confronting pregnant women, nursing mothers, elderly women surviving in makeshift camps without sanitation, privacy or health care. Who is bothering to address these issues?