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Sustenance ... from their fight

International Women's Day, which was observed yesterday, was an occasion to focus on how women are considered victims of violence, with activists and the media increasingly using such language to discuss the issue. It is discourses like these that detract from the root cause ... the inferior status of women under patriarchy, says NIGHAT GANDHI, looking at two `victors of violence' and their struggles.

THIS year with the passage of International Women's Day, I want to pay tribute to women who are the victors of violence. If a woman has survived violence and is working to overcome the debilitating consequences of any form of violence, then she is a victor.

To reaffirm women as being the agents and collaborators working to usher in a safer, and less violent, world, a small group called the Stree Adhikar Sangathan, decided to felicitate a valorous woman on the occasion of Stree Samman Divas (Women's Dignity Day) on December 23, 2002; a day chosen to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the day when Ambedkar burnt the Manusmriti, a text that legitimises the sub-human existence of women and dalits. The venue was a lecture hall in Delhi University's north campus. The woman chosen for this year's award was Bhanvari Devi of Rajasthan for her courage in fighting her rapists for more than a decade.

An auto driver's strike was on in Delhi, and the day was also bitterly cold. But these didn't deter the audience and the hall was packed. A tall, lean woman, whose dignified gait makes her look taller than she is, Bhanvari entered the hall amidst tremendous applause. Dressed in a bright orange sari, her measured, but resolute, steps proclaimed: "Who calls me a victim? Who says I was dishonoured? The shame belongs to those who tried to shame me. I am a fighter. And I shall fight for justice till the end of my days."

Bhanvari's firebrand speeches are well known to many in the women's movement. But for those who listened to her for the first time, Bhanvari was a source of inspiration. She won the hearts of all present because she spoke from the heart, articulating indebtedness to the women's movement for the support and determination, which has kept her going 10 years after the denial of justice. Her rapists were released on the grounds that respectable elderly upper caste men do not stoop to rape lower caste women.

A fair and unbiased legal system would have pronounced Bhanvari's rape as a violent crime against a woman, wilfully committed "to show her her true place at the bottom of the village caste hierarchy". There were the incriminating medical reports and other supporting facts and witnesses to indict the perpetrators of the act. But the jurists deliberated on whether who could or could not rape, and reached their conclusions — on the considerations of the men's class, caste, advanced age and reputation in the community. This judgment against Bhanvari is evidence of the patriarchal, class and caste-biased nature of the Judiciary.

Bhanvari was felicitated by another valiant woman, Shahjahan Apa, or Apa, as women activists know her. Apa said Bhanvari and all women are eventually going to win, if only they kept intact their hosh (presence of mind) as well as their josh (passion for a cause). The dowry-related death of her daughter more than a decade ago led Apa to join the women's movement and to work towards tackling violence against women.

Songs were sung, slogans chanted, poems read, speeches made. At the conclusion of the ceremony, Bhanvari was surrounded by activists and students who had many questions. Bhanvari tried to answer all of them with patience and a smile. The only questions she didn't welcome were insensitive ones from journalists. "I've sufferred a lot at the hands of newspaper men and the police," she said.

Only justice ... Bhanvari Devi at the Stree Adhikar Sangathan function.

To questions about her alleged wealth, Bhanvari said she still owns only one bhiga land in her village, and qualifies as being below the poverty line. In the village, there has never been social acceptance of her after the incident. Initially, even her husband, who had been an eyewitness to her rape, had refused to support her. But later, after speaking to women activists, he has been a comrade in her fight for justice.

After the film "Bawander", based on her struggles, was released over a year ago, Bhanvari has suffered even greater social and economic boycotts. She belongs to the potter caste, but nobody in her village wants to buy the pots she makes. Her son was taunted in college after the film's release as being a "kumhari raand ka beta (potter whore's son"). He ended up leaving that college. Women's groups in London collected approximately 3,000 (Rs. 2,10,000) for her after the screening, and sent it to the filmmaker, Mundra. Bhanvari has yet to see the money.

Despite mounting social rejection and economic hardships, Bhanvari refuses to leave her village. "It's my home, why should I leave and live somewhere else." What she wants is justice.

Women are often projected as being victims of violence. Even women activists use the language of victimhood to discuss the issue. We talk of the numbers of victims — so many rapes per day, so many dowry deaths in a year, so many cases of female infanticide, instead of citing statistics about the perpetrators of these crimes. Such victim-mode discourses detract from the root cause of violence, that is, the inferior status of women under patriarchy, and reinforce the image of women as being helpless victims. The women-as-victims image denies the reality of women's agency and their capacity to rebel and play active roles within communities to combat and prevent violence.

The media also suffers from a tendency to report news of the victimisation of women. Fear and paranoia grab attention. A news item about the brutal rape of a minor girl feeds the fears and anxieties of readers much more than a report about rallies and nukkad nataks staged by activists to protest the rise of sexual violence against women. Selective reporting of violence reinforces patriarchal norms of keeping women confined to the home as a safety measure, and perpetuates yet another myth — that of the safety of the home. The public space is projected as an unsafe space for women whereas the private sphere appears to be a net of safety.

IT is a well-known fact that home is one of the most unsafe and violent places for women, and that most violence against women is committed by close acquaintances or members of the family. The recent census report also endorses this fact — for every 1,000 men in India, there are only about 920 women. Where are the missing women? By extrapolation, that's a stunning eight crore (missing) women from the population. Their families are active accomplices in their disappearance. There may be a margin of error in number by a crore or two, but we are still talking of a huge deficit.

The fact remains that it is misogyny or men's hatred and a fear and mistrust of women that are the causes of much violence against women. Even in affluent cultures where the scourge of dowry or poverty does not exist, women do not lead violence-free lives. What we can remember, and draw inspiration from, and what keeps me going as an activist is the knowledge that women all over the world are working tirelessly to raise an awareness about the gendered nature of violence, and devising ways and means to reduce the incidence of violence. From street corner theatre about sexual harassment in the workplace, to Wenlido self-defence workshops as paths for women to follow to empowerment, to protest marches and rallies, women are dynamic and active agents in stemming the global increase of sexual violence against them.

A movement derives sustenance not from its casualties but from its conquests. To me, and others like me, who wonder if the women's movement has lost steam, I point towards Bhanvari and Apa as being our icons of success. It took centuries to abolish racial apartheid. Let us elect this century for ending gender apartheid. And let us hope we accomplish that end long before the century ends.

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