Society Reviews

‘The Silence and the Storm – Narratives of Violence against Women in India’ review: Things we are quiet about


Why has India been unable to stop violence against women? Who is to blame? What is the way out? There are no easy answers as a journalist and writer explains

Over the past fortnight the horrifying attacks on women in public places at Hyderabad, Tonk, Coimbatore, Unnao has only made it clear that the narrative of violence against women in India has barely changed. When there’s an assault or rape, it is followed by an outpouring of anger but then a weak system usually allows the perpetrators off the hook till another heinous crime grips our imagination.

No social reform

In The Silence and the Storm, journalist and writer Kalpana Sharma tries to explain why despite laws being reformed, social structures that justify the violence have remained the same over the decades.

She argues that sexual crimes against women are inevitably linked with the kind of divisive politics that dominate society today. Sharma doesn’t talk about only the crimes that take place in the open, she writes about those who are not heard, about violence in the home, raising critical questions: Who benefits? Who loses? Who carries the burden? Who pays the price? Who makes the decisions?

In 1972, women’s groups across India came together to demand changes in the laws governing rape after an Adivasi girl was raped in custody by two policemen in Maharashtra. Cut to 2018, and boys and girls were out on the streets again to seek justice for the rape and brutal murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua, Jammu. In between in 2012, the shocking rape and killing of a 23-year-old in Delhi led to outrage across the nation. But as Sharma elaborates, the conclusions to each campaign were identical: “The government made some changes in the law, yet the system that implements the law, the justice delivery system, remained the same.”

Between 1985 and 2018, the period she has studied, a great deal has changed in India, but not that much for a lot of women. Activists have grudgingly admitted that women in India are not a homogenous group. Sharma noticed that during times of conflict, like for example during the Mumbai riots after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992-93, women identified with others of their own community or caste or religion rather than being sympathetic towards their fellow sisters. Dalit feminists have pointed out that they experience discrimination first as members of a caste, and then, in addition, as women.

Danger at home

Sharma describes the ostensibly ‘safe’ space within the four walls of the home as sometimes the most dangerous place.

“Crime data has established that more than 90% of assaults on women and girls are from men known to them.” In both the Maharashtra and Kathua incidents and in many other cases, “the protector and the predator have the same face.”

She makes the important point that sexual violence is as much about women as it is about men. Unfortunately in large swathes of India, succeeding generations of men are led to believe that they have the “right to demand and to get what they want from women — ‘their’ women and ‘other’ women. And that, if their demands are not met, these women deserve punishment.” Men are considered to be heads of families; and women are expected to ‘serve and conform.’

Forgotten cases

The Justice J.S. Verma Committee, set up after the Nirbhaya tragedy in Delhi in 2012, made widespread recommendations about changes in the law relating to rape and sexual assault. But the government of the day adopted them only in part, ushering in changes through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, but overlooking some key suggestions including one that held that the death penalty does not necessarily act as a deterrent against such crimes.

Sharma meticulously lists cases that have been forgotten, including a terrifying one at Khairlanji in Maharashtra. Priyanka Bhotmange, a 17-year-old Dalit and a class-topper, was stripped naked, paraded, beaten up, raped and killed, along with her mother in 2006 for daring to testify against members of a dominant caste in a dispute.

The writer is convinced that “as long as our society concurs with the belief that one set of persons is superior and entitled and the other inferior and to be excluded, then whether it is caste, or gender, there can be no real change.” Laws have reformed, not mindsets.

The Silence and the Storm: Narratives of Violence against Women in India; Kalpana Sharma, Aleph, ₹599.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2020 3:42:49 AM |

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