It could have been us

The laws will evolve ultimately, but will we? asks poet/ author Sharanya Manivannan

January 02, 2013 07:08 pm | Updated 07:08 pm IST

Change: The law or people's mindset? Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

Change: The law or people's mindset? Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

They’re calling it the “Delhi gang rape” — as though it was the city itself that committed the crime that cost a 23-year-old woman her life and pitched the nation into unprecedented public outcry and grief. The language is revealing, even if it is only a practical way to name the unspeakable. We followed her last days with anxiety, wondered who she was and what her life had been like, and seemed not to need to do the same for her murderers, even as calls for capital or torturous punishment were being made. It has been enough to know that they came out of a city, a society, a country, a culture, that allowed what happened to happen. It has been enough to know that they did what they did encouraged and given immunity by a prevailing misogyny.

Collectively, we have woken to this fact, and it is collectively that we must take responsibility. What happens to her murderers, now that she is gone, only matters if something deeply encoded in the way we treat women changes. Nothing less will do as justice — for her, and for too many others.

Laws only deal with an endpoint, and while protests calling for stricter regulations, harsher sentences, better enforcement, fast-track courts and the like have their place, the difficult questions about the fear, shame and terror that Indian women live with on a daily basis, and encounter in ways terrible and “mundane” still need to be attempted. (They are not comparable — what was done to that woman in a bus, and the flesh-pinching and feeling up that female passengers regularly experience — except that they both originate in the same dehumanisation of women).

What if boys were taught chivalry instead of girls being taught modesty? What if the perpetrator of a sexual assault, and not its survivor, was to bear the stigma of the act? What if to rape, rather than to be raped, was the most shameful thing our society could imagine?

The government didn’t brutalise and kill that woman. Six individuals did.

Laws can and will evolve, as per democratic process. But will we? The enormous emotional response to the “Delhi gang rape” comes from the jarring realisation that it could have been us, our daughters or our sisters. But equally, as disturbing as it may be, men need to ask themselves: does the capacity for violence, abuse or even disrespect lie within them? Could that, too, have been them?

Sharanya is a poet, author and columnist whose works reflect her deep understanding of society and gender roles.

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