The fight for dignity in the feminist struggle

It is heartening to note that journalist Priya Ramani, against whom a defamation charge was filed by former journalist and Bharatiya Janata Party leader M.J. Akbar, has been acquitted by a Delhi court and her right to dignity has been upheld. Dignity is a simple word, but it bears the imprint of resistance and struggle.

Years ago, in the late 1990s, while discussing amendments to the existing legislation on sexual assault, feminists wondered if they ought not to come up with a different definition for the act, and one that does not focus on the woman as a victim, but on what is at stake for her as she struggles to seek justice. We came up with the idea that rape is a crime against ‘bodily integrity’, a term that can perhaps encompass other struggles against what the American philosopher Cornel West refers to as ‘ontological wounding’. Small wonder then that dignity is claimed by a range of persons who endure such hurt on a daily basis: Dalits, the queer community and transpersons, and minorities.

Editorial | Defamation as crime: On the acquittal of Priya Ramani

Bitter experiences

Ms. Ramani fought for over two years, and those years must not have been easy ones, as is the experience for most people who have sought justice for the impairment of their dignity. As far as justice goes, the balance sheet of the #Metoo movement is still in deficit. But occasions like these also help puncture the self-satisfaction we see all around when a woman's complaint is dismissed: to admit that she might be telling the truth is to admit to what a lot of people like to conveniently ignore, that for all the grand ideas handed out in our epics, ours is a culture that routinely belittles women and blames them for all that happens to them.

The consequences of disbelief can prove consequential. In the Mathura rape case, the victim was not believed as the court held that because she was habituated to sexual intercourse, her charges against the policemen were untrustworthy. Bhanwari Devi was told that she could not have been subjected to a gang rape because the men that she claimed assaulted her were of a caste higher than hers. The Adivasi women of Vachathi in Tamil Nadu were not taken at their word for years. And lest we forget the Hathras case, where the facts of assault were disputed in ways that could only be termed sickening. But experiences like these are not unusual — Dalit women and other minority groups who seek justice in sexual assault cases routinely face such circumstances.

Orthodox ideas

In an everyday sense, when women complain about predatory men, they are told not to be over-fussy, and that it’s a man’s world, after all. A Tamil serial that is currently aired on primetime television has gone one step further: in an episode, a drugged man assaults a woman. But we are told that her perception of what has happened to her is not as important as the man’s intent. He did not mean to rape her and was a victim of cruel circumstances. He feels awful about what he has done and earns the victim’s grudging sympathy. In fact, she turns his accomplice, and together they decide to hush up matters to save his marriage. Never mind her dignity, or the fact that off-screen, often the converse happens: women may be drugged and assaulted.


In this context, the verdict for Ms. Ramani allows us to relish a moment of quiet satisfaction that in some contexts, at least the victim’s speech may be granted the legitimacy that is often denied. However, it might be useful to ponder over a few related matters. First, one may face the trauma of repression and speaking out long after they have experienced harassment or violence. How can we engage with complaints or confessions made years later, in institutional contexts, if due procedural methods do not allow us to do so? In what ways can we exercise ethical discretion in listening to complainants and seeking redressal?

Second, sexual harassment exists as part of a wide spectrum of acts, which may range from casual demeaning speech to sexual threats and actual acts of assault. What needs to be addressed forthrightly is the heterosexual male’s sexual prerogative and the culture of impunity that supports and protects it. Law can do only so much in these matters — we need a robust culture of open speech and the right to defend our claims to dignity and justice in public, without being threatened with defamation or more.

Third, the vulnerability of being sexually exploitable appears to be part of the working conditions that bind women in all sectors, and more so in so-called informal work: in brick kilns, quarries, garment factories, and in various service situations. To date, neither the Vishaka judgment nor the Act for sexual harassment at workplaces has been helpful in any of these contexts.

Comment | A verdict that has ended a long silence

Here, I am reminded of B.R. Ambedkar’s words regarding the trade-offs involved for a worker: “How many have to relinquish their constitutional rights in order to gain their living? … The fear of starvation, the fear of losing a house, the fear of losing savings, if any, the fear of being compelled to take children away from school, the fear of having to be a burden on public charity, the fear of having to be burned or buried at public cost are factors too strong to permit a man to stand out for his Fundamental Rights…”

Support circles

The challenge is to not lose sight of this stark truth that holds good even after years. It is important to build feminist jurisprudence on the subject and think about local support systems that can enable women to stand up for their rights. Women’s groups, civil rights groups and trade unions, all have roles to play in this enabling.

Lastly, there is the question of restorative justice that some are interested in, and how that might apply in matters where bodily integrity is at stake. Where no legal justice has been possible, is social boycott an adequate response? If so, should it be of a certain duration? Should there be arbitration in cases where there is still some space left for dialogue? And what about remorse and reflection? Should we think of protocols so that expressions of regret are actually useful and relevant, and not just hollow talk?

V. Geetha is a feminist historian and writer

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 4:23:07 PM |

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