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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 19, April 27, 2013

In Response to Dr Gilbert Sebastian

Sunday 28 April 2013, by Krishna Majumdar



This is in response to the article published in Mainstream on March 16, 2013, "Patriarchy and the Rise of Sexual Assaults in India: An Explanation" by Dr Gilbert Sebastian.

Violence against women is a fact of life in India, as indeed in most parts of the world. As Dr Sebastian rightly points out, from female foeticide to infanticide, from domestic violence to molestation to sexual assault, females are neither safe unborn or born, inside the home or out of it. Undoubtedly a majority of cases of violence, including rape, go unreported and unregarded. But to dismiss the outrage felt by women everywhere in the December 2012 rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi, and the spontaneous and furious protests that broke out in different cities and towns across the country, by attributing it all to the upper castes rallying together in support of their own, is trivialising it to an unacceptable level, and disgusting to say the least. It requires a man to think and say this.

Dr Sebastian seems to imply that when the ‘lower caste’, disadvantaged women are assaulted, the ‘upper caste’ women look on with indifference. He cites the atrocities in Gujarat, in Khairlanji, Kupwara and others (that happen with such sickening regularity) to establish this point.

I assure Dr Sebastian, and I know I speak for most women here, that no woman can be unmoved by an assault, especially a violent, sexual assault, on a woman,—any woman,— whatever her caste or class, and not be filled with pain, anguish, and with it, a cold fear and a humiliating sense of helplessness. Women are a caste by themselves; when the bell tolls they do not ask for whom it tolls....and then decide what their response will be.

True, all cases of sexual violence do not lead to the kind of uprising that we were swept up by last December. The reasons were perhaps some or all of the following. First was the bestial nature of the violence that the victim suffered, the worst that I have, in all the six decades that I have been a resident of this city, even heard of. No woman could remain indifferent as the details of the incident started trickling out, no woman could not personally feel the horror of what had happened to that brave girl. Second was the fact that this was a person most urban women could identify with—a girl studying, going out with a friend, watching a film and then trying to find a bus to take her home. That is what made it so frightening, so horrifying. Every woman who moves about in a city, with or without an escort, knows what to expect; but this was worse than the worst nightmare of any woman. It was an assault so violent that it could hardly be thought of or imagined. Lastly, the media played a large role in galvanising people and bringing out the protesters, ordinary women and men, young and old, who found that they were not alone in their fear and anger.

And Dr Sebastian, no one knew the name of the girl who was victim of this unspeakable crime, let alone her caste. As revealed later, she belonged to an intermediate caste from UP, but we did not see the protests being scaled down in proportion, did we?

Dr Sebastian seems to approve of the ‘radically innovative suggestion from Germaine Greer’ that ‘petty rape’ should be sentenced to ‘100 hours of community service’. Molestation by this token is barely a crime one supposes. Clearly this makes the treatment of Duhshasana in the Mahabharat so repulsive to the writer, while he wastes not a syllable on Draupadi, the victim of public sexual assault. It needs to be said that while Duhshasana was neither low caste nor underprivileged (for we are told it is this category of people who are punished disproportionately), the crime too cannot be termed a ‘mild sexual offence’. I do not clearly understand what ‘petty rape’ is, but no woman on this planet will agree that any kind of rape, any violation of a woman’s bodily integrity, may be dismissed as ‘petty’ and the culprit awarded a mild rap on the knuckles for it. Draupadi’s trauma and humiliation, though not even qualifying as ‘petty rape’, is as terrifying to contemplate today as it was 2000 years ago.

Lastly I would like to refer Dr Sebastian’s ‘professional feminists’. I am not sure which group of people these are. All of us are familiar with feminist scholars, in disciplines as varied as law to literature, who have scrutinised and written about many of the issues that plague women of every caste, class and region of India. Their work has deepened and widened our understanding of our status vis-à-vis our families and the societies in which we live and work, thus enabling us to reclaim our lives, to some extent at least. The other women, and some men, who may justly be called feminists are the activists who, at considerable personal cost, have struggled to empower women. Whether at the grassroots, in villages or in cities, victims of violence inside homes or of harassment at workplaces, or victims of social injustice and persecution—these activists have fought for women with every means available, and shown the way for others to tread.

Which of these is the professional feminist is not very clear. Or is this the kind of feminist that Dr Sebastian so clearly disapproves of? The kind that espouses the feminism that he frowns upon — the kind that ‘emphasised on (sic) liberation’ and represents ‘the undesirable trends of the women’s movement’.

New Delhi Krishna Majumdar

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