Look Back In Anger – But Also in Hope

Written by Kavita Krishnan | Published on: December 17, 2015

Image Courtesy: PTI
 
December 16, 2012 -2015

 
The gang rape and torture of a young woman on a Delhi bus leading to her death, on the evening of December 16, 2012, broke through the complacence of a society towards sexual violence and gender discrimination.
 
In their anger at the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators and the callousness towards victims, several of the protesters raised misplaced slogans demanding death penalty and castration for rapists. But significantly, a very large number amongst them, having ‘tuned in’ to the issue of sexual violence for the first time, also listened patiently and empathetically to what the women’s movement had to say on the issue, and also to what women had to say about their everyday experience of being blamed for rape, and morally policed and imprisoned in the name of ‘safety from rape’. Rejecting the rampant cry for death penalty, a considerable section of the movement rallied around the slogan of ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ (Fearless Freedom), protesting that ‘protection from rape’ was the patriarchal code for restricting women’s freedom to live and love autonomously. What we said demanding safeguarding of our ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ to the then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit and to various Parliamentarians who were then grandstanding on the issue, bears repeating with added emphasis today.[1] 
       
The massive movement that followed ushered in some changes in the laws on sexual violence. But most importantly, that movement will be remembered for pointing its finger squarely at rape culture and victim-blaming, and its proponents among political leaders, top cops and others in the ‘law and order’ establishment.
 
The movement also sought to question the single-minded dominant media treatment of rape as an ‘exceptional’ occurrence, and the virtually exclusive focus on rapes by strangers in the capital or in big cities. Instead, it drew attention to the forms of violence and coercion that have been rendered ‘normal’ – rapes by persons in positions of trust and authority; rapes perpetrated in the course of caste and communal violence or by police or armed forces; sexual abuse of children – usually by family members or other trusted persons; domestic violence inside families, including rapes within marriage; violence and coercion of women by families and communities to prevent them from exercising choice in matters of love and marriage - to the extent that ‘choice’ elopements/marriages are falsely criminalized as ‘rape’; sexual harassment at the workplace.     
In one of the most remarkable and significant moments of the movement, the protesters decided to hold a ‘Freedom Parade’ to ‘Reclaim the Republic’[2] on January 26, 2013. There, they drew attention to the victims of rapes during communal and caste violence, rapes by the army and the police, and the courage of countless ‘unknown citizens’ who challenge the entrenched culture of impunity for perpetrators of rape. [3]
 
The Verma Committee report – an outcome of patient and painstaking dialogue with a range of feminist organizations working with survivors of gendered violence – was path-breaking. Some of its recommendations made their way into the amended rape law. But with it, the Government and Parliament also flouted several of the Verma Committee recommendations: most notably, it introduced the death penalty for rape, criminalized consensual sexual relations between young teenagers, and failed to remove the impunity existing for members of armed forces accused of rape.      
 
Three years later, how far have we come?
 
A Spark – Now a Steady Flame
 
What is most encouraging is the way in which various feminist movements have, in many ways, taken the spark of the ‘Bekhauf Azadi’ slogan and turned it into a steady flame. In the past three years, we’ve seen an explosion of campaigns and movements asserting women’s right to be out in public spaces at all hours of day or night, with or without a reason, without an ‘alibi’, with or without a companion, for sheer pleasure.[4] These movements have specifically challenged the gender discrimination in hostel rules – whereby the same authorities that ignore sexual harassment and punish complainants of sexual harassments - impose dress codes and restrictive