Hardly seven years after India witnessed the horrific Nirbhaya case – where a 23-year-old woman was brutally gang-raped in a moving bus in New Delhi, eventually leading to her death – the country is facing a similar case. The latest crime to catch media attention at a Nirbhaya-level took place in Hyderabad last week. And, a 26-year-old woman was the victim this time. The police has already nabbed the four men who allegedly raped her and strangled her, before burning her dead body.
Unsurprisingly, social media was abuzz with netizens voicing their protest against the lack of safety for women in the country. There was also criticism about the indifferent treatment by the police towards the victim’s family and an insensitive comment by the State Home Minister. But, the tragedy also gave an opportunity to few to voice their anti-Muslim sentiments, and berate the community. As one among the four perpetrators, in this case, is a Muslim, while the other three are Hindus, Twitter had flooded with anti-Muslim tweets by many pro-right wing handles.
As political rhetoric can change the perspective on major social developments, it is important not to miss out on the larger picture.
Bluntly put, the tragedy is taken advantage of – by the communalist voices trying to build anti-Muslim sentiments. On the other hand, debating women’s safety in public spaces often misses out on a crucial point – lack of safe travel options can affect women’s professional growth too. In fact, it is as destructive as suggesting that following gender hierarchy is the ultimate way of being ‘safe.’
Delving deeper into the current crisis, three points stand out.
Communalism is a way of life
Bringing derogatory religious stereotypes into the conversation around a case of sexual violence is not new. Terms like ‘love jihad’ and ‘honour killing’ originated due to the patriarchal concept of women as symbols of honour, and men as the defenders of that honour.
The narrative that portrays Muslim men as backwards-thinking and sexually aggressive has been a quintessential part of the anti-minority speeches by right-wing extremists. During the infamous Bombay riots of 1993, Hindutva rebels have raised slogans like ‘Landyabhai ko maro’ (‘beat/kill the circumcised man’), and ‘Hath main lungi, muha main pan, bhago landya Pakistan’ (‘With loincloth in hand and betel leaf in the mouth, circumcised man, ﬂee to Pakistan’).
UK-based scholar Dibyesh Anand, who has extensively interviewed Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) workers, has observed that Muslims are portrayed as dangerous, waiting for the opportunity to plunder Hindu women, livelihood, and property. He has also stated that the ‘oversexing’ of enemy men is common to many nationalist projects.
In the Hyderabad case, in the drama around identity politics, the simplest truth gets lost – it was four men who raped (and murdered) a woman, whom they had never met before, or knew the name or religion of, or felt any humanity for. And, none of their Gods or religions had any role to play in it.
Sense and sensitivity
In cases of sexual assault, more often than not, we hear the authorities (read police) handling the situation insensitively. In the Hyderabad victim’s case, when the family approached the police to report her missing, the cops reportedly did not take the complaint seriously and commented that she may have eloped with a boyfriend.
Notably, the victim had informed her sister about her whereabouts just before she was attacked. Although Home Minister Mohammed Mahmood Ali was criticised for commenting that the victim should have called 100 (emergency police help) rather than her sister for help, the police attitude towards the family makes one wonder if she could have met with a different fate.
But we are missing a bigger point here – the sensitivity we demand from the cops is something we don’t get from civilians either. All of us know at least one person – a family member or a friend – who believes that if women stay at home and don’t venture out alone they would be safe. This call for enforcing gender hierarchy comes from a position of privilege and a mindset that has been nurtured over the years.
Gender equality and women’s safety will not be integrated into the psyche of the masses until we start treating our sons and daughter alike and bring them up as equals. Because very rarely is rape an act of sex; more often it is one of power and domination. When our boys grow up accepting that girls are their equal, we will have men who will treat women as equals too.
Stay home, stay safe?
Despite India striving to be a $5 trillion economy by 2025, only 27 percent of the country’s female population is part of its organised workforce. Women’s participation in labour is essential for accelerating economic growth; but among the many hindrances – including lack of access to education and other resources – is the fact that most women are still scared, and justifiably so, to travel alone.
The Hyderabad victim was on her way home from her workplace when she was attacked, around 9 pm on a weekday. Those who advocate women to not venture out at night, or travel alone at all, are indirectly promoting the patriarchal notions of women taking care of only household duties, thereby implying that their rights are secondary.
One is eerily reminded of the Nirbhaya case convict who showed no remorse, saying, “Women who go out at night have only themselves to blame in case they attract the attention of male molesters.”
Even worse, this convict’s lawyer AP Singh’s remark – that he would have burnt his own daughter to death, had she gone out at night- reverberates across seven years, as the fire of Hyderabad’s tragedy continues to burn.