Narratives

ON THE CULPABILITY OF THE SOCIETY: NOTES FROM THE FIELD

- Ankit Kaushik (Faculty Coordinator, CCV, RGNUL)

 

Crimes against women (CAW) are not merely offences against those affected directly by them. It is trite to say that they have a snowball effect upon every aspect of women’s lives all across the world. Incidents of sexual harassment at workplace discourage women from discovering their economic freedom; incidents of stalking, eve teasing and molestation – all work to negatively affect the freedom of movement of all women across the country. The ordeals of rape victims through the incident and their secondary victimisation thereafter impedes all rape victims from reporting the offences. The cause of justice recedes multiple steps in the process. Even though since independence, women have risen to powerful positions such as that of the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, Cabinet Ministers, President, Speakers, Judges of Supreme Court and High Court; no one can claim that women in India today lead unrepressed, un-subjugated, equal and empowered lives free from encumbrances and restrictions imposed by multifaceted externalities.
As a part of a research project on Status of Crimes Against Women in Norther Regions of India, I had the opportunity to personally interview victims of CAW. The narrative of one victim however made me question the very hypothesis of all my doctrinal research conducted over months. Though she was initially reluctant to answer my questions, she agreed to the same upon encouragement from a sympathetic investigating officer. Neerja, 23, was a daily wage labourer from Jabalpur district in Madhya Pradesh. Her husband, was a 32-year-old unemployed alcoholic who suffered from a hearing related disability. She lived with her husband, brother in law, father in law, and two children in a single room she called home.
Scars and bruises seemed to form a permanent feature of her face. Some were black while others were green; all of them together narrated a story of recurrent violence. The same also made following the line of questions as dictated by the interview schedule extremely redundant. Deviating from the questionnaire, I enquired about the bruises. The reply to which I did not get verbally but when she suddenly had tears in her eyes. At this point, the IO intervened to inform me that Neerja had been facing physical abuse in her marital home almost daily since her marriage six years ago. She picked up Neerja’s arm and pointed to countless circular marks on her wrists and forearms from where the in laws had stubbed her with bidis. Some were fresh with the blisters while others had subsided into permanent marks on her skin.

Throughout my interview and much afterwards, I could not identify an immediate cause for the victimization. Her in laws had not demanded dowry except at the time of marriage and the same had been duly satisfied. She was an earning member of the family and regularly gave most of her income to her husband willingly. She never conversed with other men and he had never accused her of infidelity. She had two children, both males. She never retaliated or retorted back which would exaggerate such abuse. In short, her story didn’t fit in any of the pigeon holes I had developed as hypothesis for my research. It was clear that she didn’t understand why she was being victimized either. At that point in time, her case seemed to me to be an outlier.
The dystopic narration of her account left me perplexed; forcing me to examine carefully every underlying causal factor. Disappointingly, I admit that it took me a while to fully comprehend the commonality between her and all other victims of crimes against women.

This common thread stares us in the face every day, directs our every action; and yet it simply eluded me. It affects every single woman we’ve met in our lives in one way or the other. Still, as a male born in our society, to notice the very existence of such a factor is a daunting task even for the most perceptive. Though I had heard and read about it countless times before, I never understood what it really meant until a deliberate reflection. I am of course talking about patriarchy as an institutionally embedded structure accepted as unchallenged by most, male or female, even today.
Through Neerja, I realized that CAW are not an end in themselves but rather are a means through which patriarchy reveals itself at its ugliest. In its more docile form I saw patriarchy in action throughout my field work and much after. It was visible in my interactions with the police where some female police officers took offence at being addressed to as ‘Ma’am’ and preferred to be referred to as ‘Sir.’ It was obvious in my interactions with a female judicial officer in charge of special courts for sexual offences where the officer thought it was alright for a rape victim to marry her rapist, in contravention of the ruling of Supreme Court in Shimbhu & Anr. v. State of Haryana, [(2014) 13 SCC 318], which clearly states that there can be no compromises in rape cases. In the opinion of a learned judge a compromise resulting in the marriage was better because no one else would marry the victim since she had been
‘dishonoured.’
A corollary thought flows from my abovementioned observation; in cases of CAW, it is the victim who is shunned by the society while the perpetrator walks away with impunity. In my opinion, the same is reflective of the society’s role in abetting CAW. The society is guilty of the crime just as much as the criminal for it passively legitimizes CAW by actively accepting patriarchy.
To end patriarchy and by default deal with CAW, the society as a whole needs to break from the tradition of inequity through which our patriarchal roots cast our individual mind-sets. To achieve the above, we don’t need to conduct a research project. We merely need to introspect as individuals as to how deep patriarchy has taken root in our daily lives. Though Neerja may not know it yet, but in her act of reporting the violence she questioned the legitimacy of patriarchy - a courageous act indeed. However, to force start an introspection among the larger population, every Neerja not only needs to be empowered to raise her voice and register her complaint but should do so with the intention of consciously challenging the institution of patriarchy.