India's anti-rape movement: redefining solidarity outside the colonial frame

The horrific rape of a student sparked a remarkable movement against sexual violence in India which has forced the government to change the laws on gender violence. While the struggle continues, a new organisation in Britain, the Freedom Without Fear Platform, redefines the notion of solidarity.

Protest placard: freedom without fear On the 19th of March a sparsely attended Lok Sabha (Lower House) of the Indian Parliament debated and finally passed the country’s new anti-rape Law. Sonia Gandhi, President of the Congress Party which heads the country’s ruling coalition, and her son Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party Vice-President, were conspicuous by their absence and so were a host of other key parliamentarians.  Of the MPs present, some sniggered at their female counterparts, others blamed westernization for rape, or claimed that if better laws against sexual violence were passed, coeducational schools would have to be shut down; and one even declared that stalking was a form of courtship. The debate was a microcosm of the patriarchal views of those who rule India. It was in line with the government’s earlier actions. In December last year during the massive protests demanding action to ensure women’s freedom from sexual violence, following the horrific gang-rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi, the government had not only sent in police with tear gas, water cannon and baton charges but had steadfastly refused to address the protesters.

When eventually mass pressure forced it to set up a committee under a High Court Judge, Justice Verma to recommend changes to the law and this committee reported, they shamelessly ignored these recommendations and instead  proposed a blatantly anti-women Bill . Among other regressive stipulations the Bill proposed that the perpetrators of rape could be both men and women – it would mean, as one activist commented, that if a woman accused a man of rape, he could respond by taking her to court for rape too. The Bill also increased the age of consent (which had been 16 since 1983) to 18.  As Kavita Krishnan of the All-India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), an activist centrally involved in the movement  against sexual violence explained, this increase in the age of consent would mean that teenage boys could be criminalised as rapists or sexual offenders for holding hands, hugging or any other consensual physical or sexual contact with girls of a similar age. The law would therefore condone the ‘moral policing’ by family members, neighbours and third parties (who could be Khap Panchayats  -village councils in Haryana and Punjab or the moral policing outfits of Hindu supremacist groups).

The Bill was met with further protests and campaigning, and a powerful People’s Watch over Parliament. The government was forced to modify it and the legislation which was eventually passed by the Lok Sabha was a victory, albeit a partial one for the movement. Among the demands of the movement which were met are a broader definition of rape; the recognition of acid attacks, forcibly stripping a woman in public or private, stalking and voyeurism as  sexual crimes; the recognition that in rape cases the accused is 'gender specific' (because women do not rape men, the sexual abuse of children by women being recognised under other legislation); the punishment of police officers for not registering complaints of rape; and a redefinition of rape under which a woman who does not physically resist the act of penetration will no longer for that reason alone be regarded as consenting to sexual activity.

But as activists and feminist lawyers point out, the struggle is far from over. Not only does the age of consent remain 18, but the new law does not recognise rape within marriage. Also, the law regards the survivors/victims of rape as a gender specific category, ignoring the rapes of men.

In addition, while it claims to make public servants including the military accountable, this remains meaningless in many states in India because the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) under which the military has immunity from prosecution has not been revoked. This means that the rapists and killers of many generations of women in Kashmir, Manipur, Chattisgarh and other areas where the AFSPA operates, will not be brought to justice. It would also do nothing for Soni Sori, the adivasi school teacher, who is still in jail in Chattisgarh after being subjected to horrific torture and sexual violence while the police officer responsible for her torture has been awarded the President’s medal for gallantry. Her case, like that of other adivasi and dalit women facing systemic sexual violence, is not to be considered ‘aggravated rape’ which is now punishable by the death penalty.

Women with fist in air swamped by police in a demonstration

How have the ground breaking protests against sexual violence in India impacted on us in Britain? While South Asian and Black women’s organisations have held solidarity protests and meetings in London, the British media has had little to say about the remarkable Indian struggles against gender violence. It has focussed instead  on descriptions of Indian men as ‘murderous’ and ‘ hyena-like’, Indian women as victims, or as Rosie Millard, just back from a holiday in India, put it, that ‘the unfolding of this scandal is rather like picking up a beautiful bejewelled quilt, only to find it covers a charnel house’ .

Panel of women with a projector screen behind them
Kavita Krishnan on skype, Kalpana Wilson, Marai Larasi, Naila Kabeer, Rahila Gupta, Kaveri Sharma, Lia Latchford, Amrit Wilson (left to right)

A common theme has been that India needs a ‘cultural earthquake’ for it to ‘be allowed to hold its head up in the civilised world’ of truly modern 21st century nations. But does modernity really bestow freedom from violence for women and girls? And is it really a question of modernity vs. backwardness? As speakers at a 250 strong meeting hosted by the London School of Economics’ Gender Institute and organised by a large number of Black, South Asian and minority ethnic women’s organisations pointed out, neoliberal corporate culture has brought heightened violence against women - not only in the cities, with the proliferation of sexualised images of women and girls, but in the countryside of India. In the broad swath of central India where multinational mining companies are grabbing land and killing and displacing adivasi people and where all dissent is being crushed by the Indian state, rape is a weapon used routinely against women who resist. 

At the same time misogynistic politicians, gang-rapes and child abuse abound in Britain and the US, countries which regard themselves as epitomising modernity.

The LSE meeting also led to further discussions which questioned what solidarity means in an arena where perceptions are so shaped by racism and colonial relationships that sexual violence is assumed to be something alien - happening 'out there’ -  and the struggles against it in the West are made invisible. 

Out of these discussions a new organisation has emerged - the Freedom Without Fear Platform, (FWFP) a loose coalition of women’s organizations and individual women, unfunded by governments, NGOs or foundations - which takes its name from one of the slogans of the anti-rape movement in India, Bekhauf Azadi. Its aim is to build solidarity not only with the movement against sexual violence in India but with movements and grassroots struggles elsewhere in the global South and to give a platform to Black, South Asian and Minority Ethnic women to discuss  and make visible the violence against women and girls in Britain. It seeks ‘to counter the imperialist racist discourse that UK mainstream media continuously bombards us with; and to highlight the cynical co-opting of violence against women and girls’ issues http://www.justwestyorkshire.info/?p=1342 by various groups in the UK who are seeking to further their own racist/ anti-immigration/ Islamophobic agendas’.

FWFP not only seeks to redefine solidarity but also conceptualises violence against women in far broader terms than British feminists have so far done, confronting not only rape and sexual violence but the violence against women and girls implicit, and often explicit, in new colonial wars, in the policies imposed by international financial institutions and governments, and in the activities of transnational companies both in Britain and internationally. It will hold a series of public meetings, discussions and solidarity protests in the coming year, opposing for example the activities of the British government, which collude with and increase violence against women in other countries– for example, Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent reestablishment of diplomatic links with Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, who has been implicated in mass murders and  rapes of Muslim women in 2002, the British military interventions and arms sales which are fuelling conflicts in which sexual violence is central, and DfID’s promotion of population control policies and of dangerous hormonal contraceptives in the global South  in the name of giving women choice.

For further information about the Freedom Without Fear Platform contact: freedomwithoutfear@gmail.com

 

 

About the author

Amrit Wilson is an activist and writer on issues of gender and race. Her books on South Asian women in Britain include the ‘Finding a Voice – Asian women in Britain’ (Virago) and ‘Dreams Questions and Struggles –South Asian women in Britain’ (Pluto Press). She is a founder member of South Asia Solidarity Group, and board member of Imkaan, a Black, South Asian and minority ethnic women’s organisation dedicated to combating violence against women in Britain.