Guest Post by Vrinda Marwah
On 6th March, in the run up to International Women’s Day, I was involved in two panel discussions on women’s rights, both adrenalin-raising but for entirely different reasons. As someone who has been working in feminist organisations, and who, like so many others, is trying to be active and simultaneously make sense of the agitations and conversations following the Delhi gang rape, I decided to write about this experience because it was so revealing about how power operates.
The second panel, which I will talk about first, was in the United Nations Information Center, from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM approx., organized by the New Delhi hub of the Global Shapers Community of the World Economic Forum, on issues of women’s safety in Delhi and practical measures that can be taken to address these. I don’t know much about this rather fancy sounding group (in their correspondence with me they describe themselves thus: The Global Shapers Community is a network of hubs developed and led by young people who are exceptional in their potential, achievements and drive to make a contribution to their communities). I was contacted by a batch-mate from school and another from college about three weeks prior to the event. Both of them are ‘Shapers’, and asked me to be the ‘youth voice’ on the panel. When they told me about the line-up (Law Minister, Former DG Police, BJP national secretary, etc), I balked. I told them the line-up was so pro-establishment that it WAS the establishment, and advised them to bring in strong feminist voices that could take on and expose a panel as ‘luminous’ as this. I recommended Vrinda Grover, Madhu Mehra, Kavita Krishnan, Kamla Bhasin, amongst others, and some young people who work directly with young people. I was assured that there would be a representative from the women’s movement, and that they would reach out to the people I had suggested. I was still reluctant, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to, and wouldn’t be allowed to, do justice to a feminist position, in all its strengths and complexities, at such a panel.
My colleagues encouraged me to participate, highlighting the need to engage newer, ‘unconverted’ audiences. I agreed also because I felt encouraged that I would have another feminist ally. But when I was sent the final email invite to the event, the panel was as follows:
Dr. Ashwani Kumar: Union Minister for Law & Justice
Mr. Prakash Singh: IPS, Former DG
Ms. Vani Tripathi: National Secretary, Bhartiya Janata Party
Ms. Geeta Luthra: Senior Supreme Court Advocate
Ms. Madhu Kishwar: Founder Editor of Women’s Journal Manushi
And me (bottom-most in the Order of the Illustrious)
However, nothing prepared me for how extremely one-sided, regressive, and farcical this panel actually would be.
The format of the panel, as shared by the moderator, was that everybody would speak in turn twice, for three minutes each, before the Q&A round. In the first round, panelists would speak on their area of expertise (I was asked to cover ‘societal mindset’ on gender), and in the second, everybody would put forward three tangible short-term solutions. The moderator also decided later to allow for responses from panelists to each other in round one. The eventual plan was that the Shapers would own and take up at least one recommendation from the day, and work dedicatedly towards it. Noble enough, you say?
This is how the evening panned out: About 100 people, pre-registered as it was a closed-door ‘by invite only’ event, gathered at the UNIC’s Lodi Estate office. The panel began as expected- with the law minister’s three minutes. I have to give it to the man- his act was a lesson in appropriation, evasion, and false appearances. He was calm and composed, and assured the audience that women’s safety was of the ‘highest concern’ to the Prime Minister. He commended the protestors whose ‘voices found expression like in the Arab Spring’, and pointed out that in the spirit of deliberation his government, through the ordinance and the latest Criminal Law Amendment Bill 2013, had demonstrated commitment, and had accepted most of the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee that were ‘reasonable’. When probed by the moderator, he mentioned that marital rape was too grey an area, comprising views too divergent, to be included ‘as of now’. Madhu Kishwar responded to Ashwini Kumar by agreeing wholeheartedly about the non-inclusion of marital rape. She insisted that it could not be proved (‘will we put CCTV cameras in bedrooms’), that existing laws already covered it (‘we already have the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act and others’), and that women could simply walk out of troubled marriages. She expended most of her energies talking about the ‘many, many’ false cases of rape (‘What do you do when a woman, like in Madhur Bhandarkar’s case, is sleeping with a man for three years because he’s promised her a role, but when things don’t work out, she slaps a false rape case’). She would continue to bolster this argument later, including once by cautioning the audience that all women are not ‘angelic’.
I asked to be allowed to respond, and I was I’m afraid every bit the stereotype of the ranting feminist. After countering Madhu as best I could, I dismissed the law minister’s speech as ‘cheap talk’, saying he was trying to make women’s rights something of an empty signifier. I mentioned that while the government had recognized new crimes against women, expanded definitions and quantum of punishment in cases of rape, it was most telling that the bastions of public and private patriarchy: immunity against marital rape and rape by security forces, had been left out. I spoke about the spirit of the JVC report, which took sexual assault out of a framework of honour and shame and put it squarely within a framework of consent, bodily integrity and women’s autonomy. I spoke on consent a little more, saying that a Yes once is not a Yes forever, and a woman- married, in a relationship, or selling sex- should always have the right to say No.
From then on, it was daggers drawn. Geeta Luthra spoke next, and attacked me for getting my facts wrong (‘consent has long been a framework in our law, JVC is not saying anything new’ and ‘it is not true that all advanced western countries recognize marital rape as a crime, many do not, including (gasp!) a Nordic country’) She emphasized that India has numerous pro-women laws, and is in fact the only country to have an anti-dowry law. Both Madhu and Geeta warned against being emotive and rash, speaking indirectly about me, and also against being knee-jerk, speaking directly about certain provisions of the JVC report.
As the moderator went around, Prakash Singh spoke about the colonial legacy of the police system and the urgent need for its structural overhaul. Vani Tripathi spoke in an impassioned voice about her own experience of being followed by men in a car in Delhi. I was waiting for my turn, but it didn’t come. The moderator proceeded to ask the panelists if Q&A should be before or after the final round of comments (remember ‘solution’ round?). I protested, saying clearly ‘I have not spoken. What about my turn? I have only responded’. Geeta loudly huffed that my response itself was ‘quite exhaustive’. The moderator muttered there wasn’t enough time and that the Hon Law Min (the long version is so tiresome I cant believe she insisted on saying it) had to leave. So effectively, the only panelist who didn’t get her three minutes was the ‘youth voice’ in a panel organized by a youth group!
The evening didn’t stop being ridiculous. In Q&A a young woman expressed her disappointment with Madhu Kishwar on the question of marital rape. Madhu’s response was to berate her (‘Don’t caricature me as defending marital rape. Why are you shaking your head before I’ve even spoken’), put her in her place (‘You may be fresh into feminism, but I have thirty years of work behind me’), and of course, to go on about how good our laws already are, and how there is Misuse. Final recommendations were taken from all panelists in a hurry and the evening ended soon enough. To my great relief, a handful of people came up to me and expressed their strong dissatisfaction with the panel. I in turn gave strong feedback to the organizers. And that was that.
I knew, even before knowing who all the panelists were but especially after, that it was going to be a difficult conversation. I wondered about how I would connect sexual assault to larger power structures around caste, religion, class, sexuality, conflict zones, custodial cases, etc. I needn’t have worried. The conversation was not only not that advanced, it was downright anti-women on even basic questions that have been generating consensus in less professedly-enlightened spaces.
The other panel, the first, was a study in contrasts. It took place in Jamia Millia Islamia, co-organized by their Outreach Program and my organization CREA. It brought together activists from the women’s movement, including men, to discuss different aspects of gender-based violence and women’s human rights with students. The speakers were: Kavita Krishnan, Sehba Farooqui, Satish Singh, Dhruv Arora, and Nandini Rao, in a discussion moderated by Shalini Singh. Topics ranged from JVC vs ordinance, masculinities and men’s role in ending violence against women, khap panchayats, to communalism, the meaning of democratic rights, and the legacy of 8 March. In the same amount of time and with roughly the same number of participants, the panel spoke of women’s rights beyond just law and order, to understand it as a structural issue of unequal power relations, connected with many other issues of social justice. The Q&A round was long and engaged, and all sorts of questions were asked and answered. I don’t want to describe the entire exchange here, but I will detail one aspect of it to illustrate the comparison. The Jamia panel discussed how the criminal justice system sees victims of sexual assault as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ women, as does the law through its language of ‘outraging modesty’ (the ridiculous logical corollary being that you have to have modesty for it to be outraged). In this context they situated the non-inclusion of marital rape as a crime: if women are the properties of their husbands, they cannot consent or dissent. Women are often seen to merit protection only to uphold the honour of their men: fathers, brothers, and (potential) husbands. This attitude is borne out by judges who ask rapists to marry their victims, because of course then it should all be okay, right? When questions were asked about the dreaded M word, Misuse, the panelists gave considered responses about how even if some instances of misuse happen, as they do and will in every law, they cannot be used to thwart the many cases of legitimate use. Misuse will be weeded out by due process of the law, and we must demand women’s unqualified freedom without being scared of it, as if the day a law against marital rape is passed, all married women will flood police stations to seek their vengeance!
I am not saying that everybody went home convinced. And maybe it is better to have a panel where there is also some divergence in the views of the panelists. But the Jamia panel seemed real, engaged, intense, reflexive, and open. As opposed to that, the UNIC panel was like lip-service, a CV stunt that ended up being quite disconnected with the progressive and rights-affirming mood of the moment. In fact it felt so out-of-step that it was like a blast from the past, as if the significant shifts in mainstream discourse about sexual assault and women’s rights in the last ten-odd weeks have not even happened.
I have no doubt that the Global Shapers intended well. I hope they will read this in the spirit of healthy critique. And yes, I may be an ultra-feminist (Madhu Kishwar later that day tweeted unflattering things about ‘ultra-feminists’ whom she ‘ruffled’ at the UNIC panel) but in my universe that’s pretty damn far from a bad word.
[ Vrinda Marwah works with CREA, a feminist human rights organisation based in Delhi.]