Monday, February 11, 2013

Rape, Race and Misogynist Nationalism(s)

- Leki Thungon

One of the biggest problems with the prevalent notion of rape is how the social response to it coincides with the rigidity of its legal definition. A complaint of rape necessitates the legally cumbersome process of demonstration how and why the act would constitute the act of rape. While there is a difference between sexual harassment and rape, it is the different reactions they generate which is highly problematic and dangerous. One frequently comes across statements like ‘Oh, it was “only” harassment not rape’, this kind of understanding not only blankets the severe misogynist vocabulary found in our language itself but also stigmatizes rape as an ultimate end of a woman’s already marginalized identity; anything lesser than the insertion of the penis into the vagina is not rape, therefore not that bad..! In the same light, my constant fear of being a source of someone’s perverse racial reassurance which in this case is the superior “Indian”, national gene Northeast is believed to be devoid of and the awareness of my face and body becomes a secondary problem. This question challenges a framework which goes beyond the purview of criminality and pathology. It cuts across issues of nationalism, identity and patriarchy. 

The question of racism and misogyny has been discussed at length in various levels, however, there is a general trend which is followed in both how it is conceived and received. Whenever there is a discussion on the racial discrimination faced by people from the Northeast the blissful idea of ignorance by “these” mainland Indians or the problem of their (Northeasterners) acceptance as Indians or both are frequently raised; thereby creating a political dilemma which sways between reductive identity politics or nationalism/ national appropriation. However, when the question of women is inserted it muddles up the two strongly separate ideologies and showcases the former following the same models of the latter in order to legitimize its foundation which is by appropriating the bodies and behavior of “their” women. In fact a geographical line can be connected between the Rajasthan government’s discussion on the length of a school girl’s skirt and the compulsion of donning a phanek on a woman in Manipur. To many people’s surprise and dismay, I would have to declare that the women in Northeast are not free from/of patriarchy as her counterpart in any part of North India. Rape is considered the ultimate dishonor of a woman and her community regardless of mainstream notion of an egalitarian society. 

Living as the ultimate other in a place like Delhi, one can think of innumerable incidents of racist and misogynist episodes with anger, frustration and helplessness. There were times when you could think of an equally ridiculous retort, sometimes you would threaten or even use the new Act which promises to “protect” you but most of the time you are left with the now familiar feelings of disbelief and disgust. This racial othering of the already gendered body is a process of curious interplay of racism, misogyny, exoticism, curiosity and nationalism where there is a conspicuous invisibility of Northeast. This results in a constant insecurity, alienation and tremendous vulnerability. One can only imagine the effect of this on a woman of an already marginalized community. One of the most common and dangerous reaction is the demonizing of the other by both the parties. 

Patriarchy marks different bodies differently. The constant fear of being an object of racial discrimination does not only generate a counter mistrust but also results in the exhausting need to reassert or more precisely prove oneself. This fear, further, is not represented through gender dynamics but rather as a part of the agendas of either reassertion of ethnicity (Meitei case) or reassurance of assimilation (the compulsion of salwar suit as uniforms for girls in Arunachal Pradesh). Which is why it is not surprising to hear figures of authority of the northeast using the same language of decency and dignity of women when they connect violence against women on the attires of women. 

Against the popular notion of a more liberal society of the Northeast, to speak critically of the family structure or conventional gender relations is also considered as transgressions of the most immodest and indecent nature. If we refer to different anthropological accounts on Northeastern tribes (which cause more damage than good) there are many tribes which allow women to divorce and remarry, however within many of these tribes the punishment against women who commit adultery are equally severe. One reason for this disparity in the behavior toward women is economic where the question of land and labour especially in matrilineal societies where women are the source of both. The connection between land, labor and this disparity especially in matrilineal societies and also other societies where the inheritance of women are sought to be retained through marital alliances is not explored. Rather a superficial understanding of this is conjured as the reason for looking at women from this reason as “free” and more negatively “loose”. The question of punishment of adulteresses never really became an attractive subject of interrogation or even introspection. There has been a lopsided measure of coverage between adulterer and adulteress, in many tribes adultery by men is seen as a part of the erroneous idea of manhood. This stark distinction between the virtues of womanhood and the clout of manhood has informed the hunter-warrior brand of machismo which still sells across the country. 

The protest against the Delhi gang rape case is also resonating in parts of Northeast, specifically Guwahati which had once before “come together” to protest against the molestation of a minor girl outside a pub last year. An interesting characteristic of these protests, which is not only limited to Guwahati, is how it not only demands for women’s safety but prescribes a definition of “real” masculinity. Patriarchy is presented in its most powerful and convincing form in these protests which is the power to patronize. The air seems to be pregnant with our- women- need –to- be- protected- from- the- bestiality- of- rapists syndrome. This patronizing voice reflects the incapacity to draw a continuum between incidents of rape and the gender violence. Therefore, rape as a crime should be met with immense severity but having a violent relationship with your girlfriend or sister is “normal”. There is a lack of conceptualizing these events as not aberrations but amplifications of a gendered society. 

In the wake of Guwahati molestation case  hoardings sprang up overnight in the streets of Guwahati proclaiming the men involved in the incident as having vitiated the honour of Assamese society and its values.

Episodes of war and violence like the Partition clearly show how women’s bodies become a field of conscious form of claiming power over the Other’s most crucial ‘property’. Emasculation of the male Other takes place through the bodies of the female which were not adequately “protected” by them. A woman’s body becomes the medium of communication between two male powers. Rape should be identified as an assertion of power on the body of a woman, it marks a social relation based on inequality. And one needs to extend this understanding to our everyday lives. The nature of many campaigns against rape and safety for women precisely showcase this notion of man -to –man dialogue, where the male rapist seems to claim “I rape your wife, daughter, mother, sister” and the decent male members of the society are quick to retort through big banner, “Real men Don’t rape” or “Raping is Ape-ing”. 

The language employed in these protests for women is not very different from the one that Indian State funded ethnologies often use to describe the people of Northeast as “friendly”, “nature-lovely” etc. In their self-congratulatory attempt to speak for the women kind, to infantilize women as lovely creatures who have to be protected from the evil racist rapists kinds seems to be the only mode of dialogue between the two patriarchal systems. 

One’s actions can never completely break from one’s identity, of what it symbolizes and what it limits. However, to be reduced to a pure case of race and exploitation is what one needs to relentlessly attempt to transcend. I refuse to be the hypersexual, exotic, complicit caricature neither do I accept the fatherly callings to partake in the process of being a clothed and tattooed piece of ornament.

Leki Thungon is an activist and a post-graduate student in the Department of sociology, Delhi School of Economics.


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