The movement that followed the 16 December 2012 gangrape and murder was remarkable because it demanded protection for women’s fearless freedom – the freedom to roam and loiter ‘just like that’ – yun hi; the freedom from khap panchayats and moral policers; freedom from parents and brothers who seek to control who they can love and marry. That movement was remarkable because it summarily rejected and expressed defiant contempt for restrictions on their freedoms imposed by hostels, by homes, by anyone in the name of ‘safety’.
So I feel sad when journalists frame today’s question as ‘what has changed thanks to the new rape law?’ That question can be asked and we’ve answered it often. But while some changes in the law were progressive, the question cannot be reduced to changes in the law alone. The question should be, what has changed since then in our commitment to protect women’s freedoms, to promote respect for women’s rights to autonomy in their own lives, to recognize sexual violence as an assault primarily on women’s autonomy rather than their honour and respectability?
The answer is that small changes have indeed taken place. We have had courts convict in rape cases, recognizing that the hurt was done to the survivor’s autonomy. We have had a change in the recommended protocol for medical examination of rape survivors, that makes it clear that doctors cannot and must not pass judgement on whether or not rape occurred because that is a matter for legal, not medical judgement. The chapter on sexual violence in the textbook that’s the Bible of Forensic Medicine in India has undergone a complete and welcome transformation, getting rid of sexist and homophobic teachings and instead foregrounding medical care for the survivor of sexual assault.
But do sexual assault or rape or harassment complainants have it easier? Justice and dignity for the complainant is still the exception. Victim shaming and blaming is still the norm, injustice is still the norm. Defending those accused of such crimes by painting the rape law or sexual harassment law as draconian still has plenty of acceptability, painting those accused or convicted of such offences as the real victims still happens, while feminist support for the victim is painted as support for a draconian rape law. Such attitudes have as much traction amongst the defenders of an Asaram as they do amongst the defenders of a Tejpal. Within progressive organizations and among activists on the Left, we have faced the fact that those who raise slogans against sexual assault or victim blaming are not, by that token, incapable of committing assault or indulging in victim blaming. We can’t leave the struggle for accountability and against sexist attitudes and practices, outside the door of progressive groups, like footwear outside our homes. The anti rape movement of 2012 stressed the need to bring the struggle home into our own lives and workplaces and homes, not take the easy route of telling ourselves the problem lies elsewhere with ‘others.’
Meanwhile, the political assault on women’s autonomy has intensified. Organisations enjoying patronage and protection of those in power at the Centre are busy abducting 100s of women who have loved or married outside caste and faith, and claiming to have ‘rescued’ them from ‘love jehad.’
In the Beti Bachao campaigns – the same slogan is used in the BJP Government’s campaign against sex selection and the RSS campaign against love jehad, the emphasis is on the ‘rescue’ of girls and women. Rescue from whom? Rescue from their own autonomy, back to a regime of sarkari and familial surveillance. Feminist talk of women’s autonomy is mocked as Western, as against RSS talk of ‘familyism’. The cry for freedom even from familial control and surveillance that girls raised in 2012 is denigrated.
Even the AAP Government in Delhi has remained within the patriarchal ‘protection politics’ of CCTV surveillance rather than a clear commitment to protect women’s autonomy. It hasn’t expanded safe public transport in Delhi which was well within its power to do.
In 2012 and since, we saw strong assertions of the rights and dignity of LGBTQI people. But the Supreme Court itself has dealt a blow to this agenda by upholding Section 377.
I’m asked sometimes if freedom and autonomy and the right to loiter are slogans only for the ‘elite’ women. I retort that it’s elitist to assume that the poor, working class and oppressed caste women do not deserve or need autonomy! Women’s freedom and autonomy must be at the heart of the struggle to annihilate caste. It must be at the heart of the struggles of the working class for liberation. Ideologies of ‘culture’ and ‘family’ and ‘safety’ are invoked to discipline and control women workers in India – those workers can fight back and resist and organise only if they assert their autonomy and freedom in every sphere from home to streets to work. The right of workers to rest and leisure was at the heart of the historic working class campaign for an 8-hour day – it would be elitist to declare that working class or Dalit women do not or should not demand the right to loiter for pleasure and leisure as urban middle class women do. The right to loiter in this context is a demand for azaadi from the burden of domestic labour that women, not men are asked to bear, and also azaadi from the gendered discipline to which women are subjected at factories and other workplaces.
The heartening and encouraging thing is that all around us, we can see brilliant, glorious new movements by women asserting their autonomy and demanding rights. The Pinjra Tod movement in Delhi, women tea garden workers in Munnar and garment and sanitation workers in Bengaluru, and so many other movements have lifted our spirits and kept the flame of hope burning for a new politics that asserts women’s autonomy and deals a body blow to the moral policers, the victim blamers. Salaam to all the fighters for women’s freedom! If you’re in Delhi tonight, you might like to join students and women in a march from JNU’s Ganga Dhaba to Munirka bus stop at 9 pm tonight.