She had many names. Until recently she was Damini, “Lightning”, an icon of hope for women everywhere. She was named Nirbhaya, Hindi for “the fearless one” and Amanat the Urdu word for “treasure.” For a few months, she was an anonymous woman, who became a symbol for a long overdue movement. A movement that has been simmering for decades below the surface in modern day India, and for that matter the entire subcontinent. Now she has a face. Jyoti Singh Pandey is the face of the movement fighting for gender equality in the wake of the tragic rape incident that has rocked Delhi and most of India in the past few months.
Jyoti, Damini, Nirbhaya or Amanat is the latest victim of a long-standing history of violence in the subcontinent. Rape is prevalent everywhere in the world and is considered one of the worst violations of a human body and soul. It has been used as a weapon of war for centuries in countless battlefields. But in 20th century South Asia, rape resulted in entire generations of victims and survivors. They carried their own stories of war, stories that remained discarded to this day. Even in the wake of this tragedy these stories are not accounted for in the national discourse. Damini is the latest example of an act that has had many implications on the narrative surrounding gender violence in the subcontinent.
On February 20, 2013, from 4-5:30 p.m. in CGIS South S -020 the South Asia Institute in conjunction with The Harvard College Women’s Center and other on campus student groups are sponsoring a discussion on the many faces of rape and gender violence in the subcontinent. Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, Director of Research at the Francois Bagnoud Xavier Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard and the University Adviser on Human Rights Education to the Provost at Harvard University will be facilitating this discussion. We hope to address lessons learned from this incident and ways to move forward, to build an action plan that allows us to battle this issue head on. In order to do that, we have to take many steps back and look at rape collectively, keeping the statistics as well as the individual stories in mind.
The Partition of 1947 is an incident that is gradually fading from memory. Through scholars like Veena Das who worked directly with partition survivors in Punjab, we know that women bore the brunt of the violence of those times. Countless rape survivors ended up in brothels post-partition, after suffering violent assaults and being subsequently discarded by their families. The voices of women were lost in the post partition narrative that focused on nationalist pride, extolling the virtues of the new nations and the departure of the colonizers, while vilifying the existence of the “other.” Violating the body of the Muslim or Hindu or Sikh woman was likened to violating the honor of a community. Women in the subcontinent, while traditionally subservient, were extolled for their virtue, their roles as mothers, sisters, daughters and assaulted women were a mark of shame for their entire community—they became outcasts or silent sufferers, forced to carry their stories but never speak of it to anyone.
Bangladesh in 1971 was no exception, even after the bloodshed had abated and the government made a concerted effort to rehabilitate rape survivors and children born out of rape. Here, it must be stressed that the Pakistani army and the Bangladeshi fighters raped Muslim, Hindu, Bengali and Pakistani women primarily because it was less apparent who the enemy was and who was collateral damage. Once Bangladesh was born, rape survivors were given their own symbolic title by the Bangladeshi government, birangona, the “brave women” or “heroines” and became subjects of a new national pride. They would be rehabilitated through their liberator, the Bangladeshi male, who was given land and government benefits for marrying a birangona. Yet through this naming, they were marked and vilified by their communities. A woman named birangona was seen as damaged, ruined and impure. Yasmin Saikia, a professor of History interviewed countless Bangladeshi women who survived the war and looked at the government policies at the time. In her book “Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh” she describes a government mandated abortion program to rid the country of the “bastard Pakistanis” born out of rape. Women who wanted inclusion into their communities were compelled to participate in these programs. Saikia from her research and interviews concluded: “Ideals of purity and impurity, belonging and inclusion, were worked out and physically enacted on the body of women—the site of alleged national dishonor, and the site where men could display their power to control the imagining of a new “liberated” nation.”
A rape in New Delhi resonates in South Asia because it marks those countless rapes that took place over history, downplayed by governments wishing to maintain the South Asian woman’s role as a symbol of sanctity and honor. These rapes were interwoven with historical change as it happened in the founding of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and institutions overlook even today. We need only observe the countless incidents of rape in Kashmir at the hands of Indian military forces to realize that our discussion on rape cannot be limited to this particular instance.
Moving forward, we invite members of the Harvard community to contribute to a Policy Task Force titled “Beyond Gender Equality”, convened to offer recommendations to India and other South Asian countries in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder. Diane Rosenfeld, Director of the Gender Violence Clinic at Harvard Law School and Professor Jacqueline Bhabha, will head this group. Their principal task this semester is to produce a working paper that advises on the implementation of the recommendations from the Verma Committee. The committee in a bold move, points out the need to reassess the military powers that are allowed to operate with impunity in conflict zones. Part of our discussion will focus on real reparations and support for survivors of sexual violence, in a manner that allows them to function as integrated members of their communities.
Arundhati Roy in her observations on this incident alluded to the dangers of restricting and focusing attention on certain incidents of rape. The attention being given now needs to have a holistic perspective on the nature of a woman’s body and how it is used and abused over centuries of conflict. The conflict seems to have shifted to the cities and onto the image of a young urbanite, and has thus been given necessary attention. We need to widen this attention and attach names, stories and memories to the countless birangona, Daminis, Nibhayas and Amanats who have been left behind in our bid to hide the bloody nature of the subcontinent’s history.