A History of Violence

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.


34 thoughts on “A History of Violence

  1. Pingback: Harvard to the rescue! « Kafila

  2. Pingback: Harvard to the rescue of Indian Feminists ! # womenrights #Vaw #mustshare « kracktivist

  3. Ammu Joseph

    I wonder if you have seen this response in India to the above post: http://kafila.org/2013/02/16/harvard-to-the-rescue/#more-16147.
    I personally believe anyone has the right to study, critique, recommend, etc., on anything in the world in the process of moving us all in the right direction. I suspect there would be less annoyance here if there was some acknowledgement of the ongoing work in this area by Indian women/feminists (from at least 1980 onwards!). The Justice Verma Committee actually acknowledges the valuable contributions of Indian women’s groups to its work.
    I also think it’s only right, while focussing on rape/gender violence in a specific geographical area/historical-social-cultural setting, to acknowledge that these are universal problems, albeit with some particular manifestations in different parts of the world, including South Asia. And also that there is resistance to seriously addressing gender violence in many countries, including the US (witness the recent history of the Violence Against Women Act in the US).
    Unfortunately, the above write-up doesn’t really reflect that kind of sensitive, informed, collaborative outlook.
    BTW, I was surprised to find that the paragraph on women’s experiences during the Partition of India makes no mention of relatively recent books on the subject, such as “Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition” by Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin and “The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India” by Urvashi Butalia.

    1. nurnasreen

      Hi Ammu, thank you very much for your readings. To respond to your concerns, this blog post was intended to be a very small outline to an event where we hope to include larger discussions. I appreciate your sharing the recommended readings, this is something to keep in mind as we move forward with the discussion. To your point about acknowledging the work of Indian women and feminists, as mentioned, the theme of this post was to simply look at the history of violence. For our discussion, we will also be looking at steps that have been made to combat that violence. As a blog post, this was not intended to be comprehensive but rather a summary of some of the themes.

      Furthermore, your comment on acknowledging resistance to discussions on gender violence around the world is well placed. It is such feedback that will allow us to frame our discussion here at Harvard and allow us to be well informed.

      We hope to follow up your remarks with more thoughts as we move forward with our discussion. Once again, I really appreciate all this information you have provided!

    1. nurnasreen

      Hello Nagarjun! Thank you for your response and for sharing this information. As i mentioned in an earlier response, this blog was intended to provide a very simple and rough outline to more detailed questions that this group will address. Rest assured that this is simply the beginning of a series of discussions. The policy group that is being put together is not simply comprised of Harvard professors, but students who are actively involved in work in India and who hail from South Asia. I think the blog post misunderstood the language of our post. We referred of course to the bold moves of the “Verma Committee” (and not the task force) in addressing the Indian military’s power in conflict zones. Once again, I thank you for bringing this concern to light and we hope to address this in further discussions, online and through the policy task force.

    1. Based on the way you’ve framed your comment, I’m having a very hard time believing that you actually read this blog post. Here’s why: Nur takes this opportunity to provide a historical treatment of the way rape cases have been handled in India leading up to the present day. Her argument is that past mishandling of this same issue has created conditions upon which the Indian legislature is now attempting to navigate this problem in a more effective way. While I understand your concern that the event proposed has problematic underpinnings, I also believe that posting about that particular issue on this forum is entirely unproductive to the goals of this specific post, which are to inform the blog’s diverse readership about gender-based issues in South Asia today.

      Furthermore, the two entities that Nur points out, the Harvard “Beyond Gender Equality” committee and the Verma Committee are not the same thing. I believe that the “Beyond Gender Equality” committee, formed by academics at Harvard seeks to have informed discussions about the best steps that the Indian government can take in rectifying these issues. I think labeling them as “neo-colonialist and racist” actually indicates a deep-seated ignorance about who they are and what they intend to accomplish (which, by the way, isn’t even really detailed here). It is not my understanding that these groups intend to take over India, nor that they believe that their input is the only feedback the Indian government should take.

      I’ll conclude by saying that (re)posting inflammatory responses that do not even acknowledge the author’s broad argument before attacking one (misconstrued) detail is counterproductive to the goal of all of this, which is to bring productive attention to sexual violence through ongoing dialogue and to seek ways to actively address these issues, even from afar.

  4. Being a man, I am not sure whether I am really qualified to comment on this. But, I think, when one wants to discuss the issue of the unfortunate girl in Delhi, one needs to study not just the question of rape, but the status of all women in India and the attitudes cultivated among growing boys. In spite of much change, economic, political and social, children are still brought up by parents in very traditional ways: often giving the clear impression to boys that women are born to serve them. This is partly because the parents have not yet got over the traditional thinking. In normal course, this would take a long time to evolve. HOwever, if steps are taken to educate the parents about the changing times and the need to change their attitudes, perhaps it is possible to bring about a change faster in the way boys are brought up. Young men tend to see girls as objects of pleasure and even believe that girls enjoy being teased or even raped. I think a change can be brought about only if education starts very early and with the parents.

  5. Pingback: Dear Sisters (and brothers?) at Harvard « Kafila

  6. S. Krishna

    For what its worth, I find the reaction of some feminists from India (the post on Kafila by Professor Nivedita Menon for instance) to be unwarranted. Sure, there are some infelicitous phrases in HCWC’s post and some may find a touch of noblesse oblige – but this hardly merits the kind of thin-skinned overreaction I am seeing.

  7. I am unclear how it is possible for people who must be very well aware of the power-structures surrounding patriarchy can totally miss the way that power-structures surrounding white or western dominance come into play when forming one of these committees. Being white, male and from a western country I have in the course of working in India for several years become at least to some degree aware of how my own power and privilege works. I’d assume that PhDs and professors of your ilk would be more than aware of that and therefore be cautious about such things as trying to “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.”. If you were, the responses that have come from Indian feminists, scholars, lawyers and activists can hardly be surprising.

    To even suggest that you have the standing to convene a task force to recommend policy displays a thinking that the work being done by scholars and activists in India is insufficient. Had you instead constituted a working group to learn from (and I want to emphasise this first bit) and in a collaborative fashion find ways in which you as an academic community could support these scholars and activists I’m sure the response to this post would have been radically different. Instead you opted to form a group that will (in 6 months no less) produce recommendations for implementation of changes that have been a work in progress for over 40 years (if not more).

    Certainly your voices will be heard, often times more strongly than the voices present in the feminist movements here in India. Similarly the voices that you choose to bring forward or take as your sources will be crucial to the way that you are not only shaping the conclusions of the people at Harvard College that is participating but also of the potential readership of your output (several of the people who signed the petition on Kafila are important scholars of gendered violence – they clearly don’t feel very close to this initiative and they certainly haven’t been included in your brief history of gendered violence in India).

    Frankly, I am amazed at the lack of critical understanding displayed in this post (and your responses to the critique resulting from this) of your own role in power hierarchies – especially since you must be aware (and hopefully students of) very similar hierarchies of power operating between genders in your own school and society. I certainly hope that you will take the writings on Kafila and other sources (simply do a google search for “Harvard College Women Center” and India and you’ll find a bunch) and rethink your stance on this. I’m sure there are certain scholars (like maybe above commenter “Lola”) in your very own university as well as a great deal of them in India that can help you see this more clearly and help you shape your committee and the discussions within it.

  8. Pingback: Dear Sisters (and brothers ?) at Harvard #mustread #Vaw #justiceverma « kracktivist

  9. Dear Kumar what you speak of is actually universally true. Look at all the western movies and television shows and you will notice that women are pretty much shown as sexy persons of great allure. This mindset is also contributing to the evolving societal mindset that ‘women are targets of males lust.’ These are fundamental issues that even families cannot resolve because society is driven by lust and narcissism. Education without containing the ‘promotion of women as sex objects’ cannot truly bring down the level of violence against women.

  10. To study, discuss and understand the issue would have been appropriate aims along with aiming to comment upon and argue. To ‘recommend’ is to assume you know more than those involved in this dialogue already. It suggests that you are in a position to hand down ideas and perspective from a higher moral and intellectual ground.
    It is not the details of the ”small outline” given here that is under attack but the premise of the policy task force.
    I think this is an appropriate reminder that even elite institutions need to engage on ground and not from a pedestal. For eg. the Justice Verma Committee took recommendations from people before working on them and releasing the report.That would have been a good way to provide your input.
    If those in India are slighted by this strange assumption of expertise by the Women’s Center, it is only understandable and the center must learn from this rather than be defensive about it.

    P.S. – Saying that ‘we are not being neo-colonial or White savious because we have South Asians and people working in South Asia in our group is a very thin argument. Like,” I am not racist because I have a black friend”. It is the logic of your task force that you must explain not the composition of your group.

  11. Gayatri

    While there has been much talk about your blog post and concerns raised in India against it, I do think that anyone or any group has a right to set up a group and set out on a working paper that could potentially help in some ways. However, I think the aggression is towards the tone and language of the blog post – such as the term recommendations, which could have been softened by just making an implication that discussions and working paper would be the outcome which could be presented to scholars/government in India/south asia to help in their… and so on and so forth. I think the problem is in taking things too literally, and imagining that there is only a good faith intention and not realising (by us, the Indians) that every bit can help and that we are a global society that contributes to each others’ development in this day and age.

    The other more important thing I wanted to bring to your attention is that while your intentions seem to be in good faith, the possible lack of local knowledge and experience is what might also be causing the ‘uproar’. One thing that I observed – you may be using her ‘real name’ (and not the given name by the Media and people) in some form of policy decision or as part of a recommendation that the victim’s name should or can be used without reproach and that we (India) may have a senseless law that prohibits from using such a victim’s real name and identity in print form or form that is published to third parties (whether through print or other media – on similar lines of defamation, if you will). It’s a given that the Indian laws are extensive and complicated with many layers, however a pre-cursory examination of rape laws in India may have helped the post not recieve such strong reactions. Just saying.

  12. Sayalee

    I am bewildered by the hostility this post has generated. Perhaps because I am not a “PhD” and not adequately trained in “ways of looking”. I just think it’s rather nice of the folks at Harvard to take some time to look at a problem in Delhi, India or the Bronx. Isn’t that what PhDs do anyway?

    If some nice people from Nepal, Kosovo, the World Bank or Siddharth College (Mumbai) had looked at this issue and shared their experiences, I would be just as happy and thanked them for their efforts. Whether their recommendations would be relevant, accepted, or implemented is wholly another issue. But for their time and efforts, I would definitely commend them.

    So good work, Harvard College Women’s Center! I, for one, am glad for your attention to this issue.

    Woman from Mumbai

  13. Natasha Gupta

    I understand why some Indians might be offended by this. For too long, culture studies in first world countries have viewed India and Indians as ‘subjects’ and not as active, intellectual participants of their present reality. I understand as academics your viewpoint but the disproportionately angry response from a lawyer in India is an exasperated Indian intellectual asking you to adopt a fresh perspective in keeping with present realities and not resort to cliched, historical discussions denying in some senses the impact of modernity on the Indian way of life to keep relevant the old view of the country as underdeveloped and the land of snake-charmers.

    Cheers! xx

  14. Original
    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.
    Suggested Edit
    Moving forward, we invite members of the Harvard community to contribute to a Policy Task Force titled “Beyond Gender Equality”, convened to raise awareness of the extensive, ongoing and courageous actions of women’s rights groups in India and other South Asian countries and envision ways we might work to empower them to create change in their own societies in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder.

  15. Pingback: Dear Indian feminists, you need to take a break | Firstpost

  16. gnanashanmugam subramanian

    In India most of the sexual assaults are not reported. The police and army excesses on local and tribal people are there. The Caste Hindus’s sexual assault on dalits and tribals are there. Many tribal villages were affected like vachathi.Vachathi rape case | Firstpostwww.firstpost.com › Topics › Events. How could it be tackled.

  17. Pingback: The voices of Indian feminists and women activists | Journeys towards Justice

  18. Please do not use Amanat’s real name in this article. Her father did not want to make her name known to the public, but only if there was a case where a law might be named in her honor. The Guardian posted that article with his interview, but in India, the police have taken action towards domestic media for printing/boosting that article. You may say that Indian jurisdiction would not apply, and you would be right, however, it is an act of good faith, which is sorely lacking in this article.

    On the other hand, will your policy task force interact and take recommendations from local organization that aid survivors of sexual violence? Will they listen to local criticism of the Verma Report? Would your report understand the caste and religious discrimination and violence are linked to sexual violence as well? As an Indian woman, reading this blog post that lists the history of sexual violence on the subcontinent does not give me anything new, and is in the long line of disappointing Western articles that tries to ‘fix’ problems in the third world, often ignoring local voices.

    1. Madhulika.S

      Do you know I was stunned to see her name in print along with a picture of her father & brother & their names in the New York Times. I thought it was crude & despicable.

  19. sv

    Thank you D. Rectidude (@rectidude), for this edit .. (see further below)

    Articulated this way it is not as offensive — Nur seems to be open to suggestions and I hope the center edits the blog to reflect this proposal by drectitude.

    I am not an academic either, but believe in extending solidarity, that must be informed not only by politics of location and identity but also by an acute awareness of the privilege/ responsibility that come with the space one occupies.

    I believe every one of us is committed to strengthen the position of women, not only in India, but also in US/ Harvard. It is just that some chose (or are forced to) act in one location, while others have the privilege to operate in multiple locations, be it the Harvard women in question, or India based feminists.

    Operating in multiple locations can sometimes amplify and strengthen feminist voices — for example feminists in Delhi and Mumbai and many others have been supporting the suryanelli girl and soni suri, for many years now. However if the Harvard blog came across as not in solidarity, but as a western intervention, it not only needs editing, but self-reflection on the part of the feminists at the center.

    D. Rectidude (@rectidude) says:
    February 20, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    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.
    Suggested Edit
    Moving forward, we invite members of the Harvard community to contribute to a Policy Task Force titled “Beyond Gender Equality”, convened to raise awareness of the extensive, ongoing and courageous actions of women’s rights groups in India and other South Asian countries and envision ways we might work to empower them to create change in their own societies in the wake of the New Delhi gang rape and murder.

  20. Pingback: ‘Small window of opportunity’ to reduce violence against Indian women: Harvard | Firstpost

  21. Pingback: Rape, “Rape Culture,” and the Media. | Rape and the Media: A Transnational Perspective

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