Thursday, August 22, 2013

Examining rape and abuse

Happenings, Aug '13 (update 2)
Pawan Dhall reports on SlutWalk Kolkata’s first seminar as part of its gender literacy drive

Kolkata, August 17, 2013: It was an hour late to start, but a worthwhile Saturday evening date. In a move to go beyond its Facebook page ( and the two marches it has organized so far in the city since last year, SlutWalk Kolkata organized a seminar titled ‘Examining Rape and Abuse’ at the Birla Planetarium and launched its magazine SLUTKOTHA on the occasion. The speakers were Niladri R. Chatterjee, lecturer in English Literature at University of Kalyani; Arnab Saha, researcher on gender and sexuality; Madhuja Mukherjee, professor of film studies at Jadavpur University; and Satin’s Love, fashion editor, gay activist and avid blogger.

Speaker Arnab Saha making a point. To his right is Niladri R. Chatterjee, and to the left
Madhuja Mukherjee and Satin's Love. Photo credit: Pratik@Shades of Passion

SlutWalk Kolkata is part of a two-year old global movement that originated in Toronto, Canada. It protests ‘rape culture’ that explains, excuses or normalizes rape or other forms of sexual assault by blaming the victims for what happened to them, often by referring to various aspects of their appearance. “If you dress like that (read slut) and go out in the evening, you’re asking for trouble” is a common word of advice to daughters, sisters and girl friends. The victims can also be male-to-female transgender persons or trans women. And if a married woman is to complain of her husband not respecting a no to sex (marital rape), the legal and social response is often “But he’s your husband”, if not “Uh, what’s that?”

SlutWalk Kolkata is, in effect, a counter response that wants victim blaming to be stopped. It wants society to question itself and put an end to an ostrich-like attitude that justifies or condones gender-based and sexual violence, including marital rape and same-sex rape. The speakers at the seminar elaborated on several of these issues. Niladri R. Chatterjee spoke about “a certain look that many men in Kolkata or India seemed to have towards women, a stare of sheer lust, especially towards women not dressed supposedly ‘appropriately’, a knowing, judging look that seemed to say ‘so you’re available, you’re asking for it, and if I have the opportunity, you’re going to get it’”.

Arnab Saha took the argument a step further, or rather back in time. He said the ‘look’ that Niladri R. Chatterjee was talking about, at least in the context of Bengal, had a certain history and contrary to what many people thought, it was not a product of the deprived classes. It was an outcome of the pre-independence middle class-lead revivalist, nationalist movements to resist colonialism. All efforts to establish a certain purity of ‘Indian identity’ came to be situated in the woman’s body. And so women had to be chaste and their conduct in all spheres of life had to reflect this chastity. If it did not, it was a matter of tremendous ‘shame’, the great marker of Indian cultures (as against ‘guilt’ in Judeo-Christian ones). Even later progressive social movements in Bengal, in an effort “to keep all sides happy”, did not object to the shame culture or the ‘look’, and this gradually seemed to absolve men of their share of the responsibility to uphold any values, while giving them all kinds of control over women’s sexuality.

A SlutWalk Kolkata volunteer strikes a
pose. Photo credit: SlutWalk Kolkata
Madhuja Mukherjee felt it was important to realize that most of the sexual abuse against women happened within the home, and such abuse had been ‘normalized’ by society. This status quo had to be contested, even if issues like marital rape were difficult to prove. She also raised the question of “a woman’s pleasure”, ruing its neglect even in progressive discourses.

Satin’s Love (Rohan Noronha) enlivened the proceedings with a frank sharing of a personal experience of rape and threats by an uncle, and how he survived the torture. As coincidence would have it, the rape took place during the years he was studying mass communication in St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata and Madhuja Mukherjee was one of his teachers! Extending her argument about pleasure, Satin’s Love said he was not ashamed about his sexual pleasure needs and was vocal about them. Neither had the experience of rape broken him. On his blog, he regularly advised other gay men who had been molested or raped on how to deal with their “sense of loss of manhood”, another aspect of the culture of shame that bred unhealthy silence.

Madhuja Mukherjee added that it was exactly this silence that had to be broken: “We need to find a language to speak about these issues in larger public – not just in seminars – words that everyone could use to talk about issues like rape.” Niladri R. Chatterjee pitched in that “not only ‘inappropriate’ dressing up, but ‘inappropriate’ talk was also necessary – the more we did this, the more we would learn to argue with illiberal voices”.

Satin’s Love and Madhuja Mukherjee also highlighted the depiction of rape in Hindi and Bengali films. They questioned the use of camera angles that presented rape as ‘sex’ (and therefore ‘normal’) and not a crime that it was. It also mattered where the focus of the camera was – on the rapist or the raped? Was there a need to show rape so graphically?  

The launch of SLUTKOTHA. Photo credit: Pratik@Shades of Passion 

In an audience interaction, the need for SlutWalk Kolkata to be class and gender inclusive was highlighted. A ‘gender just law’ addressing different dimensions of rape and other forms of sexual assault was emphasized as the need of the hour. For instance, it was important to consider not just the nature of assault, but also the gender of the victim. Beyond framing laws and policies, the challenge was in implementing them – undoubtedly a daunting task that involved changing social attitudes, but nothing that could not be attempted.

SLUTKOTHA, in its first issue, already seems to be on its way. Shreya Sen in Everything’s in a Name says, “The word ‘slut’ has gained so much power…that women are now afraid to speak out, speak up, fight, raise a riot, identify [as] feminists, dress up, wear make-up, have alcohol, go to parties, have male friends, dress down, have multiple partners, have sex for fun, smoke, appear career-oriented, have multiple sexual or gender identities, have an opinion, masturbate, breathe...for the fear of being labeled a ‘slut’...I think, it’s about time, we stopped letting that word affect us so much...[and] no one holds the right to reclaim a word and take back its power more than the people who it has been used against.” So don’t be surprised if a SlutWalker turns around and says, “So what if I’m a slut?” In much the same vein as gay men, female sex workers, Blacks or Dalits are converting abusive terms into markers of ‘social pride’.

At a personal level, the seminar took me back to 1994 – to the memory of Park Street police station in Kolkata, the morning after I was robbed off a watch and wallet at dagger point near Minto Park by four armed youth: “It was my fault I had ventured into that lane at midnight on my way back from meeting a friend on Theatre Road! What was I doing on Theatre Road at midnight in the first place? Why was I now wasting the police’s time?” So as someone who has experienced the anguish of victim blaming, albeit of a different sort, here’s to the courage that is SlutWalk Kolkata!

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

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