Narrativizing Rape and the Politics of Outrage

Anju Parvathy July 19, 2012

Rape. An Oil Painting by Artist Rene Magritte.


I think it's fair to say that many of us feel great revulsion and anger at the sexual abuse of the young woman in Guwahati. And rightly so. It's frightening how despite many efforts, a large section of the population still justify rape and harassment by blaming it on clothes or the 'moral character' of the women.

Still, every time I see a share on my Facebook feed denouncing the rape and its apologists and asking for justice for the victim (and there have been so many shares), I feel an eerie sense of disquiet. I'm trying to put that down here so that all of us who share similar concerns may have a platform for discussions around notions of justice and its availability, which may transform our ideas about them. Many of these points have been noted in other contexts by observers committed to institutional change but I want to put together a few questions which may bring about more constructive responses than those which dominate media and social media at present.

One of the things we need to think about is the very mode of expressing our disgust and how it is raised and in what cases. There have been so many reports of women being harassed and raped in National Capital Region or any other major city and there's the usual hue and cry on Facebook and the media and some promises by the police. So when we engage in these public acts of denunciation of the rapists do we also narrow down and circumscribe responsibility to a few "bad guys" when in fact we need to hold the entire society (including ourselves) responsible for a vicious rape culture which starts affecting a person's life from infancy? Last year, the horrific rape and murder of a young woman commuting from her workplace to home on train in Kerala dominated media and civil society discussions. The culprit was a disabled Tamil immigrant worker. Kerala society, which behind lip service to ‘equality of sexes’ and ‘women’s rights’ masks a deeply conservative and predatory attitude towards women, joined in universal condemnation and leaders from every party and organization united in calling for the man’s blood.

The sudden ‘feminist’ outrage by even some very patriarchal members of society is nothing but a ploy to absolve themselves of their part in upholding the patriarchy and they do this by finding a figure (in this case the rapist) to imbibe their collective misogyny and then make a huge public demonstration of their commitment to women’s justice by ceremonially executing (reminds one of public stoning) the rapist.

I’ve seen TV shows in news channels discussing the crime where people (of all political hues, including those who have never shown any inclination towards women’s rights) crying out for all sorts of inhuman punishments and claiming that such “anti-social” elements should be done away with. Easy, right? But this is exactly the outrage which is invoked every time a horrific rape is latched on to by the media and where has that got us? There are thousands of women, who undergo some sort of sexual, physical or verbal violence everyday, who belong to every class, caste and religion. The sudden ‘feminist’ outrage by even some very patriarchal members of society is nothing but a ploy to absolve themselves of their part in upholding the patriarchy and they do this by finding a figure (in this case the rapist) to imbibe their collective misogyny and then make a huge public demonstration of their commitment to women’s justice by ceremonially executing (reminds one of public stoning) the rapist. In short, a grand show which the patriarchy occasionally engages in so we can all convince ourselves that our society has the best interests of women at heart. So, we need to be especially careful of this sudden spike in interest about women’s issues by usually conservative elements of society in the name of “protection of women”. And they often manipulate the narrative in such a way that somehow these “anti-social” elements are never upper-middle class men in positions of power but the ‘predatory’ working class man or the ‘migrant’ and then use the xenophobia of the society so that all members of that class are pushed to the fringes because of their ‘threat’. This is a universal story not restricted to Kerala but to all of India.

Next we need to ask ourselves why and how certain cases of rape (I'm really distressed to convert a case of extreme trauma to some statistic but we need to ask ourselves this) assume prominence in social and conventional media. I do not think it's a far stretch to state that in most rape cases, 'reports' of the same create a narrative in which the rape survivor ends up playing a role (ascribed to her by various people who may speak for her or denounce her etc even if she does articulate her position), at the expense of her agency. We create narratives around a rape and one of the most common ways this is achieved is by appeal to immediate empathy, wherein we make a plea to people saying that this could happen to their sisters, friends or other female relatives. Other captions say “teach your sons not to rape, not your daughters how to dress”. Even beyond the basic duty of conveying the injustice which has been done to the victim we create convenient narratives to literally make the woman a ‘victim’ a second time around by referring to a rape survivor’s ‘vulnerability’ which is a supposed trait shared by all women in society. Like we consume serials, reality shows and sports, the reporting of the rape in society, is also packaged by the electronic media into a spectacle of entertainment which in a case of phantasmal irony is punctuated by advertisements which use women to sell products. There’s no deeper soul-searching or asking how society uses both sexual repression and objectification in a globalized society to create a rapacious culture.

However such concern from the media only extends itself to certain women. Their narratives need to see these women as either representing a uniform kind of urban, educated, middle-class femininity (which the larger society grudgingly allows a certain kind of autonomy) or in other cases a respectable, ‘virtuous’ woman with no trace of sexuality who becomes an unfortunate victim. The two may seem contradictory at first glance but the power equation exerts itself in such a way that these are the two most convenient narratives. So rape or harassment cases in metro cities which are the most widely reported are inevitably those who come from the upper-middle classes whose lives closely resembles ours. These women are those who society has assigned limited freedom to enjoy themselves in public which it does not extend to women of other classes. So even while a large section question the ‘character’ of the woman there’s still a substantial section of the public who will stand behind her because of her class position.

Going back to the aforementioned rape case in Kerala, to those who remember watching the coverage, the common rhetoric invoked was the image of her being a good woman who works hard to support her working class family and who was looking forward to her arranged marriage and future happiness. As J. Devika points out in her incisive take, this 'hollow sentimentalism'1 does not allow the victim’s real tragedy and our societal culpability to come out but instead indulges us and makes us forget the larger reasons framing the rape.

This is but a privilege enjoyed only by those women who society and media see fit to elevate as martyrs. We do not care or turn a blind eye to the sexual harassment of those women who do not fit into the definitions of conventional femininity (Pinki Pramanik and thousands like her), the media cannot shed crocodile tears along with ‘civil’ society about the countless women who are raped and murdered by the army in Kashmir, the North-East or the ‘Red Corridor’. We do not even bother to look at the relentless abuse faced by those who clean our houses and workplaces, look after our children, feed our families. We do not care if it is a sex worker who is raped by a cop or a ‘terrorist’ tortured and tossed away by the callous state. We do not care about Dalit women who bear the brunt of upper-class, upper-caste violence. We constantly make pleas to the ‘authorities’ for not being responsible enough to prevent the rapes of middle class women but there are millions of women who do not count as ‘women’ because they fall outside of the range of appropriateness. Those who cannot go to the ‘state’ or ‘judiciary’ as women seeking justice for abuse, because it’s the state which abuses them.

DNA published a chilling poem by Garga Chatterjee2 about the Guwahati rape, where he asks,

What if she were a terrorist?
Islamic? Secessionist? Marxist?
Marxist-secessionist?
What is that?
Like Manipur PLA?
Would the MP still give a statement?
What if the creatures jostling for a piece of her were men in uniforms?
Would the photographer have given the footage to the press?
Where then would be the phone calls from all over?
Would we still have two-hour show on NDTV?
Remember Manorama?
Did incredible India come to her rescue?

The Manorama he refers to is Thangjam Manorama, who was picked up one night in 2004 by the Assam Rifles and was found the next evening naked, bullet-ridden and mutilated with wounds on her back, upper buttocks and genitalia. How much outrage could the media produce or those of us, who shared our outrage at the Guwahati case on social networking sites, muster up for Soni Sori, alleged Maoist, who was sexually tortured by the Chattisgarh Police and left with little recourse for justice. These are just a few profiles which got more attention and there are many more who because of various intersections of oppression by a conservative society, a cruel and unjust state in the service of capitalists and corporations or a judicial system where money and power extends more influence than is commonly acknowledged, cannot even make a dent in the collective consciousness of the mainstream liberal media.

I’m not condemning those of us who expressed our anger in Facebook and other media. I frankly hoped then that those men who abused the woman in Guwahati would suffer deep pain and humiliation. In fact I think anger and outrage by those who are constantly victimized by a ruthless society has a rightful place. But more often than not, this deep anger remains just that. So a more productive method would be to politicize outrage and ask ourselves why some cases make our blood boil and warrant disproportionate attention as opposed to others. We need to channel our anger in radical ways and extend it to those cases which may seem far-removed from our middle class lives. Even as we fight for justice in courts we need to create a space outside of that, which is capable of addressing systemic issues of injustice affecting women who do not enjoy the benefits created by class, caste, sexuality or gender identity and presentation. The outrage, that so many of us rightfully feel, need to be channelled into action which attempts to create a world without sexual violence and this cannot be brought about without a new transformative approach to issues of intersectionality which marginalizes others within the supposedly universal category of ‘women’.

References:

  1. http://kafila.org/2011/02/08/tragedy-and-anguish-can-we-be-true-to-soumya/
  2. http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column_guwahati-case-the-questions-abou...
Essay, india, Media Bias, Patriarchy, politics of outrage, rape culture, selective rape reportage, Gender Share this Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

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The entire so- called- civil-

The entire so- called- civil- society expressing its 'outrage' when a rape happens and then taking a break till the next rape happens,when they can again express their 'virtuous' rage, has become a common scenario these days. As the author has pointed out, no effort is being taken towards finding out a radical solution to this issue as a whole. Media celebrates every rape in its own way, diverting all its attention in portraying the 'loss' the victim and the family had and dramatizing the whole event, leaving to address the crux of such issues.

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