Theatres Of Rape: Srimati Basu
Guest Post by SRIMATI BASU
The Birbhum rape has thrown up images of the ‘kangaroo court,’ evoking the savagery of tribal subjects — but rather than feeling complacent at the exception and difference of this location, we might concentrate on the common modes of gendered control achieved by the rapes.
Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder in a Delhi bus in December 2012 seemed to evoke a sense of horror at the ultimate in human depravity. But in the time since, no week seems to go by without yet another gruesome gang rape, almost a one-upping of sadist violence across these uncoordinated episodes. Gang rapes have come to appear as the spectacular trendy crime of the moment. They underline the lethal consequences of women’s daily cultural transgressions: going to school, going to a night show movie, going to work, having a drink, being in politics. Even though we know they are miniscule in the corpus of sexual violence, which overwhelmingly happens in private and domestic spaces and among people who know each other, they have irritatingly given the impression that public spaces have become more unsafe, and further strengthened restrictions by families and communities on women’s mobility and choices.
As if the New Year’s report that a Kolkata schoolgirl was burned alive after being gang raped twice (the burning and second rape allegedly being retaliations to her police complaint) was not ghastly enough, this week we are talking about another woman in West Bengal (Birbhum), gang raped by diktat of the village council, on a public platform erected for optimal viewing. Many news reports framed the former story in terms of the family having moved to a Kolkata tenement from a Bihar village so that the girl could attend school in the city. The second case is a obverse image of this tragedy attributed to predatory urban spaces, in which the survivor moved to the city for construction work (and higher pay in relative terms), only to face retaliation when back in the village, allegedly for her uppity ways and her affair with a married man who employed her. The enforcers demanded an impossibly large sum of “compensation” money in lieu of rape and beating, which the man’s family paid to their devastation; but the question remains: who is harmed? who and what is being compensated? What possible reparation could this money achieve?
The word “kangaroo court” frames the latter event in almost every news account, referring to the salishi sabha or village council (including the morol or head) which decreed and participated in the rape. Local decisionmaking and dispute resolution bodies have been beloved objects of study for legal anthropologists: delightful ethnographic accounts like Paul Bohannon’s work on Tiv village councils in Nigeria and Peter Just on Dou Donggo justice in Indonesia portray energetic local spaces where people often leave with customized solutions that speak to their sense of harm, rather than to punishments mandated by formal State law. We have come to think of these spaces as small-d democratic, participatory, less alienating than formal courts, though they inevitably favor those with greater social capital and hence bargaining power. They are the imagined model for local mediation systems instituted by a number of nation-states. Given the adivasi community in which this incident happened, the phrase is further associated with a Scheduled Tribe’s power of governance over certain areas, to fashion autonomous community standards in the face of the all-powerful State.
A “kangaroo court,” an “extralegal judicial assemblage” by most definitions, evokes the charming image of a animal confederacy, as if drawn from a children’s film. Discussions of its etymology generate outrageous punning associations rather than linguistic history, from California mining tribunals for claim-“jumpers,” to “hopper’s courts” in the Australian outback, to “leaps” of legal logic, to having the adjudicating body in one’s “pocket,” to interpretations of marsupial behavior that kangaroos bound away quickly and inexplicably after staring at a person for a while. These quaint metaphors don’t really do well at portraying the abundant presence of local groups which have decreed horrific punishments, drawing their impunity from religious justification or political influence. Khap “panchayats” which proscribe young men’s and women’s marriage choice with violent measures or monitor their clothing and behavior are of course the most famous example. We might also remember Noorjehan Begum’s death in Sylhet (Bangladesh) in 1993, following a stoning after a village panchayet decided she was guilty of an adulterous relationship with a man to whom her parents and local maulvi had officially married her (they deemed her to have been properly divorced, the panchayat did not) . Just last week, a mob in Khirki extension in Delhi, with the aid of a prominent politician from a ruling party, decided that their equation of households of African women with drugs and sex trafficking justified an assaultive illegal raid upon their premises and persons.
It is no coincidence that these alleged transgressions are clustered around the policing of bodies, sex and marriage: the sanctity of a community’s existence, the transmission of its fundamental values, the urgency of stopping the encroachment of modernity upon traditional good, is asserted to lie predominantly along these lines. The socialization of enthusiastic killers and thugs in a community’s midst which such measures require of its members seem of no concern at all in the ethical landscape. It is useful to remember here that the violence often uses the spectre of sexual (hence reproductive and property) boundaries to express a range of other anxieties around livelihood, education, migration and employment. Just as women’s education and employment loom large in the narratives of the West Bengal rapes, so khap disapproval is tied to the loss of “their” women whose expectations of intimacy, marriage and career change when they leave their villages to go study, leaving behind (in every sense) boys who counted on property rather than education for their status. Similarly, the Khirki riot echoes far too many South Asian episodes of communal violence where allegations of community contamination are manifest in the stripping and assaulting of minority groups (such as the Shiv Sena’s construction of Marathi jobs and housing threatened by assorted migration).
That the Birbhum case is set in a so-called “tribal” village allows for it to be depicted as a zone of exception, either to argue that it is an example of primitive savagery which the urban middle-class has risen above, or to make a point about tribal sovereignty in the face of a genocidal State, and the need to take measures against alienation of land and admixture through marital/ sexual liaisons. To say that gender equity must trump as norm in such cases, as legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon argued when the US Supreme Court decided in Santa Clara Pueblo vs. Martinez that the pueblo could set its own gender discriminatory rules of membership, often makes the colonizing State appear to be the arbiter of equity and justice, ignoring its gaps and motivations. Angela Harris, another legal scholar, argued against MacKinnon for being able to see women as a more diverse and complex category, able to weigh their community’s historical problems more contextually while articulating the constraints they found unfair. A parallel in India might be seen in the wake of the Shah Bano case, in Muslim women’s groups’ choices to negotiate norms of maintenance and divorce through channels other than vociferous support for the mainstream women’s movement, which could seem aligned with the majoritarian Hindu critique of Islam (Vatuk).
In the Birbhum case, there is no sign that anyone has appealed to ethnic protectionism in justifying rape. Political cronyism and control of a woman’s mobility, income and sexuality, her lack of deference towards powerful local groups, are sharp reminders, rather, of the similarity with upper-caste khap groups or influential urban neighborhood mobs. We do not of course have access to the subjectivities of those violated, let alone to their feelings about the vilification of their communities. This is not to say that distinct factors are not working through each of these cases, but that they work in similar modes: they claim to deploy local justice, to stand as arbiter of community values, to sanctify their own violence.
In effect, they work nicely with the broader backlash against women that has resulted from the everyday reports of gang-rape: whether or not individual rapists have been brought to criminal sanction, the rapes have succeeded in widespread curtailment and threat of women’s movement, clothing, intimate choices. The “kangaroo” is both not us, loose among savage unsophisticated groups far from us, while also us in regressive new ways: everyone has decided that greater control over “their” women is in the interests of civilizational stability. Our collective national viewing of daily rapes, our prurient and shameful participation, is reinforcing our learning that good girls stay within the lines.
Srimati Basu is Associate Professor, Gender & Women’s Studies, University of Kentucky.