The atrocious visual of two women being paraded naked in Manipur is a testimony of not only the abject failure of law and order in the state but also the collapse of the moral compass in society. What have been paraded are not merely the bare bodies and dignity of the unfortunate victims of the communal frenzy that has taken over ‘the little paradise’ called Manipur.
They also reveal the humiliation and agony of a besieged population caught in an orchestrated violence rooted in a manufactured ‘hill-valley’ divide, a schism created by both the colonial and the post-colonial Indian State, and duly exploited by the vested interests, particularly by the politicians and ethno-nationalist forces, often in cahoots with one another.
As expected of a conflict situation, the degradation and trauma of these two women are being sought to be appropriated and exploited by those who thrive on the divide to serve their own agendas, including the need for self-aggrandisement of some busy-bodies from outside the state who, wittingly or unwittingly, work with the divisive and sectarian forces to sharpen the polarisation in the state.
It is a well-known fact that women—their bodies and sexuality—are often the sites of violent conflicts. History has enough evidence of that truth: from the violence of the Partition in South Asia to ethnic cleansing in Serbia and Rwanda and riots in Gujarat to those cases of ‘comfort women’ during the Second World War.
Rooted in the familiar patriarchal ethos that sexualises the woman, she has been ‘reduced’ to her vagina, which is propagated as ‘something’ that is either to be ‘possessed’ or ‘protected’ by the man and community. Subsequently, people act as if the ‘honour’ of the individual women and their communities are in their vaginas. Thus, during the group clashes, women often become targets of sexual assault. Not only that, sexual attacks on them are also often ‘weaponised’ in conflict.
The horrific images of the two victims of ‘gender-based violence’ unfailingly demonstrate that there is a deep-rooted patriarchal attitude towards women in Manipur, irrespective of the familiar eulogy on the place and role of women in the state. Indeed, this appalling act of parading those two women naked by the violent mob in Manipur only affirms that truth.
Unfortunately, given that abominable patriarchal ethos tends to raise its ugly head during violent group clashes, this terrible incident is not likely to be the only case of sexual assault in the present carnage in Manipur. In fact, reports suggest that there are, and could be, many more cases of ‘gender-based violence’ across communities in this unending mayhem.
However, irrespective of how pervasive this patriarchal ethos is in society, such acts need to be reined in. That is what civilisation and ethical and lawful life demand. Such heinous acts are not only appalling and condemnable but also illegal under the existing domestic and global legal regimes, including international covenants related to wartime conduct.
Unfortunately however, instead of focusing on ‘gender-based violence’ and calling out the abominable patriarchal ethos and acts, there have been attempts to use the miseries of these women to demonise community, deepen the polarisation and aggravate the ongoing violence in the state.
To say the least, such efforts do injustice to the victims of sexual assault in particular and women in general by diluting the gender-specific nature of the violence in conflict.
The other side of the sexual assaults on women in conflict situations is the use of the victims’ misery to demonise the ‘other’ who have violated (the ‘honour’ of) ‘our’ women. This underlying idea of ‘our’ and ‘their’ women reproduces the basic attitude of treating the woman—her body and sexuality—as the embodiment of the community’s ‘honour’, which must be ‘possessed’ and ‘protected’ by the community and its men.
Incidentally, one of the victims told reporters the men who had assaulted them had said, “If your men can rape our women, we can also rape you.” Correspondingly, the other community also begins to say ‘our women’ have also been raped.
In fact, saying that they have the ‘medical documents’ proving sexual assault, some of the men have even made appeals to those women to go public ‘for the sake of their community’. These are the clear signs of turning women—their bodies and sexuality—into ‘battlefields’ and ‘weaponising’ (miseries of) sexual violence in the ongoing conflict.
Consequently, the specific ‘gender-based violence’ and its corresponding patriarchal structure that produces the said oppressive brutality gets camouflaged by the communal harangue. This undoubtedly limits the scope for justice in two critical ways: First, it enables the manifest and the insidious violence of patriarchy to go scot-free behind the communal smokescreen. Second, it subverts the potential solidarity of (victimised) women across communities which can generate resources to build bridges amongst the warring groups.
Strange as it seems, some of the so-called ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ and ‘feminist’ individuals, especially from outside the state, are also encouraging and strengthening such injustices towards women and the populations reeling under an unprecedented and ugly violence in Manipur. Indeed, driven by the predilection of ideological prescriptions rooted in the ideational binaries of ‘minority-majority’ and ‘tribal–non-tribal’, and without any serious attempt to do a ‘concrete analysis of the concrete condition’, some of them are actively participating in the ongoing conflict by taking partisan positions.
However, hopefully, resistance to such efforts to jeopardise questions about women in conflict situations shall come from those who have heard and understood the words of well-known feminist (Late) Kamla Bhasin:
“My honour is not in my vagina. It is a patriarchal idea that my rape will defile the honour of my community. … why did you place your community’s honour in a woman’s vagina?”
Angomcha Bimol Akoijam
Teaches social-political psychology and sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi