Prajnya Gender Talks, March 2022 || Speaking Around Law: Gender-Based Violence, Pluralism and Accountability by Srimati Basu


March 2022

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

About the Speaker

Dr Srimati Basu is a Professor of Gender, Women’s Studies and Anthropology, and a member of the Committee on Social Theory at the University of Kentucky. She has an Interdisciplinary PhD from Ohio State University in Cultural Studies/Anthropology/Women’s Studies, and her teaching, research and community work interests include Global Feminisms, Law, Gender-Based Violence, Social Movements, Methodologies, and Masculinities.

She is the author of the monographs The Trouble with Marriage: Feminists Confront Law and Violence in India (University of California Press, 2015) and She Comes to Take Her Rights: Indian Women, Property and Propriety (SUNY Press, 1999), editor of Dowry and Inheritance (Women Unlimited, 2005), and co-editor (with Lucinda Ramberg) of Conjugality Unbound: Sexual Economy and the Marital Form in India (Women Unlimited, 2014). 

Some of her recent articles on masculinity, law, marriage and violence appear in anthologies including 50th Anniversary Commemorative Volume of Contributions to Indian Sociology (2019), Men and Feminism in India (2018), Sexuality Studies: Oxford India Studies in Contemporary Society (2013), New South Asian Feminisms: Paradoxes and Possibilities (2012), and the journals Feminist Anthropology, QED, Journal of Indian Law and Society, Canadian Journal of Women and Law, and Economic and Political Weekly. She is presently working on a monograph about the antifeminist men’s rights movement in India following a 2013-14 Fulbright Fellowship to conduct fieldwork with MRAs across Indian cities.

Setting the Context

This talk will contrast media spectres of violence to a broader evaluation of forms of violence and agency. Dr Basu considers feminism’s ambivalent relationship to law: drawing its power from legal provisions, relying on political and corporate repercussions, but speaking to broader accountability including feminist dissension through the talk. 

Through examples from India and some from the US, including both media accounts and ethnographic data, she traces how people use existent laws – and the gaps and contradictions between legal provisions – to navigate their options i.e. to “bargain the shadow of the law.” She draws on her ethnographic work on negotiating gender-based violence in various legal and extra-legal settings in India to explicate law as a language to express grievances, with all the slippages and elisions of a language.

The Headlines of Rape Culture

Dr Basu inducts the audience into the manifestations of rape culture in India by displaying a few headlines from the prior week. These headlines, resplendent in their representation of rape culture, blame women for their “immoral” behaviour, demonstrate either the alacrity or apathy of the state as a protector, and show the ways in which powerful men are involved in the perpetration and resolution of sex crimes. They showcase – in all their glory – the public’s and the politicians’ perspectives that women lose all safety the minute they step out of their homes and their eye-roll-worthy suggestions that the government register and track working women to safeguard them. Dr Basu states that this is an exercise of power that reinforces other patriarchal relations while enhancing the state’s predominant power. 

The Accuracy of Gender Reports

In Thomson Reuters’ 2018 study on the World’s Most Dangerous Countries, India had moved up from rank 4 to rank 1, spewing defensive reactions from politicians and nationalists. Nevertheless, Dr Basu says there is a lot to criticise about such reports, beginning with the methodology. In this particular study, 548 expert journalists had been consulted but not one ground worker was. The study’s claim to rising rates of violence is also questionable, indicating a colonial gaze – a “theatre of pity” and a “spectacle of suffering.” Similarly, Thomson Reuters’ 2017 Report on the World’s Most Dangerous Cities magnifies and reinforces stereotypes. “What does this type of monitoring and accounting not show us?”, Dr Basu asks. She quotes Kalpana Kannabiran who asked to “demarcate the field of violence in social theory” and differentiate the norm from the normative. She also shares an extract from Arthur Kleinman’s The Violences of Everyday Life about the plurality of violence that shapes images and experiences.

Figure 1: An Excerpt from Arthur Kleinman’s “The Violences of Everyday Life”

Dr Basu posits that gender-based violence (GBV) is not in itself the main driver of patriarchy but is embedded in intersectional structural vulnerabilities. The criminal justice solutions we see around us every day amplify other forms of privilege. Recommended solutions such as the death penalty to curtail rape and the eradication of sex work to prevent sex trafficking serve as examples.

Violence: What are the Dangers? How Can We Best Talk about Them?

Delhi has been irrevocably branded the rape capital of India. What are the representational stakes here? All too often, Jyoti Singh’s rape and murder (ironically positioned as Nirbhaya) is used as an archetypal example connecting GBV and urban transformation. Similarly, the rapes of the journalist at Shakti Mills in Mumbai, and the veterenarian in Hyderabad are used as examples, where quotations of urban activities – going out for a movie, carrying out an assignment, getting home from work – are positioned as driving forces for the crime. They feature rapists from marginal communities inappropriately modern in their drunkenness and out of control in their homosocial groups (male buddies). 

On one hand, these generate the reaction that women leaving the house and western influence is the problem (For example, Mamta Banerjee’s comical “chowmein” thesis) and on the other hand, feminist communities increasingly talk about the need for better laws. Here Dr Basu puts forward four frameworks to be considered for understanding GBV. 

Rape Capital or Love Capital?

A Thomson Reuters’ study has concluded that a large number of cases (20-40K per year) are reported in the country. The conviction rate is abysmal at <25% and there is a backlog despite fast-tracking. As high as these numbers seem, rapes are severely underreported in this country. It is precisely these kind of reports that anti-feminists use to justify the occurrence of false cases. But, we need to realise that a low conviction does not mean false cases. It does however mean that these cases are not received in law as full convictions. We also need to examine the social and economic nuances to this phenomenon. Why are so many convictions lost?

Pratiksha Baxi explains in Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India that falsity is the primary lens used for investigating rapes. Dr Basu shares three examples to clarify this theory. In one example, she talks about how a molested child who can’t tell time is expected to fulfill testimonial requirements for temporality during the trial. In another, she explains how women turn hostile witnesses to their own testimony due to incessant persuasion by family in order to forego the public status as a victim of sexual violence and repair kinship troubles. In another example, she talks about the disproportional police delays and bureaucracy of persecution, and inefficient report writing techniques particularly common for minorities.

Dr Basu also talks about journalist S Rukmini’s work which analyses the rape data in Delhi. A shocking 40% of the cases are filed by parents due to opposition on grounds of elopement and exogamy. Another 25% of the cases are registered when promises of marriage are abandoned. By viewing consent to sex as that to marriage, we completely dismantle the idea of consent. 

The POCSO Act, founded to protect children from predators, instead registers parental disapproval of marriage or property disputes. And that’s why she asks – Is Delhi the rape capital or love capital? It is important to name the various forms of patriarchal control of autonomy and marriage to use these laws as they are meant to be used. 

Dr Basu adds another caveat to this issue. Pluralism is the universe of choices we as citizens have with respect to the law. We need to examine the way plaintiffs negotiate laws and the narrative on the use (and misuse) of the legal system. When women use laws, anti-feminists criticise them, but don’t all people use laws based on how they benefit them? 

She quotes the example of Dalit rape cases where the ensuing narrative either paints the woman as morally culpable for her illicit behaviour or portrays her as being duped by uppercaste connivance to enter relationships that are not of her choosing. Is the simple agency to make bad relationship choices not available to Dalit women?

Usual Suspects

A common media trope is that of rapes committed by men in urban underclass settings as revenge against the urban woman’s modernity and sexuality. This trope of gendered vulnerability enacts caste and class privilege. Dr Basu uses Sneha Annavarapu’s study on women and cabs in Hyderabad (shown below) as an example. 

But why do we only focus on rural men’s violence while forgetting about the deeply violent “boys locker room” culture of entitled men? Similarly, cishetero women’s danger in public space stands as the symbol of the women’s national crisis. What about minority rapes such as those in military detention and of Dalit and transgender women that are entirely cut out of the discourse?


Dr Basu states that it is time to integrate the #MeToo movement with older feminist politics. Bhanwari Devi’s gangrape – where incidentally the rapists were never convicted – forms the base for sexual harassment law in india, which is the most useful law for urban and middle-class women in work and education. 

The naked march of women against the Army Special Powers Act was another iconic moment in marginal feminist history. MeToo takes different forms and holds different accountabilities. It is meaningful in that it stresses women’s profound unhappiness with everyday sexism, drawing attention to everyday power. But it also simultaneously reveals caste and class immunity and triggers a renewed debate on feminist politics and privilege.

Imagined Communities

Gender-based violence fortifies state violence. Hindutva is a cousin to the global right wing – but has its own aggressive menu. It is founded on the figure of the menacing Muslim man and has coloured sexism in two prominent ways. The first is the phenomenon of the Love Jihad, wherein “victims” receive brotherly patronage and protection from Hindu men, while doubt is simultaneously cast on modern women’s dodgy choices and communal solidarity is built up. The concept infantilises adult consent, as is evident in an infamous Uttar Pradesh case, where the woman had denied conversion to Islam and yet a Hindu mob had chased her Muslim lover’s family. Such ideas distract our attention from the gangrapes by uppercaste men in the very same state. The second is the hypervisibility of urban safety and the corresponding invisibility of borders. For example, the conversations around Kashmir are all about nationalism, religion, and militancy. Shouldn’t we rather centre our gaze on the military impunity to rapes and everyday harassment?

Two Frameworks to Pursue Solutions

Dr Basu completes the talk by recommending two frameworks to pursue solutions. One – to revisit Sharmila Rege’s idea that we need to centre our laws on Dalit women’s labour and sexual exploitation. Second – to build on Joe Fischel’s Screw Consent, which discusses how sexuality is pathologised and transacted and how sexual subjectivity and autonomy are curtailed. She says we must deeply question the voluntariness of alleged voluntary sex and the supreme power we assign to consent. Instead of championing legal interventions to beat GBV, we need to instead move to public and political health debates. 

Prajnya Gender Talks, December 2020 || The Swayam Journey: A 25-Year Celebration by Anuradha Kapoor


December 2020

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

Swayam’s Origins

Anuradha Kapoor started Swayam in 1995 right after the release of the Beijing Platform for Action. She had realised there were not that many organisations addressing the issue of GBV. The ones that did were invisible and provided limited services, as a result of which women survivors had to go to many different organisations to get the different kinds of support they needed. 

There was also a dearth of literature on the subject. In the early stages, Anuradha learned from talking to other women and activists and paying visits to local organisations, which led to her creating the first resource directory of GBV organisations in the country. Swayam published several books on the subject which were taken up by UN Women as part of their programmes. More organisations followed Swayam’s lead and more research, publications, and resources emerged. 

Swayam’s Purpose and Methods

Swayam’s goal was to fill both resource and support gaps. They began to provide mental health services, counselling, and legal aid, and also worked with the police and courts to improve survivors’ access to justice. 

A. Support Groups

Survivors tend to feel isolated, believe that their circumstance is unique and blame themselves for their situation. Swayam knew the silence around violence needed to be broken and for women to understand that the problem is systemic and not individual. Thus began Swayam’s support groups with women of different ages and backgrounds, each inspiring the other, bringing about solidarity in the consciousness that change is possible.

Now, Swayam has 15 different group activities, which have evolved through the survivors voicing their own needs. Most of the survivors are victims of trauma, depression, and anger and to norms that are internalised and ingrained. Through these support groups, the survivors work on healing themselves, moving on and becoming agents of change. 

A few of these support groups evolved organically into theatre, music, and dance movement groups which serve as therapy as well as prevention campaigns. The theatre group is now 22 years old and the music group has released two CDs on DV. Workshops help the survivors introspect – a luxury most of them haven’t experienced at any point in life. They understand the roots of violence and learn not to stigmatise survival. Swayam also conducts intergenerational workshops, working with children and the families of survivors. Its magazine Prayas has published 75 issues so far about DV. The survivors are a key part of Swayam’s campaigns – many of them are trained to do what Swayam does; they provide the first level of support in their community to other survivors and then introduce them to Swayam if necessary.

B. Research and Advocacy

Anuradha stresses the profuse networking and collaboration at the local and international levels that have supported Swayam’s preventive work. Swayam’s Aman Global Voices for Peace in the Home brought 156 organisations into the network, and Bhavna created a West Bengali network against child marriage. Swayam carries out training and capacity building for the police, state, schools, and other institutions. Its judicial training programme which is 8 years old now is carried out in association with Sakshi, Delhi, to change prevailing patriarchal judicial attitudes. It was the first organisation in the country to begin the 16-day campaign against GBV – a culmination of awareness-raising throughout the year – which is now held by 250 organisations nationally. 

Swayam also expanded to other centres in West Bengal to provide increased access to survivors. Many women approach Swayam for help but so many do not have the mobility to do so. Swayam’s centres bring together groups of women who in turn become agents of change in their communities. Swayam has also worked with groups of men and boys to show them what they stand to gain from equality. 

Anuradha closes her talk by touching upon Swayam’s prolific research, publication, and advocacy work. For over a decade, the organisation played a key role in the formulation and implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act. It has published a study on the misuse – or rather the lack of use – of Section 498A of the IPC. It contributed to the chapter on violence against women in CEDAW’s 2014 shadow report. It has served as a rapporteur for UN Women on women’s experiences of domestic violence during the pandemic. Swayam has also published research on young people’s perceptions of sexual harassment (“eve-teasing”) and a book on the judgments under the PWDV Act. 


During the Q&A session, Anuradha reflects on how DV became more intense and frequent during the pandemic. One new phenomenon was that of calls from young unmarried women (college girls) who had moved back home and were facing abuse at the hands of their parents. Post-COVID, Swayam receives 2-3X the number of calls than before. Swayam’s team has learned and leveraged digital tools – WhatsApp, Zoom, and conference calling – to provide counselling and support to women across the country. 

Anuradha highlights that counselling exclusively through the telephone requires a very different approach; so the organised provided training to all caseworkers to keep up with the changing times. Overall, the phone proved to be a useful tool for mental health services: survivors were comforted by the distance it provided, and the organisation channelled new kinds of services to new locations. 

Swayam also conducted Zoom workshops for those survivors who had access to technology, communicating and addressing COVID-specific dangers. It distributed voice messages recorded by doctors about COVID, circulated an in-house video on the support it offers, and even carried out relief work by giving out rations. 

When asked about how service providers can grow the capacity to meet higher demands (1 in 3 women suffer DV), Anuradha first expresses disappointment at how the state failed to provide support to service providers and survivors during these difficult times. The state’s one-stop centres were not properly functional and nor were its helplines. She says that Swayam has responded to the crisis by maximising helplines, launching social media campaigns, and communicating through media and film.

She winds up the session with advice to other younger organisations working on the same cause. She urges them to stay committed despite all odds and retain the hope that change is possible – as is evident from Swayam’s rich 25-year journey. 

#Beijing25 || Viewpoint: SAMYUKTHA, Gender-based Violence and Social Inequality



Even during the neanderthal era, humans knew no bounds to inequality. Women had their roles and men had theirs. But as us humans started to evolve and take over the planet as our own, we started to think way beyond what was logical that we are illiterate compared to any other animals.

All living beings irrespective of their genders have a role in the planet. May it be as immaterial and insignificant as it may seem, everyone is linked in our world and we impact each other in several ways possible.

When these roles were amplified and exaggerated by the evolved race of humans, that’s where the term of inequality was brought in. Certain functions were labelled to genders and races. Caste system was brought in and a lot of injustice prevailed.

In our society, women have prefixed roles to play in their homes and the society. They are meant to stay at homes and take care. Their purpose is fixed to giving the maternal care that all their tender bodies can give.

Now the world has grown again where after centuries, women have voiced out their will and have gotten a platform where they can choose to work or stay at home for their families. That’s where we are standing right now and nowhere else.

Women are still restricted from a lot of activities that men have the privilege to. In India and many other countries, the roles for women are justified with an excuse of culture. Ask the patriarchal world what culture is, no one knows.

The female genital oragans are viewed as pieces of mockery and sex jokes whereas “having the balls” to do things are just acceptable. Women in India, right now are being beaten by their husbands or being burnt or thrown acid on their faces. They don’t stand up for themselves because they know that not all in the society will stand with their guts. They have nowhere to go to and hence, they settle to keep their necks bent and faces bruised.

There are a lot of NGOs in India where their locations are kept anonymous in fear of attacks.

Women may not be masculine like men, so are men not feminine like women. All genders have their purpose in society and we as humans have been blessed with morals ethics and intelligence to gauge what’s wrong and what’s right.women have been proven to be excellent leaders as well as caretakers. Men too have been identified with various qualities. No talent or voice is restricted to one’s body or gender. It’s high time that we realise the need to let all genders prevail equally in society so that our nation and the world becomes a place that our future grows up respecting and learning from.

What’s love got to do with it?


A guest post by Samidha S., reflecting on love, gender normativity, patriarchy and violence.

On December 2012, I attended an event on violence against women, and the discussion eventually turned into a condemnation of popular culture, especially mainstream movies, and how they depict so much violence, especially violence against women. As one person pointed out, it’s almost as if every good story must have a rape scene in it. After all, how else can we have heroes? Imagining the alternative though, one thinks the movie would be so bland – what kind of a story is possible without ANY violence? If the princess is married to the prince and they’re living happily ever after – well, isn’t that where stories end?

In fact, this is at the heart of a very complex issue – it’s not that every good story should have a rape scene, but every good story should have some romance, a hero, a heroine, and of course, true love. Even if you make an LGBT movie, and the lovers are same gendered, this basic story doesn’t change.

Lauren Berlant’s critique of the love plot is worth revisiting if we want to think about why and how our ideas of love feed gender violence, and why it seems so impossible to tell a ‘good’ (read interesting) story without violence. The modern love plot requires certain things: it requires women to believe in the capacity of love to ‘rescue you from your life and give you a new one’. It is the romance narrative which constantly circulates this idea where a woman, who would never put all her savings into a risky business venture, would put her body, independence, social status, time and labour into a family of strangers. What enables her to commit herself, not only her present body, but her entire future, to a network of relationships that are unknown to her? The unknown is not only the people or the space (and sometimes this can be the geographical space of continents), but also the unknown of her time, of who she might be in the future and what she might want.

When we sweep aside the utopian dreams that love invokes – an almost sacred thing which shouldn’t be questioned (and love is precisely this violent – true love is utterly trusting, asks no questions) – we are left with some baffling scenarios. How can we understand the raising of a girl child in a completely ‘sheltered’ environment, where no man should have access to her body, only for her to be given over – literally – to a stranger, for the rest of her life? Married women are encouraged to make their new family their home, to automatically inherit relationships that had no prior context. When one looks at it unromantically, it is obvious that it can only be accidental that a husband would be nice to his wife, or that a mother-in- law would be kind to the bride. Not only is there no guarantee of real caring and respect, there is also no real socially enforced expectation. For the woman, it is the hope of ‘love’ that even makes possible such a leap of faith, this placing of herself in a vulnerable situation.

What about love marriages and relationships based on love? Berlant has a wonderful critique of what love is actually doing: first of all, the idea of a loving relationship separates the couple from the rest of the world. The loving couple is safe with each other, they support each other, and they can take on the outside world no matter how hostile. Add in the middle-class home and we suddenly have an insular space. The ‘safe’ space thus created can now exist in opposition, in isolation from the rest of the world. Poverty or discrimination in the outside world doesn’t matter except as affirming ‘news’, because the loving couple reassure and love each other. Intimacy here is taken to be a natural thing – not a set of ideas that we have been conditioned to think in terms of. Every movie about alien invaders, or world domination, or every ‘crisis’ can be read back to this space of loving-couple-home-space vs a world full of unknown possible threats. 

It comes down to this – what do we love when we love? If we love people, why is it necessary to make a future commitment in terms of fidelity, cohabitation, a certain kind of dress, conduct, sex, obligations in a contract that cannot be amended? Why is it that this contract cannot be questioned, even though it is continually violated by men? Is it not actually safety and security that we’re loving when we say love? And how ironic is it that the security we barter away all our future selves for (in this loving relationship) can become utterly violent – and yet, will not be given up because the ‘outside’ is so much more threatening. Women will not walk out of violent marriages, because of the stigma of being ‘outside’ – regardless of where the violence actually lies. The hysteria with which television news can show rape happening ‘outside’ in fact reinforces the idea that the inside space is safe. The same hysteria cannot be extended to the violence inside the house – it cannot be shown repeatedly on television, while the middle class sit ‘safely’ inside the house in front of that television.

Berlant points out that an important component of love is amnesia. Love requires that we forgive and forget a thousand disappointments, to set aside the practical context essentially. Because love is supposed to transcend these things, and in fact, is invoked precisely in these moments when we want to erase everything that doesn’t fit in. Love requires a smoothing over, to constantly try to ‘fix’ problems instead of trying to understand what that problem says about who we really are and what we really want.

And love requires the lovers – the woman who will believe in the future, in her man, who will sacrifice for him, who has this bag full of feelings and emotions. To the extent the woman doesn’t do this, she remains the storybook character who is ‘yet’ to arrive at the ‘right’ place in the story. While LGBT politics has the potential to critique this love narrative, it often ends up becoming a fight for inclusion into the same kind of spaces, the same kind of relations. Yet challenging heteronormativity is really about breaking this inside/outside where the outside doesn’t matter and the inside has to be constantly hidden. Instead of being disconnected amnesiacs, to really look at how we care, at the expectations that arise from that caring, and how violent that love can become.

Reference: Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Duke UP, 2008)