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

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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?

#WeToo

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.