India Today - - UPFRONT - UP­FRONT BISHAKHA DATTA The au­thor works on gen­der and sex­u­al­ity in dig­i­tal spa­ces and runs Point of View, a non-profit, in Mum­bai

For many years now, I’ve kept all my travel meds in a white cot­ton pouch bear­ing the slo­gan, My Body is My Busi­ness. I think of the pouch as a pri­vate joke about one as­pect of my body: my health. And I in­wardly chuckle ev­ery time I think of its ori­gins: it’s made by a group of sex work­ers, for whom of course the busi­ness of the body has yet an­other mean­ing. It’s their way of telling so­ci­ety to bug­ger off, to mind its own busi­ness. Don’t take it out for a walk at night. Cover it up. Keep it in­doors. These were some of the things we heard about women’s bod­ies in the af­ter­math of the Ben­galuru mo­lesta­tions on New Year’s Eve. A few days later, we woke up to the news that four men in Bagh­pat, Ut­tar Pradesh, had vi­o­lated and mu­ti­lated a young woman’s body. When she re­sisted rape, they cut off her ears with a knife. Sim­ple. Bring down the power of the body to re­sist.

That this hap­pened to a woman who was ‘all cov­ered up’, ‘at home’ or in ‘broad day­light’ (as we are wont to say) means noth­ing at all. Dress. Place. Time of day or night. None of these mean any­thing—they’re red her­rings on the path to un­der­stand­ing why sex­ual vi­o­lence oc­curs. To­tal dis­trac­tions.

So why does sex­ual vi­o­lence take place? I think it’s be­cause, at some level, women are still thought of as things, not hu­man. Play things. Like dolls you can play with and chuck. Or ran­dom bod­ies in clothes. Not as full­blooded hu­mans with selves and wills to ex­er­cise, but as con­di­tion­ally hu­man.

That de­hu­man­is­ing some­one—at least tem­po­rar­ily—makes it eas­ier to vi­o­late their body is not a new dis­cov­ery. Spe­cially where group vi­o­lence is con­cerned. “De­hu­man­i­sa­tion is viewed as a cen­tral com­po­nent to in­ter­group vi­o­lence be­cause it is fre­quently the most im­por­tant pre­cur­sor to moral ex­clu­sion,” write Philip Goff and fel­low psy­chol­o­gists in the 2009 study, ‘Not Yet Hu­man’. When you de­hu­man­ise some­one, you place them “out­side the bound­ary in which moral val­ues, rules, and con­sid­er­a­tions of fair­ness ap­ply”. Which means you can mind­lessly vi­o­late their bod­ies.

We al­ready know this from his­tory. Speaking of ‘col­lat­eral dam­age’, rather than ‘lives lost’ makes it eas­ier to kill peo­ple dur­ing wars. While Jews were la­belled un­ter­men­schen (sub­hu­mans) in Nazi Ger­many and likened to ver­min and mag­gots, the Tut­sis in Rwanda were la­belled cock­roaches and snakes. Dal­its face vi­o­lence in In­dia be­cause they are placed at the bot­tom of the caste scale, ergo sub-hu­man­i­sa­tion. “You don’t have to be a mon­ster or a mad­man to de­hu­man­ise oth­ers,” writes phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor David Liv­ing­stone Smith in his 2011 book, Less Than Hu­man. “You just have to be an or­di­nary hu­man be­ing.”

We con­tinue to hear this de­hu­man­i­sa­tion. “If there is sugar, ants will au­to­mat­i­cally come to it,” said Sa­ma­jwadi Party politican Abu Azmi after the Ben­galuru mo­lesta­tion. “You have to keep petrol away from fire.” On think­ing about it, I don’t know which state­ment is worse—be­ing com­pared to a thing. Or to an ig­nit­ing agent. Is it bet­ter to be made inan­i­mate? Or to be made inan­i­mate and still blamed for the vi­o­lence you never ig­nited?

Where sex­ual vi­o­lence is con­cerned, blam­ing the vic­tim is, of course, very much part of the dis­course of dis­trac­tion. Never lay the blame where it lies. Shift it. I’ve never seen this hap­pen with any other crime. When was the last time you heard of a mur­der vic­tim be­ing blamed for be­ing in the wrong place? At the wrong time? Wear­ing the wrong clothes? Or a vic­tim of a rob­bery, a crime against inan­i­mate prop­erty, rather than per­son­hood, for that mat­ter?

One of the rea­sons that sex­ual vi­o­lence takes place is that it’s still not thought of as a crime—de­spite strong laws and weak con­vic­tions. Or crime enough. It’s an­other mind­set thing. Some crimes are seen as proper crimes, oth­ers are still not men­tally seen as crimes. Or they are seen as lesser crimes, sub-crimes, placed in a slid­ing scale like hu­mans.

What a joke the na­tional dis­course on crimes against women has yet again turned out to be. What a sad thing it is that even to­day, yes, happy new 2017 and all that, we still have to re­state the ob­vi­ous: that #yesall­women face sex­ual vi­o­lence. That sex­ual vi­o­lence is a crime. That we don’t cause this crime to take place. And that we are en­ti­tled to all our hu­man free­doms, in­clud­ing the free­dom to own our minds and bod­ies. As the Fear­less Col­lec­tive’s achingly beau­ti­ful poster re­minded us yet again this week: my body is my busi­ness. The moon is my wit­ness.

Il­lus­tra­tion by ANIR­BAN GHOSH

What a joke the na­tional dis­course on crimes against women has yet again turned out to be

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