NOT QUITE CRIME ENOUGH
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.
What a joke the national discourse on crimes against women has yet again turned out to be