I actually have three art posts that I want to write, but that’s going to have to wait. Because I have some outraging to do first and I’ve decided that I’m going to impose a time limit on the writing of this post: 40 minutes. Whatever gets written in that time is all the outrage I’m allowing myself. And then I’m reading a Mills & Boon, because as far as I’m concerned being escapist from this reality is simply evidence of good sense.
In today’s The Times of India, Bachi Karkaria has some words of wisdom for all of us in general and the survivor of the Mumbai gang rape in particular. “Don’t make her lose face” hollers the headline, which most of us would say is pretty ironic for a paper that totally invaded her privacy and disclosed medical details about the survivor that the public has absolutely no need to know. The sub-head below reads, “Because the raped woman isn’t the one who has to be ashamed.” Also true. The one who should be ashamed is The Times of India, considering its coverage of the Shakti Mills gang rape, and a lot of its employees are painfully embarrassed by their publication.
Not Karkaria. Karkaria is a long-time writer and a charming, sweet lady in social situations, I’m told. “Harmless little bawi lady,” is how someone described her to me years ago. “A little cuckoo, but that goes with the territory, no?” they said, cheerfully stereotyping the shrinking population of Parsi people in Mumbai. (Though it has to be said, Parsis can do eccentric like no one else.) She has a column in The Times of India called Erratica, and an innate tendency to be erratic is perhaps some explanation for Karkaria’s op-ed piece from this morning. Let me just go through this systematically.
“First of all, a caveat,” writes Karkaria at the start of her article. “This is a trauma that only a raped woman experiences. She alone knows its intensity, and what she must live with, within herself. Therefore, she alone is entitled to make the decision i [sic] am about to suggest. … My suggestion, offered with the utmost sensitivity, is this: reveal your identity and help cast aside the veil of misplaced disgrace.”
At which point, you may wonder to whom is Karkaria speaking? To all those who have ever been raped, it seems. So to all those women, with whom she connects because of her self-proclaimed “utter sensitivity”, Karkaria exhorts,
“Follow the example of the spunky Shakti Mills girl who walked out of hospital with her face uncovered, though her family had taken the precaution of ensuring that the media was informed of her discharge a day later.”
There are some things that I expect of a person who is a professional writer and has been one for decades. One is the awareness of what meaning the words they use convey and how that usage lends a specific tone to the writing. If a writer doesn’t realise the condescension in calling this young woman — she got gang raped, kept the dupatta that would contain critical DNA evidence (after being made to use it to “clean up” the scene of the crime), untied her friend’s bonds, called her mum and said she’d had an accident, called her boss, went to the hospital and gave the police descriptions of the accused — a “spunky girl”*, it’s bizarre for them to call themselves writers.
And really, is it Karkaria’s “utmost sensitivity” that makes her set up the appearance of a disconnect between the young woman and her family? As though her family’s precautions are unnecessary or in opposition to how the young woman wants to behave. Of course Karkaria wouldn’t mention that her family took these precautions because of the reports like the ones The Times of India and Mid Day printed.
“It’s time society kept its clucking tongue out of this business,” writes Karkaria. And yet, there she is, clucking in the very next sentence: “It’s time the raped woman stopped allowing us to add insult to her physical and mental injury by doubly burdening her with shame.” Just look at that sentence: the raped woman should stop allowing us to insult her. Because it’s her responsibility to stop the insults. Because those delivering the insults her are passive putty, just waiting for guidance from the one they’re insulting. How is this any better than the mentality of those who will offer prescriptions that place the onus on not getting raped, as opposed to not raping?
“Forcing her to cower behind anonymity reinforces a primitive — and sexist — hierarchy of evil,” writes Karkaria.
But madam, the law says that the identity of the person raped should be kept under wraps. Never mind that you’re now suggesting that her family, with their precautions, are reinforcing a primitive and sexist hierarchy of evil while you yourself establish a sexist frame of reference in which the onus of responsibility falls upon the one raped, rather than the ones raping or insulting.
“Think about it. If there were no disgrace, would we have to protect identity? Take it to the next level. If an afflicted woman summoned the courage to reveal herself, would she not be stripping off the disgrace, and turning the pointed finger back to where it belongs, to the rapist not the raped?”
Well, you think about it, Ms Karkaria. Can you ensure that not protecting a rape survivor’s identity will strip off disgrace? Can you ensure there will be no stigma, that the survivor will be safe from attacks by those who feel threatened or think she’s fair game because she was once raped?
Most importantly, the decision to do so is the survivor’s, not a newspaper’s. Many people have wished the woman who was raped at Shakti Mills would come forward with her identity. Most of these people are desperately looking for a champion who can be held up, someone who will shake off the oppressive fear we all feel at the thought of rape by saying, “It happened to me and I’m fine, so you don’t need to be scared.” Basically, we’re terrified and we’d like a champion we can hold up as a talisman against the pervasive horror that is rape in general and gang rape in particular.
Karkaria may be one of these people, but in this column, her aim is far more basic and commercial. This op-ed isn’t written by a sweet but batty old lady who isn’t in touch with the reality of Indian society. This is a Times of India employee justifying their coverage of the Shakti Mills gang rape. All this huffing and puffing of painting a survivor into a victim, of the weight of disgrace that is placed upon a rape survivor by anonymity, all this is to make The Times of India‘s appalling insensitivity seem not just justified, but a necessary social intervention.
“The Times of India, among others, sensibly replaced the customary ‘victim’ with ‘survivor’ in its reports,” writes Karkaria. “We desisted coining another pseudonym despite the wide acceptance gained by the one we created for the woman so bestially attacked on the Delhi bus last December. Indeed, ‘Nirbhaya’ even got institutionalised in the fund for women’s safety which P Chidambaram announced while presenting this year’s budget.
But a string of noms de plume, however laudatory, could easily make a farce out of an intense tragedy, so it is good that the media has refrained.”
One imagines the jury is out on whether the Nirbhaya coverage in The Time of India was a farce. Karkaria’s essential point is that whatever The Times of India does is correct.
“The card-carrying feminists of our fraternity have predictably been unimpressed by our efforts not to thrust victimhood on the girl,” writes Karkaria with a not-so-subtle sneer. She doesn’t bother to explain how putting up a photograph recreating the scene just before the gang rape at Shakti Mills prevents victimhood being thrust upon “the girl”. Neither does she explain how disclosing how and where the young woman was penetrated essential to this Good Sense Project of the Times of India. Karkaria does concede that interviewing neighbours and watchmen may have helped disclose the survivor’s identity to her immediate social circle, Karkaria argues,
“…it would help raped women in a more real, long-term and positive way if the flag bearers were to address the disease of misplaced shame. To bang on about protecting identity endorses the social assault on the raped woman, which, to me, is an under-documented form of gender violence.”
If you can figure out how Karkaria came to the conclusion that protecting a survivor’s identity is an endorsement of rape, cheers to you. As far as I’m concerned, this totally explains why she’s chosen to call her columns “erratica”. Thank you, Ms. Karkaria, for shifting the blame off the rapists and placing at least a part of it upon the victim and those who don’t identify a person by the trauma they suffer and survive. There’s also the minor matter that I’d mentioned before: this choice and decision is the survivor’s, not The Times of India‘s or Karkaria’s. Just because they’d like someone to sell copies or be a champion doesn’t mean the young woman has to oblige, and certainly not days after being gang raped.
Karkaria ends her piece with a quote from the Shakti Mills gang rape survivor: “Our plucky Shakti Mills girl had declared from hospital itself that ‘rape is not the end of life’. We should help her grab hers back openly — not push her into a space more abandoned than the venue of her violation.” Except what Karkaria has done is define a young woman solely by the fact that she was raped. Whether it is to (somehow) restructure the power balance in society or to exonerate The Times of India, Karkaria wants this woman’s identity to be tied to her gang rape, rather than allowing her the freedom to figure out how she wants to deal with her traumatic experience. Instead of appreciating the strength and valour it’s taken to be the survivor, Karkaria is hurtling towards judging this young woman and placing upon her a massive weight of expectation: if she doesn’t come out as the gang rape survivor, she’s failing women in general and raped women in particular.
[*EDITED TO ADD: A few people emailed saying that I shouldn’t be so stuffy about using colloquialisms like ‘spunky’. When I explained my objection, they were like, “Ohhhhh”, which is why I’m adding this edit. My issue with the use of the word isn’t that it isn’t formal enough. In polite terms, spunk is another word for courage. It is, however, widely known as slang for semen. Given the Oxford English Dictionary is aware of this, I don’t think it’s too much to expect Karkaria to be aware of this. The last word you want to use to describe a raped woman is one that’s synonymous with semen, surely.]
And now my 40 minutes are up, so I’m going. But before I do, here’s an attempt at a happy conclusion that perhaps someone could forward to Ms. Karkaria — a talk by the wonderful Chimamanda Adichie on feminism, happiness, anger, masculinity and equality.