The Tribune - Spectrum

, March 24, 2002

Women as victims of violence
G. V. Gupta

Women, War and Peace in South Asia: Beyond Victimhood to Agency edited by Rita Manchanda. Sage Publications, New Delhi. Pages 304 Rs 295.

SOUTH Asia is an arena of many armed conflicts: Sindh in Pakistan, Kashmir and North East in India, Chakma Tribals in Bangladesh, Maoists in Nepal, LTTE in Sri Lanka. Myanmar and Bhutan are not free either. These are not wars in the traditional sense with defined theatres and armies facing each other and leaving the people largely alone from the zone of fight. South Asian conflicts involve issues of identity, culture and exploitation. The theatre is the city, street, home and village.

This collection contains six studies relating to conflicts in different regions of South Asia viz. MQM of Karachi, Azadi of Kashmir, Nagaland and Assam movements in North East, Maoist movement in Nepal, CHTin Bangladesh and the LTTE movement in Sri Lanka. These are based on personal narratives of women participants; leaders and workers; collaborators and defenders and plain sufferers. The idea is to move away from the stereotype of the victim and to study them as agents. Editor, a well-known intervener from feminine angle provides the introduction and has written the study on Kashmir. She also organised the study. Focus is on locating the liberating experiences of the conflict and the emergence of women as agents of peace and sisterhood. Alternate question is whether the conflict has only resulted in revival of patriarchy in the reassertion of traditional identities?


Title of MQM study "They use us, others abuse us" puts in nutshell the position of women as victims. Agitation in Kashmir started with women organising demonstrations with slogans such as, Marde mujahid jag zara abb, vakt shahadat aya hai. This challenged the manliness of male holy warriors. They were to lead and women were only to obey and follow. When armed conflict started, it was the male mujahid who was idolised among young girls in family gatherings. He was given shelter and fed. He was given out as a son-in-law when law enforcers questioned his presence in the family. Time came when he started claiming this relationship as a fact which had to be conceded. This came to be symbolised as honour for the family.

Brothers and fathers got advantage at the cost of the girl. During searches women came out in the streets to bar the entry of police in the locality. They also misdirected the police so as to facilitate the escape of the mujahid. They had to bear the lathis, bullets and torture. Torture and rape to subjugate, to humiliate, to terrorise, to extract information and for revenge became common. Mercifully, it was not resorted to change the ethnic complexion. A raped woman has also to bear the life long disability vis-a-vis the husband, the father, the brother and the son. Husbands distance themselves to keep their honour intact. Sons wanted to go out to seek revenge. The father and brother first want to marry off the daughter pre-puberty to escape the chance of rape of an unmarried daughter. Such a daughter is sought to be disposed off to the first available man howsoever deprived he may be. Leaders of the movement followers to marry such girls there is exhat humiliation for the victim. She has no voice. She is repeatedly paraded before the media as proof of oppression and forced to repeat the narration to the police on the one side and various human rights activists on the other. Even that does not complete the story. This is common to all the six studies. The situation worsened when foreigners joined and took over the struggle. They became the perpetrators without an iota of social accountability.

Identity in all these agitations is patriarchic identity. Woman is an instrument only. Her glory is in supplying the sons and brothers as gun fodder. She has to be the flag bearer of religious virtuosity. She has to take to purdah again. She has to confine herself to home, to do prayers, carry out rituals, limit education to religious and moral texts and most important of all, ensure racial purity. Sri Lanka, Nepal and North-East conflicts have both sexes taking to arms but the punishment for any sexual waywardness has to be borne by the woman. She is the one to be disarmed and exiled, may be with a justification for confinement. She is supposed to be the seducer and she is the one to be disfigured. Studies also find that the dejected/defeated/depressed male mujahid/freedom fighter turns his violence against the wife, sister or mother. The truth of national identity is written only on the body of the woman.

And what is there for her in the struggle for identity/nationhood or the revolution? The common refrain everywhere is that the issue shall be considered later. The time of struggle/revolution is not the time to talk of women’s issues and rights.

The real value of the study lies in understanding larger problems for women in these agitations. Firstly, any armed struggle for identity has been essentially male chauvinistic, never benefiting the woman. It has generally been cultural and religious. Secondly, in spite of element of commodification of labour and woman, capitalism in its mature stage has been the most liberating system for women when remembering communist states of the last century. This system does provide space to woman as subject allowing for a choice in the market. Such societies have done more for women’s emancipation. Thirdly, gender has not been able to establish as an identity for effective action while dominated by the bourgeois leadership. It also cannot do without such leadership at this stage of development of these societies. Therefore, a long peaceful process of conscientisation seems to be necessary.

Further, the concept of rape has to be redefined. It has to be de-linked from the honour of the man. Its characterisation has to be essentially with the body of the woman.

And last but most important, a violent movement cannot benefit the woman. It can only be oppressive to women. Violence can never be ennobling whether supported by Franz Fanon or by Osama bin Laden.