‘Disgrace’ by Joanna Bourke: Complexity of sexual violence : The Tribune India

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‘Disgrace’ by Joanna Bourke: Complexity of sexual violence

‘Disgrace’ by Joanna Bourke: Complexity of sexual violence

Disgrace: Global Reflections on Sexual Violence by Joanna Bourke. Speaking Tiger. Pages 300. Rs 599

Book Title: Disgrace: Global Reflections on Sexual Violence

Author: Joanna Bourke

Janaki Srinivasan

The core concern of feminist politics and theory — to understand, challenge and transform systems of gendered oppression — requires contending with what anthropologist Gayle Rubin called its ‘endless variety and monotonous similarity’ across cultures and historical eras. The experience of sexual violence is presented in popular discourse as an obvious area of similarity, thereby constituting a universal female experience and presuming easy transferability of strategies and tools for its eradication.

This book draws on the wealth of feminist research and activism over the last century to argue that a global history of sexual violence has to be necessarily transversal and intersectional. That is, not only is every aspect of sexual violence experienced, understood, articulated and acted upon differently in local contexts, thereby producing differential effects within societies, these differences are rooted in the interlocking systems of power, dominance and inequality that operate at the local, regional and global levels. Bourke pulls off an impossibly ambitious mandate by writing this history with depth, clarity and empathy.

Each chapter begins with a story drawn from a specific geo-cultural context and goes on to address the multiple, sometimes overlapping, often cross-cutting, dimensions of the issue at hand. In the process, the book addresses a gamut of themes while adhering to its primary commitment — to center the agency and safeguard the interests of the victims/survivors. Eschewing the simplistic understanding that sexual violence is borne, at least psychically, by all women or by pre-determined categories of people, the book usefully deploys the concept of ‘vulnerability’ to draw the line between the victim and perpetrator. Since vulnerability conveys the extent to which a person is unable to prevent harm to themselves, it is never an individual predisposition but rooted in social systems. Thus, not only are people with subjugated identities vulnerable, so are those in specific situations like conflict areas or military establishments. Vulnerabilities can be cumulative and varied.

Such an approach allows one to grapple with the simultaneous diversity and complexity of sexual violence. For instance, women can be perpetrators of sexual violence when they are in situations of power, or when they are driven by nationalist, racist and ethnic ideologies. At the same time, given their positions in the hierarchy of masculinised institutions, women in these spaces could be subject to sexual violence. Likewise, men can be victims of sexual violence with men-on-men rape statistics being among the most under-estimated of all available data. Rape is often a means of forging group solidarity whether practised within a group/institution or vis-à-vis members of rival groups or communities.

Rape is a form of inflicting humiliation on the othered community, making it endemic to wars, armed conflicts and communal or race riots. The vulnerability of black women to rape is inextricably linked to the vulnerability of black men to be vilified as essentially dangerous. They are, as are men of subordinate castes, ethnicities or classes, more likely to be charged with crimes of assault, handed harsher punishments and subjected to social vigilantism.

Two critical issues about the path ahead emerge. One, the possibility of justice, given that much feminist activism has been directed towards reform of the law. Given how the law and its biases have worked often to justify rather than redress acts of violence, the book echoes the disillusionment with the law. But this approach works to reify law and the state rather than see it as one of the many arenas of the struggles of justice and is surprisingly inattentive to the agency of the sufferer.

Second, the role played by modern psychiatry in understanding and ameliorating the effects of violence on the sufferer. It shows how diversity is as relevant to forms of healing as to strategies to build a rape-free society.

Reading this book amidst the news from Manipur makes one reflect on the meanings of both justice and healing.