Justice, Care, and Feminist Spaces

Hard-won feminist victories of the last few decades, especially pertaining to the crime of sexual assault, are at the risk of being forgotten in both civic and judicial memory. It is important, therefore, to restate the political and social premises that shaped feminist interventions in the past, and which continue to be important for all those who seek to intervene in matters relating to sexuality, violence, family and community.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown have spelt trouble, injustice and hurt for vast sections of the population. They have shown in sharp relief the jagged, uneven contours of our economic lives. The times have also brought to the fore the unregenerate aspects of our polity and society: the active disavowal of democracy on the part of the political class; disregard for civil rights on the part of various state institutions; a casual putting by of constitutional morality by those who ought to abide by it in the discharge of their daily duties; the persistence of caste-based violence at a time of common suffering; the rabid expressions of civil and social hatred directed against all those we consider inimical to the “national’ interest.” 

While many of us have been protesting these instances of unregenerate political and civil behaviour, only some of us have sought to engage with a set of developments that have proved to be dismaying. These have to do with attempts to roll back hard-won feminist victories, pertaining to the crime of sexual assault. Take the pronouncements (since expunged from the court records after protests by rights lawyers and feminists) of a judge of the Karnataka High Court, enquiring into a case of sexual assault: that the victim was out late at night, that she had been drinking and that she fell asleep after she was allegedly assaulted, all of which are proofs of her unsteady character and unwomanly behaviour (Hindustan Times 2020). 

Or consider the response of the judge who heard a rape case at Araria in Bihar. The victim/survivor had been the subject of gang rape and sought the support of a local organisation, that helped her file a first information report. When her case was being heard at the local court, she was accused of disrupting court proceedings, when all she had done was to ask that those supporting her be allowed into court to read the statement she was expected to sign. Traumatised, having to relive the nightmare several times, because she had to narrate the tale to the police over and over, she was understandably nervous and tired. That she should be jailed, along with her two supporters from the organisation that stood by her, points to the dystopian aspects of our criminal justice system (Johari 2020). She has since been released on bail, but the other two persons are still in jail. 

These responses on the part of the courts make it seem as if there has been no feminist labour with regard to how the law approaches the crime of rape. The endless hours spent on insisting that the so-called character of the victim/survivor ought not to be a matter of consideration when dealing with sexual assault, the effort put in to ensure that victims and survivors are entitled to legal and psychological support and that such support is recognised by the criminal justice system—all these developments appear to have escaped judicial memory, or perhaps they were not even considered important enough to find a place in it. 

Sadly, feminist labour has not been marked in civic memory as well. A defrocked priest, perpetrator of a crime of sexual assault in Kerala, had recently announced that he would like to make amends for what he had done and marry the victim/survivor, who meanwhile had got pregnant (the court has taken a dim view of his proposal). He claims that he has been in touch with her family and that the young woman, several decades his junior, is not averse to his proposal (Almeida 2020). While it is evident that he is trying his best to avoid serving a sentence, the brazen flaunting of his crime, as if it were proof of his virtue, takes one’s breath away. And here too, one wonders what has become of feminist interventions: our early critiques of the rough-and-ready justice dispensed by caste panchayats, which had rapists marry their victims, or accorded the latter a meagre measure of compensation, provided she does not carry her complaint to the police; our insistence that rape has nothing to do with dispossessing a person of honour and everything to do with class, caste and sexual arrogance; and our wry pointing out to the fact that in many instances, the rapist is known to the victim, being in the family, the larger kin or community network. 

In this context, it appears important to restate the political and social premises that shaped our interventions in the past, and which continue to be important for all those who seek to intervene in matters relating to sexuality, violence, family and community. 

Revisiting Feminist Interventions

Feminist interventions pertaining to sexual assault go back a century and more, from the time that women started protesting early marriage and consummation. At that time, marital rape was the object of their ire. But it was in the 1970s that the question of sexual assault came to be spoken of in ways that are still with us, and this had to do with the inauguration of a distinctive form of sexual politics. An important aspect of this politics was the emergence of feminist spaces that women could go to, and seek legal and emotional support from, especially in cases of sexual abuse, domestic violence and trouble at the workplace. Many women did, and from across classes and castes, and this is an aspect of feminist history that has not been sufficiently written about, or understood. 

Women who were traumatised on account of repeated hurt, who wanted protection from violent partners, medical care, child support, and who were looking to stay away from home for a while, came to these spaces seeking support, affection, care, and protection. They also came to speak of their deepest fears and anxieties, to do with sex, relationships, and their unease with existing sexual norms. While extended families, kin networks and friendships forged in the community do offer space and opportunity for women to vent their concerns, blood kin, caste and religious identities prove to be inhibiting, especially if women’s problems have to do with family, as they often do. Feminist spaces thus emerged as sites to speak what might not be spoken of elsewhere, to confess to choices and desires that might not be utterable at home, or the village or neighbourhood, to explore life in ways that were not given. One’s interlocutors, as well as those with whom one desired to be in dialogue, were resolutely not family, and the care and support that were possible in these spaces did not hinge on notions of family pride or togetherness; rather they existed as the very form of an incipient politics that sought to recast what were usually considered inner worlds, of love, sex, conjugality, desire, home, family and togetherness. 

A substantial part of this recasting had to do with challenging the limits of the law, pressurising the state to heed women’s experiences, whether in the family or at the workplace, and communicating to the world that women’s lives did not have to be viewed only in terms of their familial, sexual and community roles. These were ideas that were resonant not only in urban middle-class groups, but in larger social movements as well. Over the decades, not only have these spaces proliferated and grown, but they have also set themselves new mandates: some have become professional service spaces, offering legal and related support to women, others are clearing spaces for information, on a variety of issues to do with law, health, childcare, education, sexuality. Feminist spaces have also grown mobile, in that they have been recreated provisionally whenever and wherever care, heeding, support, and sexual and gender justice were required. This happened in Gujarat in 2002 and in other and earlier instances of mass violence, as during the Cauvery riots in Bengaluru, or the endemic violence in the North East and central India, that left many women grievously wounded and hurt. Such spaces have also emerged in particular geographies in the context of endemic caste violence, and this has enabled women victims of everyday caste crimes to access, provisionally, at least a world of care, attention and support. This has been the case in states like Tamil Nadu that has seen the emergence of women’s sangams, affiliated to partner non-governmental groups, which have been the mainstay of many rural communities. 

A radical development in this context has been the emergence of queer groups and networks that have carried forward the feminist impulse to create spaces where the unspeakable and unspoken might find voice and listeners. These have become increasingly important for those who experience alienation and rejection in their homes, on account of their differently expressed gendered and sexual choices, identity, comportment, desire, and friendships. 
In many instances, feminist as well as queer groups have stood by victims/survivors who find familial and neighbourhood spaces uncongenial or downright opposed to their fight for justice. Further, those who desire to live out their life choices, whether concerning political work, social activism or individual ambition, turn to feminist and queer spaces.

What Needs to be Done

The absence of such groups, or their inability, for various reasons, to stay in touch with survivors of sexual violence, or with those who wish to opt out of familial and community spaces, can prove consequential. In the case of the defrocked priest who claims he wants to marry his victim, the universality of marriage can thus be proclaimed, and it is even granted the status of a rational option or a reparation because of the social stigma that is attached to the assaulted woman. In this case, it has been possible for the priest to claim that the victim/survivor and her family are not dismissive of his offer, perhaps because the victim/survivor has not found it easy to step beyond the confines of her immediate familial situation. Perhaps, she did not find a forum where she could do so and explore different possibilities for justice or even know that such fora exist. It is also possible that such fora, even if they seek to intervene, might not find the traction to do so, given the way families sometimes guard their wards who are survivors. It is entirely understandable, therefore, that in some instances, survivors might want to turn to a space that is not family or kin or caste, as has been the case with the person assaulted in the Araria case. 

It is this variegated feminist support world, radical sociability, and politics developed over several decades that need to be forefronted in public debate, especially since these have not remained mere civil initiatives, but have earned recognition in a public sense as well. The Justice Verma Committee report had unequivocally stated that the state ought to provide for “support services for shelter, social workers, counsellors, mental health professionals, lawyers.” It had also noted: “Whether the entire enquiry and trial is conducted in camera or not... (I)n any event, the victim must have a member of the women’s organisation inside to offer moral support” (Verma et al 2013; 287–88). Support initiatives for victim/survivors of sexual violence have been set up by feminist activists, in tandem with government departments in parts of the country (Rahat nd). Many times, the police have sought the support of women’s groups in addressing sexual violence. In Tamil Nadu, in the 1990s, several of us were drawn into a massive gender teach-in that stretched over several weeks and was attended by policemen from across the state. 

Today, across both urban and rural India, there exist several organisations that extend support to women who have to transact the criminal justice system, and to help in filing first information reports, preparing affidavits, and offering shelter and emotional support. It is precisely this sort of work that members of the Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan undertook in Araria, and it is disturbing and worrying that they are viewed as disruptive, rather than as advocating for justice. 

Feminist support networks have to be viewed in terms of a history of democratic struggle and hard-won rights. They must not be dismissed as organisations that disrupt the workings of the criminal justice system. Rather, we need to recognise how feminist activism has worked the law and Constitution to purposive ends, and also how this has helped create a civic culture and space that women may turn to, should they feel the need to fight for their choices and justice on their own, and outside the bind of family and community. 

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