By Nida Fatima
Conflicts are not known to be gender-neutral. They affect men and women differently. Throughout history, female bodies have served as battlefields and war booties. Sexual violence is almost always a part of the narrative in a conflict zone where men drunk with power and intoxicated with the assurance of accountability see no reason for sexual restraint.
Bilkis Bano was nineteen when she was gang-raped and left for dead during the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. The gang on a communal rampage had also mercilessly murdered several members of Bilkis’s family including her three-year-old daughter Saleha.
For the last seventeen years, Bilkis has been in news on and off, hailed as a fighter and praised for her resilience and courage. In 2017, the Bombay High Court ruled in Bilkis’s favor, upholding the life sentence of 11 of the accused and in 2019 the High Court granted her compensation which brought her in news once again. In her extraordinary quest for justice against the mighty and the powerful though there is an aspect that never got the attention it deserved. Throughout Bilkis’s struggle her husband Yakub Rasool stood by her like a rock, unflinching in his support, unwavering in his commitment.
Unfortunately, men like Yakub are a minority. Personally I do not know many men (irrespective of education and religion) who would stand by their wives (or other female relatives) resolutely were they to become victims of a crime like a gang rape. On the other hand, I know plenty who would squarely blame their wives for their miserable fate and promptly excuse themselves from the obligation of moral, emotional, social and even financial support.
Our current national political discourse (particularly on social media) is rife with rape advocacy and rape threats. Not too long ago BJP women’s wing leader Sunita Singh Gaud exhorted Hindu men to enter Muslim homes and rape Muslim women. Very recently, army veteran, SP Sinha used the platform of a national channel to call for the rape of Kashmiri women as a means of revenge.
Statements such as above create furor and outrage for a while before the world moves on to something else-something more outrageous, more sensational. But for those in the trajectory of rape threats, there are serious implications. Potential victims have little other alternatives than to accept their vulnerability and prepare for the worst. And the worst here is not being subjected to the crime of rape but being blamed, ridiculed and/or even abandoned in the aftermath of rape by their husbands or families.
It is amazing how people who die or suffer physical harm during a political conflict are hailed as martyrs while women who suffer sexual harm during the same conflict is considered dishonored. Does the definition of shahadat depend on the part of the body that has been harmed?
There are several pitiful aspects to the Kunan-Poshpoura mass rape narrative. What I find most painfully striking is that after the crime the victims were treated as ‘tainted burden which upon marriage got shifted from one household to another.’ To be considered ‘tainted’ for no crime is a gross injustice. In 2017 The Independent reported the plight of Rohingya women who had been abandoned by their husbands after Burmese soldiers raped them. Of the brutalities inflicted on East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by West Pakistan (now Pakistan) during the war of 1971 one was mass rape of Bangladeshi women by Pakistani soldiers. After independence, the state made an attempt at their rehabilitation. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called them birangona (heroine), but the word soon got associated with barangona (prostitute).
‘The official strategy of marrying the women off and encouraging them to be seen as war heroines failed as few men came forward, and those who did expected the state to provide a large dowry. Those women who did marry were usually mistreated, and the majority of men, once having received a dowry, abandoned their wives,’ Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World by Gerlach.
While Bangladesh and Mayanmar are beyond our borders, female vulnerability and the male psyche both transcends physical borders. Women all over the world expect their men to stand by their side when they have been violated and trampled over by other men and men all over the world consistently fail their women in this respect. They also fail at carrying out the obligation Allah placed on them when he called them the ‘protectors and maintainers of women’ in the Quran. Surely no common man is expected to successfully protect his woman against a group of armed men but he is fully expected to support her physically, emotionally and financially after the catastrophe. To run away from this obligation is an act of cowardice which unfortunately a large proportion of our men are predisposed to.
It takes a hero to fight off a dozen scoundrels single headedly but it takes a superhero to firmly stand by his woman and gently hold her hand making it easy for her to wade through the psychological and social turmoil after being sexually assaulted. In the times that we are approaching all we want from our men is to be able to look into their eyes and find in them empathy rather than indifference or blame.