City Wrap: What does rape tell you about locations?

The problem with readings of violence that assume there is a way to make spaces safer is that the violence often has nothing to do with the space at all


An activist of All India Democratic Women’s Association speaks at a protest against the rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Kerala, in New Delhi on Wednesday. Photo: AP
An activist of All India Democratic Women’s Association speaks at a protest against the rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Kerala, in New Delhi on Wednesday. Photo: AP

New Delhi: The Mint City Wrap is a curation of the most compelling stories emerging from our cities today. While the focus is on urban centres, the Mint City Wrap engages with wider geographies in the effort to connect stories with each other across places and borders.

The “where” of “what happened” to “whom”

Over the past three weeks, four incidents of explicit sexual violence have been in focus. On 12 April, a minor girl was assaulted in Handwara in Jammu and Kashmir. On 23 April, a woman was kidnapped and molested in Bengaluru . On 28 April, a woman was raped and murdered in Perumbavoor , close to Kochi. On Tuesday, a woman was assaulted in Varkala in Thiruvananthapuram.

The general discourse of safety in public spaces for women has a few things to say about where sexual violence happens and who receives it. It has often been suggested that by virtue of one’s mere presence in a certain place, one merits rape. This can be called the “what was she doing there anyway?” school of thought. In the case of the minor who was assaulted in Handwara, the location of the assault was a public toilet close to a marketplace.

The Bengaluru assault was located outside the woman’s hostel. The Perumbavoor rape happened inside the home of the victim. As for the Varkala assault, the location is reported to be an auto rickshaw that belonged to the victim’s boyfriend.

If, as a person of any gender, you were to believe that staying away from certain spaces made you safe from sexual violence, then you better avoid public toilets, public transport, your own home, and any other dwelling you chose to stay in when away from home. This is the problem with readings of violence that assume there is a way to make spaces safer, because the violence often has nothing to do with the space at all.

The social locations of the women reveal a different story, one where the vulnerability of identity intersects with geography. In Handwara, the minor who was assaulted is a Kashmiri schoolgirl in one of the most relentlessly conflict-riddled zones of the country. In Bengaluru, the woman who was molested is a 25-year-old from Manipur working in a beauty clinic. Consider the layers of vulnerability built into her location—migrant, northeasterner, female, young, probably without a grasp of Kannada.

In both Perumbavoor and Varkala, the women are Dalits, a community synonymous with being targets of institutionalized violence. The law student in Perumbavoor who was brutally raped and murdered was living alone with her ailing mother on land that was allegedly disputed. Her neighbour, who is suspected to be a drug addict and has reportedly been arrested, kept making vicious threats to both mother and daughter. Despite having reported the threats to the police, the mother claims no action was taken.

The alarming frequency of incidents of sexual violence does not beg the question if places are becoming more unsafe. Rather, it raises the question of who is unsafe where and why. For this question, what is required is a close reading of locations—geographical, economic, social and sexual. A reading of such locations allows us to understand why we use spaces in a certain way, how we rationalize our actions in those spaces, how we experience fear and belonging, and the people we allow ourselves to become.

It is a sheer miracle if a woman remains unscathed in her lifetime. Now, more than ever, it makes sense to read Audre Lorde, who wrote in her poem ‘A Litany for Survival’ that fear is no reason to be silent or self-effacing:

“...when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid

So it is better to speak

remembering

we were never meant to survive”.

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