Our Lives… To Live: Panel Discussion Report: Making Violence Visible, February 23, 2013

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Featuring: Geetha Ramaseshan, Tishani Doshi (moderator) and Anita Ratnam

Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

Ms Doshi opened the discussion by introducing the topics of female genital mutilation (FGM) and acid attacks; and asked how the arts could be a platform for social transformation. She also raised a question about what kind of legal structure is required in order to facilitate the process of reporting and addressing violence against women.

Ms Ratnam responded that dance (as an art form) is the least equipped to address violence against women, since traditional Indian dance forms focus on beauty and the aesthetics of the dance. She did point out that in all the stories told by dance, sex is never addressed directly. Only the pre and post-coital scenes are depicted. Even then, there is no mention of sex as being pleasurable for women. Ms Ratnam felt that theatre, music and poetry could channel rage better than Indian dance forms. A dance may not always be interrupted by who the dancer is as a woman. When it comes of addressing violence against women, dance theatre is probably the most effective tool; especially when performed by those artists who can intersperse reality with beauty.

Addressing the second part of Ms Doshi’s question, Ms Ramaseshan spoke of the clamor for harsher punishments for rapists and perpetrators of acid attacks. While acid attacks have recently come into the purview of the Indian Penal Code, there is a gap between legislation and execution. Laws by themselves are of no use unless the application of the law addresses the inequalities in society. The judicial system’s understanding of gender and sexuality is skewed, as we can see from various cases in which the victim is said to have “provoked” the harasser or rapist; and the way the victim’s “character” is the first thing to come up in a rape case. Cases of gender violence are often seen as crimes of passion rather than crimes of violence.

Ms Doshi then addressed the issue of violence within the family. She noted that it seems to be on the rise, and pointed out that there must be something inherently wrong in today’s family structure; and in the way we raise our sons and daughters.

Ms Ramaseshan said that there is no law which addresses violence within families, except for crimes against children. Feminists who point this out are accused of breaking up homes and attacking tradition. Women in abusive marriages always find it extremely difficult to escape these relationships, and more often than not, get pulled back into an abusive situation.

Ms Ratnam spoke about domestic abuse faced by South Asian women from affluent homes in America. Many of them don’t leave because they have nowhere to go. Ms Ratnam spoke of her own experiences in sheltering victims of domestic abuse, and the fear that the abuser would take revenge. Today, there are a few safe houses for women who have experiences abuse, but many women return to a violent situation. The two most common reasons are the fact that they are used to an affluent lifestyle, and find it hard to adjust; and also for the sake of the children of the marriage.

Ms Doshi added that it is important to remember that violence is not restricted to one class or community, but is a widespread phenomenon in society. She also added that the media does seem to influence discourse on violence against women.

Alluding to the Delhi rape case, Ms Ramaseshan felt that the demands for the death penalty for the rapists stemmed from an emotional reaction to the horror. She felt that certainty of conviction is more essential than harsh retribution. Also, legally speaking, the Delhi case is an open-and-shut one. There are witnesses and medical evidence available. In other cases, this might not be so clear. Especially in cases of date rape, the waters a murky and much seems to depend on the way the cross-examination is conducted and the public reaction.

An audience member brought the discussion back to domestic violence, stating that there is enormous social pressure on the victim to go back to an abusive partner, since the conjugal bond is seen as sacred. A woman who leaves her partner, however abusive he may be, is usually stigmatized by society.

Dr Rajagopalan (from the audience) responded to this by saying that we, as society, raise our daughters to be uncomfortable on their own – and this is where the root of the problem lies.

Ms Ratnam drew our attention to a small minority of urban Indian women who are economically independent and are beginning to assert their choices and express their sexuality. While this is a (very) small minority, it is important to acknowledge their existence.

A member of the audience stressed the need to look beyond the laws for a remedy to gender violence. Societal mindsets need to be changed to prevent replication of stereotypes.

Returning to the topic of art and activism, Ms Doshi said that the role of an activist is a heavy burden for an artist. Activism may be a part of her art, but is not its primary purpose. It is also not fair to expect an artist to address only contemporary problems, since her art may be interpreted differently by future generations of artists and activists.

An audience member suggested that if we are exposed to more ‘good’ news on TV and in newspapers, society might become less violent. Ms Doshi responded by pointing out that even if we only see good news, it doesn’t mean that the events which comprise ‘bad news’ are not happening. Ms Ramaseshan added that misogyny on TV should be discussed and not unilaterally banned. Another member of the audience added that instead of insisting that we see only ‘good news’, society should focus on teaching children to show good judgment. We need to shake off our apathy to stories about gender violence.

Another audience member felt that parents of girls need to take the initiative and educate their daughters about the consequences of their actions. Ms Doshi pointed out that it is not the responsibility of women to ensure their own safety, but the State’s responsibility.

Ms Ratnam emphasized the importance of information. With the advent of the internet, we have more opportunities to access information that we ever did before. It is clear that gender violence is a worldwide phenomenon.

Ms Doshi ended on an optimistic note, saying that it was heartening to watch stories of women speaking out about violence.

Our Lives… To Live: Panel Discussion Report: Gender, Sexuality and Violence, February 22, 2013

Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

Featuring Revathi Radhakrishnan, Aniruddhan Vasudevan and L Ramakrishnan (Moderator).

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Ms Radhakrishnan opened the panel discussion on Day 1 of the film festival with a comment clarifying that all sexual violence is, in fact, violence, and that society often fails to recognize this. For example, rape by the armed forces is still violence, and should be seen as such. Similarly, violence faced by sex workers is often ignored or shrugged off as being an occupational hazard.

Mr Vasudevan joined the discussion by observing that recent conversations and discussions about Gender Violence have been reduced to “firefighting”, i.e., addressing only the question of what we can do/change in terms of legal reform. What activists, mediapersons and people in the public sphere should be focusing on is the underlying cause for gender violence: a predominantly patriarchal society. He cited the recent case in Delhi as an example of this: all the activists immediately sought to change the law rather than societal mindsets. The question we should be asking ourselves is how violence has become the norm in society, and how we can change this. We need to move from an attitude of crisis management, and start a discourse on how to address the root cause of such a society. Mr Vasudevan added that the “crisis mode” approach to gender violence actually works in favor of the State, since no real societal change is called for, and activists are usually appeased with a few legal reforms.

Mr Ramakrishnan added that while talking about gender violence, most people seem to only include violence against women, and ignore violence faced by those who are LGBT.

Ms Radhakrishnan responded by saying that when we fight violence, we should fight all violence. Activists have a tendency to shut themselves into “constituencies of protest”; where women protest against violence against women, LGBT activists protest against violence against the LGBT community, and so on. This kind of division between groups who are ultimately fighting for the same cause needs to stop. Violence is violence, and all violence is the same. Dividing ourselves into constituencies of protest ensures that any dialogue about violence becomes pointless and fragmented. Activists should focus on the points that connect their causes.

Mr Ramakrishnan pointed out that there are “hierarchies” of violence. Even a certain kind of patronizing humor can be seen as violence.

Coming back to Ms Radhakrishnan’s argument, Mr Vasudevan asserted that the connecting point between violence against women and violence against sexual minorities is patriarchy. People who act in ways that don’t conform to roles prescribed by the patriarchal definition of what is masculine/feminine are seen as a threat to society, and targeted as such.

Responding to Mr Ramakrishnan’s statement about hierarchies of violence, Mr Vasudevan suggested that society conditions us to imagine rape as the only form of gender violence or brutality that exists. We rarely (if ever) acknowledge emotional violence for what it is.

Mr Vasudevan was of the opinion that as long as the law doesn’t recognize violence and discrimination within the natal family, there is no point in having a law for workplaces, schools and other institutions. The law glorifies the family as an institution and the prevailing attitude of the legal system (and society at large) is that the parents are always right, and know what is best for their child. Mr Vasudevan felt that this stemmed from and resulted in a bizarre understanding of the concept of love. Do our parents have the right to correct us because they love us, irrespective of what they choose to ‘correct’ in us? The State needs to realize that the intervention needs to happen within the family itself in order to successfully address gender violence.

Ms Radhakrishnan pointed out that in the aftermath of the Delhi rape case, much of the discourse about rape has revolved around ‘honour’ and ‘chastity’. The perception that a woman’s (or a community’s) honour is violated through rape is counter-productive in any dialogue about gender violence.

Mr Vasudevan added that based on this perception of honour, there is retributive violence on women. Thus, violence against women (as differentiated from gender violence) needs to be addressed in a separate category.

Mr Ramakrishnan clarified that rape is not about sexual frustration, but rather an attempt to establish power and control over the victim.

The discussion was then thrown open to audience members, and the first questions and comments related to the manner in which gender violence is reported. It was noted that the media seems to focus only on metropolitan cities while reporting gender violence. Ms Radhakrishnan responded in tune with her earlier statement about constituencies of protest. It is fruitless to compartmentalize gender violence in this way. If the current topic of discourse is rape, this does not mean that acid attacks are not a part of our consciousness. An audience member pointed out that discussion brings these topics into the public forum, and pressurizes the State to take notice. Ms Radhakrishnan replied that setting up our own hierarchies of violence (as activists) is as counterproductive as when the same is done by the media. Mr Vasudevan added that while it is important to talk about why certain things don’t get talked about, it is important not to attack each other and turn reporting gender violence into a blame game. There has to be a better way to bring important issues out of the silence which surrounds them today.

The idea that violence against sexual minorities is not seen in the honour-shame paradigm was also brought up. Mr Vasudevan suggested that this was because those of the LGBT community are viewed as having turned their backs on reproduction – which, according to society, is the only purpose of sex. However, being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is seen as violating the family honour rather than the honour of the community.

The final topic of discussion was love – an audience member suggested that our perception of love is skewed, and Mr Vasudevan concurred that our exposure to discourses of love at home and in the media serve to create a bizarre understanding of the concept. Ms Radhakrishnan concluded the discussion, saying that love is a deglamourized version of friendship – which doesn’t need to be taught!

 

 

 

 

Photo album: IAWRT Film Festival in Chennai, February 22-23, 2013

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For a review of the festival, see Samidha’s article in OyeChennai.com.