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


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.