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).


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!