June 3, 2014

Rape: A lesson in Internal Colonialism


The focalization of nation-making energies onto the figure of the ‘young woman’ has a rich history in India. Violence on the body of a young woman found the most urgent response in the colonial encounter. Men, native to the populations of the subcontinental colony, destroyed the subjective aspirations and possiblities of women, and in the worst possible case, killed them on the pyres of their dead husbands. The tradition of brahminical polygamy carried on by Kulin Brahmins in the larger Bengal region, to protect the genealogies of higher caste families spoke the truth of this subjective killing. As young women (many of them, children) had to be married to men (even if, of much older generations) of the same caste and creed. The Dayabhag school of property law that imagined the widow as rightful stakeholder in the assets of her marital family was also present in the cartography of struggle in the Hindu upper-caste Bengali society. The institution of sati (or suttee) is often thought to have a nexus with this progressive principle that would present the threat of future property stakeholders. That said, the burning of bodies that are turgid with life-expectation, beauty and grace is marked in history, as the most heinous deviations from humane-ness. The road to progress is impeded as the colonial schooling of the existing elite Bengali clans burn the bodies of young woman. The colonist intervenes. The colonial rehearsal of a rescue fantasy. Women, it is often said, fall in love with their rescuers.  These women surely could use the attention and help of an outsider. This outsider, the bigger sovereign over her life and physical security, was the colonial empire. Whose intervention brings these expectant Bengali men to shame. Their claim to their own civilizational sophistication is one that they strengthen in championing the cause of the ‘woman’. Some, like Rammohun Roy, participate in anti-sati legislative reform. Others embark on social reform projects around women’s education. We are as attentive to the woman question as you are, they say.

Such voices echo through virtual public spheres, each day as young girls and women are raped, mutilated and hanged in India, stoned in middle-eastern countries, not allowed to drive somewhere else, and shot gun for not encouraging a young boy’s desire for sex. The Rape Question in India is a particularly telling one. The photos of two girls in salwar-kurtas and braids (speaking of their innocent, girlish desirableness – as also potentiality, fertility) are flashed across the internet. A year ago, the Delhi gangrape case where a twenty-something young, professional woman was raped and mutilated, and who ultimately died. Months ago, the Tehelka molestation case, brought to fore questions that the public is a bit more divided on – ease of women’s habitation in important skilled professions like the media. And what that signals towards the regime of control of their bodies. We are all united in asking for intactness and non-mutilation of young women’s bodies. It is heinous to not be so and ask for such. For the figure of the young women’s body carries too much internal loops of. Our own, the khap panchayat’s, the NGO’s, the family’s, the visual economy’s, empire’s. We are therefore ashamed at these events, as a nation and a nationally organized, internationally located public. These are hidden demons - profane. The men who did this must be punished, and young women must be protected as a site of sacred potentiality. They represent an important futurity as mothers, daughters and sex symbols. 


The young woman’s presence represents an important location in political formations of community, family and nation. We knew this. Their mutilation breeds a particular form of political guilt. Among the subjects – Indian and otherwise – who rise up in the anxious stance of ‘we are as attentive to the woman question as you are’. We are looking back cautiously, every now and then, to ensure that our immersion in the woman question is made explicit to the metropolitan/western/imperial gaze. No Muslim women do not need saving. Implies, if they do need to be saved, I will organize the necessary saving. No the alarmist shaming of international media over the Indian rape is not politically expedient. We are attentive enough to the horrors of the situation, without them having to remind us. No our Queens do not have to go to the Netherlands to recognize the misogyny of their fianc├ęs. We imagine a colonist breathing over our shoulders. We embrace immediate tenancies over our women. It is a masculine embrace, though the subjects are not always only male. Our cautious location in the cacophony of reprimand that unfolds across twitter and other mediatized domains of self-awareness, gives us away. The rape of a young woman’s body erodes bit by bit, a sense of an internal colony, one that we can hold onto. The visual representation of such rape constitutes a comment on such weakening control. Not yours to save. The call for saving, and the warding off of someone else’s saving gesture, expresses this particular anxiety. The communal ownership of reproductive expectation – the fantasy of femininity, writ large. It’s the scale of the community that differentiates the tenor of anxiety– each fighting against the imminent engulfment by the next bigger fold. Village, town, city, nation, NGO, internet, empire. What do white feminists know? Implies, I know better how to protect these fragile, vulnerable bodies. I am their rightful custodian. The rape question shows in sharp relief the most internal of colonialisms.