Feminist Responses to Violence against Women In India

Feminist Responses to Violence against Women In India

Nishi Mitra

India today has the dubious distinction of being one of the most dangerous places in the world for women. The National Crimes Record Bureau statistics of 2014 show a dismal picture with a total of 3,37,922 cases of crime against women being reported in the country, an increase of 9.2% from the previous year and 58.2% from the year 2010. Cases of cruelty by a husband or his relatives (36.4%), assault with Intent to outrage modesty (24.3 %), kidnapping and abduction (17.0%) and rape (10.9%) are the main crimes reported. However this is just the tip of the iceberg, as many other forms of violence against girls and women are rampant including female foeticide, infanticide, child-marriages, honour killings, caste based sexual violence and trafficking. Moreover much violence remains unpunished and even unreported due to a culture of silence, shame and apathy.

These shocking statistics notwithstanding, the fact is that feminist campaigns against violence against women have been mobilized in India since the late 1970s. In the earliest organized interventions, custodial rape, police atrocities and lawlessness were targeted alongside dowry deaths and bride burnings. Journalists, lawyers, civil liberties groups, political parties and women’s groups could rally together. They were able to politicize the issue through their radical questioning of family, tradition and culture, in protest marches, campaigns, demonstrations and area meetings, triggering what has been called as a ‘public chain reaction’ (Gandhi and Shah:1992; Datar:1993). They pointed out that violence against women was neither an individual nor a private affair, rather it required public and State responsiveness. The interlocking of gender based violence with caste, religion and other structural vulnerabilities was realized and emphasized from the beginning  (Kannibaran & Menon: 2007).

Demands for legislative actions, changes in laws and criminal procedures, and the sensitization of police and judiciary, formed the most significant part of the feminist strategy. A succession of amendments to the law, between 1980-1989, showed how powerful this advocacy was at the time . Feminist engagement with the issue also led to the establishment of women support cells, feminist counseling cells, alternative and temporary shelters and legal aid cells. Activists led direct action against rapists, batterers and abusers using the power of the community to name and shame them.   Some very creative community based interventions have been led by dynamic women grassroots activists who tried to address familial violence and street violence through community work and work with men, focusing on widespread lack of education, alcoholism, early marriage, economic dependency and women’s powerlessness in community decision making  (Mitra , 2001).

This work expanded the feminist understanding of the complex interrelations of patriarchy, violence and power. Therefore, one of the consistent feminist strategies has been to continually press for a change in the limited legal definitions of violence against women so as to substantively address women’s lived realities and vulnerabilities. The legal changes sought did not always translate into enactments and there were many loopholes in the amended laws (Agnes: 1992). For example, until recently rape was defined as the penetration of the vagina by a penis. Insertion of a finger or any other part of the body or of objects like bottles and sticks, forced oral or anal penetration by penis or other objects even when they caused grievous injury, were regarded as lesser forms of sexual assault. However in 2013, the brutal gang rape of a 23 year old girl named Nirbhaya, in the capital city of Delhi, provoked a public outrage that forced the government to re-look at some long standing demands of the feminist movement. It was forced to change its outdated rape and sexual assault laws to include non-peno vaginal penetration and to define consent as an ‘unequivocal agreement to engage in a particular sexual act’. Stalking, voyeurism, acid attacks and forcibly disrobing a woman also came to be recognized as explicit crimes for the first time in the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. Similarly the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, sought to provide relief to women experiencing violence, abuse and desertion in the home by expanding the definition of domestic violence and victim, to include not only physical violence, but also other forms of violence such as emotional, verbal, sexual, and economic abuse. It is a comprehensive piece of legislation that seeks to address actual violence and the threat of it by ensuring protection and civil remedies not only to married women but also to those in ‘marriage like’ relationships and those experiencing violence from their natal kin. Protecting women’s economic rights has been a concern for feminists as violence against women in natal and marital homes is linked to their construction as economically burdensome.

The demand for a uniform civil code has been one of the most controversial aspects of feminist strategies for addressing the subordination of women’s rights in marriage and their violations through patriarchal interpretations of ‘personal’ (religious) laws in India. While control over women’s sexuality is central to customary laws and scriptural doctrines, the women’s movement has sensitively differentiated its strategies from the Hindu right wing emphasis on a uniform civil code based on the majority perspective.  It has creatively prioritized inter-community reforms while not negating religious difference and the complex significance of family, community and religion for women.

However feminists are now forced to rethink their strategies, as the law and criminal justice system in India have failed to arrest the problem of spiralling violence against women.  Implementation of laws has been partial and convictions rates have been disappointing. Similar problems to those raised in the 1970s and 1980s persist today. Feminists still have to confront the patriarchal myths about rape and ideas of morality and female chastity that abound in police and judicial discourses even after more than four decades of the movement. Inefficiency, insensitivity and corruption are rampant. The police are regularly accused of non-registration of cases of violence involving powerful people and those from the upper castes. Poor investigation methods, prolonged court procedures and ignorant or insensitive judges compound the problem. We continue to protest against the lack of State responsibility for State and Non-State actors involved in violence and abuse of women.

Therefore the recent changes in rape law do not today allay feminist disillusionment and disquiet with the way the issue of violence against women has been addressed in the country. Parallel to the ‘protectionist ‘ law exist processes and politics that legitimize and sanction violence against ‘ some’ women on grounds of faith and community. The States’ knee jerk reaction, to high visibility cases, its rhetoric of capital punishment for rape cases, its apathy to collective violence against minority and lower caste dalit women, only points to the fact that feminist interventions have made a limited impact on the dominant constructions of women’s sexuality and objectification. In reality, unequal power relations compel most women to compromise and accept violence as a routine experience for fear of further victimization, loss of honour, backlash and restriction of freedom. Despite this situation it cannot be denied that rising statistics may point to the fact that something has changed to make it possible for women to be able to report violence hitherto hidden.

There are some paradoxes however. Structural inequalities have deepened such that more insidious forms of violence have arisen. Increased consumerism has its ugly face in greater objectification, and women must contend with rising violence in public spaces and cyberspace (Datta: 2013). Yet it is inspiring that new forms of campaigning and lobbying have arisen through use of social media and new information technologies and many young people are taking the initiative to launch successful and creative cyber campaigns targeting violence against women. Processes of urbanization and industrialization that create new opportunities for women also make for displacement and disasters wherein poor women from rural and tribal communities are further dispossessed and face loss of livelihood and sexual exploitation. Advancements in science and technology are, ironically, co-existing with the devaluation of women and girls and new forms of technologies themselves are used to kill female foetuses. Women are themselves transforming traditional understanding of gender roles through active and consenting participation in militant and communal violence and their experiences of organized political violence demonstrates complex ways in which violence impacts them in forging survival strategies and making for both resistance and peace (Manchanda: 2001).

In this complex scenario, the feminist debates on violence have also diversified and matured. The violence of normative heterosexuality, violence against lesbians, dissident sexualities, and the  need for gender neutral laws on sexual assault is being debated . There is rethinking in certain quarters about the need for a change of strategy to emphasize women’s sexual desire, agency and freedoms rather than perpetuating sexual stereotyping through asking for laws to protect women from violence. Such laws themselves perpetuate conservative notions of protecting women’s chastity, virginity and goodness (Kapoor: 2005). There is much happening in the contemporary scene that is compelling feminists in India to redefine their theories and analyses of women, violence and victim-hood. Through all this the fact remains that consistent feminist organizing and campaigning against violence over the last four decades has sustained a struggle that is not yet over and that needs fresh thinking.

Bishakha Datta Nine Degrees of Justice:  New Perspectives on Violence Against Women in India (Zubaan Books,2013).
Chhaya Datar Struggle against Violence (Stree, 1993).
Flavia Agnes  Protecting Women against Violence: Review of a Decade of Legislation, 1980-89. In Economic and Political Weekly April 25,  1992)
Kalpana Kananbiran and Ritu Menon From Mathura to Manorama : Resisting Violence against Women in India (Women Unlimited , 2007).
Nandita Gandhi and  Nandita Shah  The issues at Stake ( Kali for Women, 1992).
Nishi Mitra Community Based Initiatives in the Struggle against Domestic Violence. In The Indian Journal of Social  Work. Vol 62, Issue 3, July 2001.
Ratna Kapoor  Erotic Justice : Law and the New Politics of Postcolonialism (Routledge-Cavendish , 2005).
Rita Manchanda Women, War and Peace in South Asia : Beyond Victim-hood to Agency ( South Asian Forum for Human Rights ,2001).


Nishi Mitra is Associate Professor in the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India. She is the author of articles Domestic Violence Research: Expanding Understandings but Limited Perspective and Intimate Violence, Family, and Femininity:Women’s Narratives on Their Construction of Violence and Self