South Asian women pushing back against rape culture
With its historical patriarchal values, complicated by disparities in caste, class, religion, and ethnicity, South Asia has long been an oppressive environment for women.
But South Asian women have a long history of activism and the recent shift to online activism provides them with another avenue to raise their voices.
Pakistan, with a population of 229 million, was recognized by researchers in 2013 as the fourth most dangerous country for women after Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. In India, between January and May 2021, the National Commission for Women registered 2,383 complaints of domestic violence, a 21-year high.
COVID-19 restricted people to their homes, further increasing violence against women from partners or family members. In Bangladesh, BRAC, a major non-government organization, reported that between March and April 2020, there was a 70 percent increase in violence against women compared with the previous year.
But the region has a long history of women asserting their rights: from the Chikpo Movement, a nonviolent movement to protect trees and forests, to West Indian rural women rioting for government support during severe droughts and famines in the early 1970s.
The Self-Employed Women’s Association, founded in 1972, organised lower class women in response to the hardships faced by women in informal work. Others, like Gulabi Gang, founded in 2006 in the Indian region of Bundelkhand, fought back against domestic and alcohol abuse.
Non-government organizations like Saheli in Delhi or Stree Mukti Sanghatana in Mumbai, and others like All India Democratic Women’s Association, an independent women’s organization, have created a network of women’s organizations with the aim of removing discrimination between men and women, fighting for equal rights and a society free from exploitation. Such groups were instrumental in the nationwide protests of the rape and murder of Nirbhaya in 2012 to the Hathras rape and murder in 2020. More recently, women in India took to the streets to protest the release of the 11 convicts of the Bilkis Bano Rape Case.
The contemporary feminist movement disrupted the silence surrounding the atrocities committed against women and questioned the image of women being accommodating, self-sacrificing, and devoted to serving the family.
With the shift to a more digital world, social media campaigns and protests have provided agency to thousands of South Asian women. They have used digital spaces to protest, connect with each other and express their opinions on wage inequality and demanded more autonomy over their bodies.
South Asian women have also used online activism to raise awareness about atrocities committed against them. Hashtags like #MeToo, #EverydaySexism, #UrgentAction4Women, #IWillGoOut, and #StopThisShame helped women to claim their agency, question the patriarchal values of society and draw attention to the pervasive sexism and harassment that women are subjected to. For example, #IWillGoOut raised awareness of women’s safety in public places and encouraged women to step out of their homes.
Pakistani women experience male violence, moral policing of their bodies and suppression of sexual choices, with little support for women and other marginalized genders. The annual Aurat March (Women’s March) began in 2018 and was inspired by the #MeToo Movement. Young women took to the streets to protest sexual harassment in a society where there is very little support for women speaking up about the issue. The march faced backlash and tremendous opposition from many sections of the largely conservative society. Protesters were labeled as bahaya (immodest) and gali ki kutiya (dogs of the streets) by bystanders with local journalists questioning protesters on how they balanced their views with their religion.
In Bangladesh, organizations like the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad protested the treatment of a young woman at Dhaka University who was assaulted on her way home from class. Protesters demanded CCTV be installed for increased safety. Despite limitations to the success of the #MeToo movement in Bangladesh, women took to the streets and also started the #RageAgainstRape movement.
As in India and Pakistan, women in Bangladesh do not have widespread support for speaking out and the laws are not in their favor. If South Asian women speak about their harassment, they risk already limited liberties. While feminist groups continue to fight for women’s rights, a form of solidarity is needed for movements to become implemented into policy and shift societal mindsets.
UN Women plays a critical role in developing and implementing policies to prevent violence against women in regions which are rife with it. UN Women focuses on “early education, respectful relationships, and working with men and boys”.
But the path to gender equality in South Asia is long and arduous. It will require not-for-profit groups to work together in unity if they are to make progress in promoting women’s rights.
(Nilanjana Paul is an assistant professor of history at The University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. She is the author of Bengal Muslims and Colonial Education, 1854-1947: A Study of Curriculum, Educational Institutions and Communal Politics, Routledge, 2022)