Book Excerpt: Undoing Impunity – Speech After Sexual Violence By V. Geetha

In Undoing Impunity – Speech After Sexual Violence, activist and historian V. Geetha unpacks the meanings of impunity in relation to sexual violence in the context of South Asia. The State’s misuse of its own laws against its citizens is only one aspect of the edifice of impunity; its less-understood resilience comes from its consistent denial of the recognition of suffering on the part of victims, and its refusal to allow them the dignity of pain, grief and loss.

The author argues that the State and its citizens must work together to accord social recognition to the suffering of victims and survivors of sexual violence, and thereby join in what she calls ‘a shared humanity’. While this may or may not produce legal victories, the acknowledgment that the suffering of our fellow citizens is our collective responsibility is an essential first step towards securing justice. It is this, that in a fundamental sense, challenges and illuminates the contours and details of State impunity and positions impunity as not merely a legal or political conundrum, but as resolute refusal on the part of State personnel to be part of a shared humanity.

The link between sexual violence and impunity appears given. For many of us concerned with, or working on, issues to do with sexual violence in South Asia, what could be more self-evident? That this is a crime, a violation that is systematically misrecognized; that both perpetrator and the criminal justice system that is meant to investigate the crime are prone to blame the victim; that justice if and when it is delivered is almost always partial, inadequate and delayed: while enough and more has been written on all these matters, we don’t need the comforting bind of scholarship to assert what we know as concerned citizens and dismayed feminists.

We know too that this indifference to sexual assault is not merely a matter of State recalcitrance to prosecute a vile crime or an extraordinary effect of the perfectly ordinary workings of the criminal justice system in our contexts. We are all too aware that there exists immense tolerance for sexual violence against women in the social and cultural worlds we inhabit, which is not always evident, belied as it is by the dramatic horror that accompanies all discussions of it. Across our geographies, the social meanings invested in the violated woman’s body on the one hand and her so-called ‘character’ on the other precede and frame understanding and prove decisive in determining what she deserves: justice or the horrific violence she was subject to. In itself, sexual violence is not seen as problematic.

This might appear a harsh characterization, but it is not an inaccurate one. Writing of how rape has come to be viewed as ‘normal’ in Nagaland in India, Dolly Kikon notes that long decades of harsh militarization in the region (from the 1950s) have fostered an understanding of rape as a fundamental dividing line between the cruelty of the Indian Armed Forces and the resistance of the Naga people. Rapes committed by soldiers with impunity have thus come to stand in for ‘rape’ as such, and elided other sorts of sexual violence, such as they existed and continue to exist within Naga homes, rival insurgent groups and on the streets. It has been possible to ‘overlook’ these other forms of sexual violence, suggests Kikon, because they are not viewed as catastrophic for the victim, and instead understood in terms of what ‘men’ do and what in some instances women ‘incite’ them to do; that is, women, by their demeanor and behavior ‘ask’ to be assaulted. Thus, Naga women’s bodies materialize value only in the context of an embattled Naga identity; in contexts where questions of identity are not germane, the harm done to these bodies is naturalized as something ‘that happens’ and is allowed neither the dignity of rational analysis nor passionate anger that can challenge such hurt. Further, observes Kikon, the impunity enjoyed by the armed forces in the region, sanctified by legislation such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has meant that soldiers who rape are not punished, and this has actually produced a wider culture of non-accountability with respect to rape, and ‘normalized’ it.

Excerpted with permission from Undoing Impunity – Speech After Sexual Violence by V. Geetha, Zubaan. You can buy the book here.

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