Feminist life requires much unlearning and re-learning in different spaces and time since its inception in our vocabulary. Several battles against patriarchy are constantly fought by the marginalised gender communities, even without the essential knowledge of the F-word itself. One particular form of feminism that often plays out in mainstream affirmative action is carceral feminism. Elizabeth Bernstein, professor of Women’s Studies and Sociology at Barnard invented the term. It is an approach that is increasingly dependent on policing, prosecution and imprisonment as the only solutions to gender and sexual violence.
Laws against sexual violence are a necessity for the protection of survivors against heinous crimes. However, sole dependency on the State incarceration mechanism does little to remove the structural causes responsible for rape culture. The prison system of punishment breeds the existing patriarchal environment where toxic masculinity is encouraged and the cycle of abuse and violence subsists with no room for transformative justice. In light of this, is carceral feminism and related politics the right approach in dealing with sexual and gender violence? Or should we explore ways that nudge towards a reform in socio-cultural mindset of the society for a more permanent progress?
As a young child at the helpless age of ten, principles of feminism played in much peculiar ways of life. I often struggled to let go of the unease I felt when Maa ate alone after serving all the men in the family. At other times, I felt my heart swell when I witnessed Maa speaking in loud eloquent words on the latest political debate in the house. As I grew up, several scenarios with peers, partners and colleagues provided diverse lessons on feminism embedded in a rigid patriarchal reality of everyday life. This reality of everyday life has spilled over into our virtual world as well. Our lives on social media are not simply an occasional escape from the physical world but shape and manifest within our personalities where often it becomes impossible to separate one from the other. The presence of feminism then becomes necessary in amplifying the ongoing struggles faced by members of the marginalised gender. It attempts to dismantle the patriarchal hegemony which assumes the status quo on every new platform of virtual reality as well.
A discussion on the feminist stance, especially in the realm of sexual violence instantly reminds us of the aftermath that ensued post the December 2012 rape case. On the outset, as a society, we were enraged at the dehumanising violence inflicted by the rape convicts. Our collective emotions and fervour required swift actions from the State to undo the shame on our collective conscience. What transpired was not just the arrest and ultimately (after eight long years) the hanging of the convicts but also a change in the laws on sexual violence.
The reforms implemented were quite the deviation from their original recommendations provided by the Justice Verma Committee appointed for the very purpose. The legislators merely focused on introducing harsher blanket punishments for the offence of rape. Unlike the recommendations, little attention was paid towards expanding rape laws substantively such as introducing gender neutrality of victim in rape, accounting for rape in communal violence and rape by security forces.
At present, the criminal justice system continues down the path of retributive justice by incarcerating the accused for gender and sexual violence but does not find it necessary to respond to the needs of the survivors and their consequent rehabilitation and re-integration within the community. Moreover, the ends of justice do not envision the larger purpose of eliminating rape culture from the patriarchal mindset of the society.
On the outset, increased criminalisation and enhanced punishments in penal laws provide simplistic solutions to those survivors of sexual violence who are able to access the criminal justice system. But mere incarceration fails to address the systemic causes of a sexually violent culture. Additionally, the incarceration system in itself is a double-edged sword for the victims and accused especially belonging to the marginalised communities.
These actors are then shifted from a situation of sexual violence to a situation of perpetual state violence inflicted through the criminal justice system and their places of detention. As a result, where police actions are often unchecked, detention of pre-trial and trial prisoners is rampant and court hearings continue for decades, neither justice is guaranteed to the survivor nor any scope of reforming the rape culture is a near possibility.
As much as the handling of sexual violence by the State seems abysmal, civic participation through social media has carried forward discussions on the issue in recent times. There have been recurrent bouts of backlash against the excesses inflicted by the police, fake encounters orchestrated in rape cases and lack of empathy towards survivors by the judiciary. Feminists have also highlighted the colonial and patriarchal roots of penal laws that ignore the need for an intersectional feminist approach to criminal law reforms. They have condemned the lack of diverse representation in the all-male committees established to recommend law reforms on the issue of sexual violence.
However, at the same time, the loss of faith in the criminal justice system has not completely done away with carceral feminism. In fact, dependency on increased policing and punishment for sexual violence has found its place on social media platforms, particularly through the cancel culture. In such cases, the individual who is viewed as a perpetrator of sexual violence is denounced by significant majority on social media. When engaging in such a culture, we enter into the vicious practice of ignoring due process and instead inflict vengeful forms of justice, one that carceral feminism and carceral feminist politics fail to overcome even in the non-virtual world. The elimination of that single perpetrator is accepted as the sole method of ending systemic gender and sexual violence by carceral feminism. This reduction of the root cause of the sexual violence only to that individual ignores the overarching patriarchal mindset which breeds a sense of entitlement by one gender over the other in acts of sexual violence.
Unlike murder, where the offender’s personal history and/or trauma are often the cause of violence, sexual violence culminates from a society that places moral honour and shame over the material body of a woman who can then be dishonoured by the violent act of rape. To be able to transform this very mindset is a blow to the entitlement of men, however cancel culture and carceral feminism limits learning and transformation by creating a hostile social media environment.
Any attempt at discussing the course adopted by carceral feminism proponents on social media is not to undermine the tremendous impact generated through social media activism. Issues of sexual and gender violence that never find place in the current mainstream media climate have invoked swift action from state machineries in several scenarios such as rape threats to comedians over their content. However, effective activism through social media must also start evaluating the impact it creates beyond immediate action and upon the rigid patriarchal mindset and culture within us. Such deep rooted changes may perhaps not simply be possible through carceral feminism, cancelling and calling out isolated actors but would involve deeper, inclusive and empathetic conversations that move people into imbibing the ideals of feminism as a way of life.
Shreyashi is a lawyer having an active interest in democratic dissent, feminism and related socio-political discourses. She has previously written short stories on feminist themes and often likes to speak through opinion pieces. She currently spends her time at Teach For India (TFI) imparting legal education to an excited bunch of teenagers from all over the country. She can be found on Facebook and Instagram.
Featured Image Credit: Shreya Tingal/Feminism In India