Trigger warning - Discussion about rape
My first post for The Handmirror was going to introduce my pseudonym and give readers a bit of an insight into why I'd chosen to name myself after the feminist thinker and activist that has touched me the most, bell hooks (look forward to that post in the coming weeks).
Instead I've chosen to reflect on the events suceeding the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi and the assault of her friend last month.
Coverage of largely women led protests in India and abroad has been extensive in the mainstream media and blogs. Two pieces of writing have impacted on me and are worth a look at.
The New Yorker - After rape and murder fury in Delhi by Basharat Peer
The New York Times - After being rapes I was wounded not my honour by Sohaila Abdulali
The New Yorker article stood out in particular because of the inclusion of a video of Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association (if on the off chance you understand Hindi it's well worth a watch) that dealt with the issue of sexual violence, the failure of governments to protect women and the broader issue of the regulation of women by their families and communities.
My own personal reflection takes a very different route to these articles. Given my geographic distance from the events and that my understanding comes primarily from English medium sources I can't add much at this point to the debate about rape culture in India. Instead I'm going to focus on a small reflection that I had while attending the silent protest held in solidarity with protests in India organised by the Young Asian Feminist Association (YAFA) with support from Shakti.
The last time I went to India I was nine years old and my experience of Indian society and culture is deeply rooted in the diaspora. My Indian education has largely been through the sporadic and adapted teachings of my parents and grandparents and a good dose of Indian pop culture though Bollywood movies and music. What I felt is probably a reflection of where I'm situated in relation to this particular tragedy. I acknowledge that it's quite a meta reflection and may seen trivial to some. However it reflects the pervasiveness but often unique manifestatiosn of patriarchy.
The leaders of the Auckland based protest, quite appropriately requested that people attending wore white as this is the colour associated with mourning in India. White symbolises the absence of colour with colour being an important part of celebrations and festivities for most communities in the subcontinent. Like in the Western tradition white also symbolises purity.
Sitting in the heat last Saturday wearing a white dress and dupatta (scarf) that belonged to my great grandmother I contemplated the significance of us wearing white and about how this symbolic gesture fitted in with our broader attempts to fight the patriarchy.
An ever present challenge for feminists is the pervasiveness of patriarchal culture within many of our communities and that while we fight the patriarchy on on front (sorry for the masculine language) it rears it's head in other ways.
This means as feminists we must be continually conscience of the patriarchy and its manifestations particularly in our forms of resistance. Sometimes that means our behaviour or methods will need to change and other times it simply means being mindful and taking that mindfulness forward into our lives.
For many Indian communities particularly those still residing in the sub-continent the standard dress for funerals is white. Wearing a particular shade or type of dress is something that many cultures have with colours and forms of clothing having particular symbolic meanings relevant to those cultural and spiritual contexts. In some cultures both historically and in contemporary society widows are particularly marked in how they should dress after the death of their husbands symbolising their continual mourning and status a widow. The wearing of black, associated with Queen Victoria, in the Western tradition and in Eastern and Southern European traditions is noteworthy as is the wearing of white and pale colours in Indian contexts. As with everything family traditions, caste, class and religion has an important role to play in this community and self regulation resulting in considerable diversity in expressions of mourning.
While I took comfort in the communal wearing of white at the protest I was reminded of the partriachial role the wearing of white has played in the lives of widows in many Indian communities. While the tradition is less prevelent the colour associated with mourning reminds me of the often young woman who find themselves without husbands but still regulated by their status as a wife. In Hindi movies such as the iconic Sholay and the more recent Baabul and the festival film Water, this highly regulated role of a widow is portrayed with sadness and frustration with little ability to make life choices (something fundamental to feminism).
It may be that in both the subcontinent and the diaspora these patriarchal structures have largely broken down (it's hard for me to know) and that white no longer has this association with the heavy regulation of women widows in the communities it once did. However I'm sure that in many places and communities it still does.
I support the decision by the protest organisers to ask people to wear white. I think it was culturally appropriate and really emphasised that this was a protest that was organised by women of colour predominately from an Asian background. But what it made me realise, something that is pointed out by Kavita Krishnan, is that when we rise up against rape culture we have to also consider the broader regulation of women within society. In this way we can really honour the memory of Jyoti Singh Pandey and other women such as her something the silent protest last Sunday did really well.