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Another kind of terror

The Indian State and citizens are pledging to fight against political terror. But what about the sexual terror that all women have faced, survived and continue to silently battle? Why has no government ever called for a war against this kind of terror, asks Manjima Bhattacharjya

By now, much has been written about the mind-numbing violence in Mumbai on ‘26/11’. But this New Year, cast as it was in the dark shadows of the terrorist strikes, I was reminded of an incident that occurred last New Year’s eve which also saw some middle class ‘waking up’ as well as a series of outrages. Most critically though, it reminded me of another kind of ‘terror’ that women live with every day. 

Last year, outside a hotel in Mumbai, two women, apparently visitors to a nearby hotel for their New Year bash, were walking to their vehicles on the main Juhu-Tara road with two male companions when they were publicly molested by a mob. As shocking pictures of the incident shattered the post-holiday bliss, middle class India’s smugness at being the second fastest growing economy in the world collapsed like a house of cards. Despite the outpourings of shock and outrage, nothing happened in the case, with the victims engulfed in humiliation and that special shame so unique to South Asians, choosing to escape more trauma by making a hasty retreat to their home state, although photographic evidence of the molesters did exist and some in the mob were duly identified.  

This incident was only the tip of the iceberg, and in the statistical scheme of things, even rather common. After all, every 26 minutes a woman is molested in India. Dodging molesters, whacking gropers and ignoring catcalls is part of our everyday existence. But added to that are other forms of violence, threat and terror reserved for womankind that eat up our bodies and erode our minds again and again, and hardly get the attention or action they deserve. This New Year’s eve also, 22-year-old K.Swapnika from Hyderabad, who along with her friend was attacked with acid thrown in her face by three unidentified assailants (apparently a ‘spurned lover’), succumbed to her injuries after battling for her life for over two weeks.

The burning of brides, murders of widows for property, rape, battery, spurned lovers throwing acid on young women’s faces because they dared to say no (in fact, the BBC reported that kerosene and acid were increasingly the weapons of choice in India), jaw-dropping statistics of female infanticide and pre-natal sex selection. We have such a high tolerance threshold for violence against women. Everyday violence marks women’s lives, whether in times of war or peace, terrorist strikes or not.  

Everyday violence

“The word terrorism invokes images of furtive organisations of the far right or left, whose members blow up buildings and cars, hijack airplanes, and murder innocent people in some country other than ours”, writes academic Carole J Sheffield in a poignant essay.1 “But there is a different kind of terrorism, one that so pervades our culture that we have learned to live with it as though it were the natural order of things. Its targets are females – of all ages, races and classes. It is the common characteristic of rape, wife battery, incest, pornography, harassment, and all forms of sexual violence. I call it sexual terrorism because it is a system by which males frighten and by frightening, control and dominate females.”  

Sheffield goes on to discuss the theme in one of her classes in college. Women students talked about their secret terrors – fears of jogging alone, walking to their cars after evening class on campus, shopping alone, going for a movie alone, being driven home late at night by men (even those they knew), as the male students listened fascinated. When it was time for them to talk about their ‘secret terrors’, these things did not feature on their list. In fact, hard as they tried, they could not come up with any examples that were similar to the fears experienced by the women. They did experience fear of violence in general, being in places like Harlem or ‘disreputed’ neighbourhoods, but never did they experience ‘vague terror’ as the women had articulated walking to their cars or at the movies or in the evenings. They never feared being attacked simply because they were male.


During my own doctoral research with young women from Delhi and Mumbai trying to make it in the glamour industry, similar emotions were echoed. As single, young women especially in a city like Delhi, being in an industry which had its fair share of sleazy characters, undercurrents of ‘sexual terror’ had become part of their lives. The term itself was used by many of the women themselves in trying to articulate and pinpoint what this feeling, this essence, this fear was that they were talking about. A 21-year-old from a well-to-do family from South Delhi said, “On the road, the way men stare… it’s like ‘I will terrorise you!’ Girls get this kind of attention.”  

Some talked in detail about the kind of planning and preparation that went into avoiding such encounters and guarding themselves from potentially harmful situations, especially in public transport, roads and other urban spaces. A young model shared how the clothes they had to wear to an audition often was inappropriate to travel to the venue of the audition in, therefore they sometimes wore a shirt over the ‘costume’ or wore subdued make-up en route to the venue, and once there, would change according to the needs of the audition. Some monitored and modified their lifestyle, behaviour, way of talking, dressing, curtailed their own freedoms at times to deal with this feeling of always being under some sort of threat. Others spoke of the virtues of pepper spray, chilli powder, safety pins and mobile phones that they made sure found a way into their handbags for any possible act of terror against them. Their concerns only magnify the terror that underlies most urban spaces for women in our cities, spaces which continue to be strongly male and women-unfriendly. Kumkum Sangari notes that the urban space is strongly linked in male imagination to the westernised woman, she who is “a blind follower of western fashion which reduces her to little more than a sexualised body to be gazed at and at times, even groped”.2 Such are the everyday realities of women in times of relative peace. 

A fear lurking within us is one thing, being a target of such terror is another – whether it is through stalking, obscene phone calls, internet harassment or acid attacks. Currently in the spotlight is a proposed legislation to specifically address the phenomenon of acid attacks, looking at more rigorous punishments (including the death penalty) and making accessibility of acids more stringent. A state minister noted that there had been 73 cases of acid attacks on women in Karnataka since 2001.  

Acid attacks (most of which are on women, and almost half of which are on young women below 18) are notorious in the region: Bangladesh already has a law in place, having suffered over 200 acid attacks, especially on young women (even girls below 10) per year since 1999. In 2002 it introduced the death penalty as the number of victims grew to 500 a year. A few months ago, a group of teenage girls on their way to school in Kandahar were attacked with acid for daring to go to school3. As for Pakistan, Human Rights Watch reported that nearly 280 women were killed and 750 injured through acid attacks in Pakistan in 2002. What were the motives behind these attacks? Refusals of marriage/love/’friendship’, to dowry disputes, domestic violence, property disputes, revenge, stepping out of line, ‘family honour’, not wearing the veil, being outside the home, being immodestly dressed, provoking male anger in general.  

In conflict zones

In situations of conflict, war or unrest, sexual terrorism takes an ominously different form. An insightful report from USAID4 defines ‘sexual terrorism’ in the context of the Rwandan genocide and civil war in 1994: Rape and associated violence against civilians (women, men, girls, and boys) have been widely employed as weapons in the multiple regional and civil wars that have plagued the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Such violence … became more frequent in1994 in the context of regional conflicts stemming from the Rwandan genocide and the pursuant exodus of Rwandan civilians and armed groups into eastern DRC. … Perceived as a particularly effective weapon of war and used to subdue, punish, or take revenge upon entire communities, acts of sexual and gender-based violence increased concomitantly. Attacks have comprised individual rapes, sexual abuse, gang rapes, mutilation of genitalia, and rape-shooting or rape-stabbing combinations, at times undertaken after family members have been tied up and forced to watch… Victims range in age from four months… to 84 years of age.” 

In the genocidal violence in Gujarat 2002 or as recently as the rape of Christian nuns in the Orissa communal killings in 2008, such acts of terror have been systematically used as a weapon of war to shame, humiliate, target, terrify and ‘punish’ a particular community. In Iraq, even as the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo5 are fading, increasing reports of sexual terrorism are emerging. Amnesty International wrote in a 2005 report6 that "For women in Iraq, the stigma frequently attached to the victims instead of the perpetrators of sexual crimes makes reporting such abuses especially daunting." 

No war against this terror

The response to the terror strikes in Mumbai has oscillated between caution and defiance; “It can’t stop us from living our lives,” said the common man in umpteen television bytes, “We can’t let it affect our everyday lives or else we will go out of our minds.” How many times have we as women said this to ourselves, even as family, relatives and society try to impose new restrictions – don’t wear this, don’t do that, don’t go here, don’t come home late…? Women live, love, work, laugh, in spite of the terror.  

The crucial difference between sexual and political terrorism, as academics like Sheffield have pointed out, is that in the case of political terrorism, the terrorist is usually targeted as a criminal and the victim empathised with. But in the case of the sexual terrorism, the victims themselves are blamed and the ‘terrorist’ actions justified: “he must have been a sick man”, “men need to release themselves”, “it’s only natural” are common refrains as is the clincher: “boys will be boys”.  

What does security mean for women? Is it more budgets for defence spending, new anti-terror legislation, a new taskforce, or is it taking these other kinds of acts of terror seriously? Crimes against women are hardly taken seriously. In Swapnika’s case, her father claimed to have alerted the police a month before the attack that they were being harassed. A Times of India report informed us on the eve of 2009 that data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for the last three years shows that  “crimes against the fairer sex are steadily increasing, and less and less number of the accused are getting convicted”7. Shocking statistics followed. More than 1.85 lakh cases of crimes against women were registered in the country in 2007; only 27,612 cases led to a conviction (14.9%). Some states reported dismal convictions: Delhi had 13.4% convictions, Maharashtra had 4% conviction while West Bengal had only 2.8% convictions.  

Rape, violence, sexual threats, the threat of violence and harassment -- these have always been the face of terrorism that women have faced, survived and continue to silently battle. But no government ever called for a war against this kind of terror.   

InfoChange News & Features, January 2009