Futile chase for justice?

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

They Hang 12 women in my
portrait gallery
By Syeda S. Hameed
Women Unlimited,
New Delhi, India
ISBN 81-88965-26-X
183pp. Indian Rs275

Violence against women has now come to be recognised as a widespread phenomenon that has historical antecedents. As many as 69 per cent of women have reported being physically abused by a man in their lifetimes, the UNFPA reports. Hence there have been organised and collective efforts by the United Nations to address this problem in a bid to check it. With so much being said and written about gender-related violence, one would not have expected a book on this subject to shock its readers.

But Syeda Hameed`s They Hang does just that. It reads like horror fiction, except that it is painfully true and can give one quite a few sleepless nights. Coining the genre `faction`, the author, in her own words, `powerfully combines fact and fiction` by recording eight case studies in fictional style that are rooted in the true accounts of women whose identities have been carefully concealed. It is her style — simple, racy and poignant — that touches the reader. While Hameed is candid in her description of details — tragic and traumatising — she also writes with sensitivity and empathy.

The book contains the stories of 12 women — some of them girls in their teens — each of them so identical in the pain they suffered, their failure to obtain justice and the sense of guilt inflicted on them for a wrong they were not responsible for. Yet each story is different. They are stories of women being gang raped as punishment for marrying a man they loved (Maimun) or for the so-called `sins` of their brother (Gudiya). There are others, such as Jahanara, who were brought up in a brothel. There is Lalita, the 17-year old who was sent to Paris as a domestic to work for an Indian diplomat. Her employer sexually assaulted her and left her devastated. There are cases of dowry deaths, child sexual abuse and sexual harassment at work.

These were only some of the cases which came before the author when she was a member of the National Commission for Women (1997-2000). The Commission`s mandate was a daunting one — to make systemic changes so that `violence could be killed at its root`. Needless to say this did not happen, although the National Commission for Women in India is more powerful and influential than Pakistan`s National Commission on the Status of Women. The Indian body can summon the highest government functionary in the land and investigate any case it wants to. But as is usually the wont with such bodies, it has no binding powers and can only make recommendations. Small wonder its reports disappear down some bureaucratic hole never to be retrieved again.

Hameed admits that hers proved to be a futile chase for justice for the individual women whose cases she took up. It would have been too ambitious to seek a change in the system. There are far too many sociological, political, economic and cultural factors reinforced by centuries of tradition that have made violence against women so deeply embedded in South Asian societies. What is most disturbing is that by and large women have accepted gender violence as something natural and it is only now that enough awareness has been raised and the victims have begun to resist it.

This is the first step towards a solution. Of course for women to take this first step is not easy because resistance cannot come in isolation. It can only be a part of a process of empowering women, conscientising them and creating support systems to help them challenge the perpetrators of violence.
Syeda Hameed, who is a prolific writer, feminist and now a member of the Indian Planning Commission, has rendered a notable service to the women`s cause by writing this book. It would not have come easily to her since it revived memories of personal tragic experiences, which only a handful of lucky ones can claim to have escaped, and which one would rather forget.