TW: Mention & description of violence including rape
Manipur has been teetering on what many believe is the brink of a civil war since the beginning of May this year. On the 4th of May, two Kuki-Zo women in Kangpokpi district, were stripped naked, publicly paraded, and allegedly sexually assaulted by a group of Meitei Men. It has been reported that the perpetrators of the attack acted in retaliation to a widespread but unsubstantiated report of sexual assault and subsequent murder of a Meitei woman by Kuki men. In short, men of a certain community attacked the women of another community to teach their men a lesson.
“If you want to humiliate and terrorize and clear a population from somewhere, raping the women and girls is a very effective way of doing it. I’ve had militias saying to me before, ‘It’s very cheap; it’s cheaper than a Kalashnikov bullet,” said Christina Lamb, author of the book Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women.
A concurrent report contradictorily states that the attack may have taken place spontaneously as a part of the ongoing conflict and was not in retaliation to any news. Regardless, the fact remains that the perpetrators weaponized women’s bodies to threaten a community. Women have once again been relegated to being mere pawns in the vicious ego tussle between opposing factions as a result of patriarchy.
Response to the attack: retaliation or solution?
A well-thought response to a sexual crime against a woman would be to express empathy for the person and their family and design systems to ensure women’s safety from such crimes in the future. Such steps are seldom the response to heinous attacks on women. Instead, communities in conflict zones more often than not retaliate by attacking the women of the opposing factions. A probable explanation for this choice is that women are rarely seen as individuals that make up the community. They are seen as an extension of the community’s honour. Their actions are hence not based on empathy for the person who has been abused, but on losing this collective sense of honour.
War rapes are more than just war crimes
The actions of the perpetrators of sexual crimes in a civil war can’t be looked at as war crimes alone. One must also consider that these acts can be acts of opportunism as well. A mob of armed persons confronting a few unarmed women might as well be misusing the situation to settle a personal score, scarring them for life. Being part of a mob may also give the perpetrators a feeling of immunity from the consequences of their crimes.
Aftermath of the attack
The Manipur incident is a testament that such a brutal attack on one woman is an attack on all womankind. Such an injustice to any woman affects innumerable others. Many people are affected as a result of such an attack: first and essentially, the women who have been attacked, then their family and their community, then the women in the opposing community who must now live in the constant fear of retaliation, and finally, womankind who in the aftermath of the attack are compelled to question their perception of their safety, identity, and place in the world.
This attack also has a ripple effect on the ongoing conflict. Any integrity in the struggle between the communities has gone for a toss because it has lost its moral high ground. This also presents an opportunity for outsiders to hijack the crisis, declare everyone part of the struggle guilty, and overthrow the resistance.
What fuels such attacks?
Patriarchy is undoubtedly the main reason that women are relegated to the position of political pawns in times of conflict, but other factors fuel this inhumane practice as well. In 2002, Bilkis Bano was gang raped by a group of men during the riots that followed the Godhra train burning incident. The Bilkis Bano case is eerily similar to the May 4 Manipur Gang rape. On August 15, 2022, all convicts in the gang rape case were granted early release on account of good conduct. It would not be an overstatement to say that the injustice meted out in the Bilkis Bano case by giving an easy pass to the perpetrators further strengthens the school of thought to which the men such as those involved in the May 4 Manipur gang rape belong.
The implementation of Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 (AFSPA) and its continued extension in Manipur has also contributed to the mistreatment of women in the state. Manipur, under AFSPA, has seen many cases of gendered violence. An important and relevant dimension of this gendered violence is the deployment of sexual violence as a disciplining tool against civilians. Such deployment of violence further normalises sexual violence against women in times of conflict.
Public reactions to the attack
Public outrage over the incident has been heartening, yet some responses inadvertently reek of a patriarchal mindset. Outrage based on the need to protect the country’s sisters and mothers is a product of the school of thought that affords women protection and security if and only if they fit into a traditional familial role. Woman’s body, in this school of thought, is closely tied to familial honour. Patriarchy offers women a place in society only if they are part of a family unit. This idea dehumanizes women and makes them dependent on their male relatives for social identity, subsequently setting into motion the cycle of oppression of women that then leaves them pawns in the power play between men.
A disturbing trend after such crimes is excusing or ignoring them under the guise of war crimes. “War rape was met with tacit acceptance and committed with impunity, military and political leaders shrugging it off as a sideshow. Or it was denied to have ever happened”, writes Christina Lamb in her book Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women.
Furthermore, a section of society will also find justification for such acts, further devaluing the place of women in society.
What does it feel like to be a woman in present times? In areas of civil unrest, your body will be treated like a battlefield by men from the opposing side to teach your men a lesson. You are relegated to being nothing more than a weapon in this conflict. Your identity and citizenship are unwillingly scrubbed to use your body as a political pawn. Women structurally and systematically are convinced that they are nothing more than objects that can be abused and discarded at the whims and fancies of miscreant men.