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In an attempt to assemble the stray
parts of our positionality in the context of gender, class or race, we are
often confronted with external resistances as well as dilemmas from within. Our
shared experiences of gender, race and other identity markers do not always operate
in mutually exclusive paradigms. And, yet in the mainstream or established
liberal feminist rhetoric, we are seldom able to fathom their
‘intersectionality’. This relegates some very nuanced incidents of violence
against women to neglected and “aberrant” compartments. Such perceptions encage
a whole gamut of perils which this essay analyses in depth.

 

In the matters of redressing
violence against women, law often seeks out disparate and codified categories
which in turn fails to holistically capture the essence of such experience,
leading to further marginalization. This predilection for separating the
categories not only reduces the gravity of the issue but also replicates the
experiences of victimhood for many. The inherent structure of any legal
understanding, as may be perceived from the long drawn lists of ‘codes of
crime’, the parallel trials et al, endeavours to differentiate one causality from the other. In the long
run, this not only undermines the problem at hand but also adds fuel to the
essentialising tendencies of identity norms. 
Kimberle Crenshaw in her work, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality,
identity Politics and Violence against Women of Colour’, remarks,

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‘In the context of violence against
women, this elision of difference in identity politics is problematic
fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped
by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class. Moreover,
ignoring difference within groups contributes to tension among groups, another
problem of identity politics that bears on efforts to politicize violence
against women.’1

 

This is especially important in the
context of the avenues of interventions which are persistently driven from the
“developed” quarters of the world towards the “real victim”. While its true
that in a world of blurring binaries, solidarities are fostered irrespective of
one’s geographical coordinates or socio-economic positions. However, fostering
an ideal of “sisterhood” hinges on being naïve about the alternative negotiations
with the statutory relations of power that some women are participant to. One
cannot extricate one’s cultural history from the overall canvas of one’s lived
experiences. Hence, adhering to one model of “victimhood” and aligning it with
prototypical theories of emancipation, dilute the intersectional concerns of
the “violence against women” discourses and becomes susceptible to imperialist
biases. The connotations of race and caste need to be assessed against their
postcoloniality in order to truly understand their bearings on gender
narratives. Unfortunately, the larger corpus of liberal feminist legal theory
tries to salvage the “victim” rather than engage with her story. This is a covert
mode of essentialism that ends up perpetuating the very hegemony that it
intended to resist.

 

 

The
predominant bandwagon of liberal feminists relies on the legislative order for “hegemonic
recuperation”. In a context where the essentialising traits of law proves to be
inimical to the polyphonic experiences of women, how far can we repose our
faith on the structures of power? The crux of this essay is to explore whether
the prevalent “boundaries of law” endorse the phenomenon of gender essentialism
and the ways in which it impacts the discourses revolving around the incidents
of violence against women, standing at the interstices of gender, class, race
and even caste.

 

 

The liberal
legal feminist theories are scattered with the implicit affinities towards
absolving the traits of essentialism in any given narrative.  In her essay, ‘Landscape of the Ordinary:
Violence Against Women’, Andrea Dworkin claims,

 

“To
understand the enormity of the crimes against women, one must first accept that
women are human beings and all human beings have an intrinsic value that need
not be earned. No special pleading is required to say that an assault against a
woman is anti-human, that it distresses the flesh and wreaks havoc on the mind.”2

 

There
seems to be a reluctance to look beyond the established polarities of the
powerful and the powerless. As Ratna Kapur observes,

 

“The idea
of multiple or fractured subjectivities threatens to deprive women of a
foundation from which to make claims for rights and for broader global recognition.

If women’s lives are represented as fragmented, they may lose power and
undermine certain “truth claims” about women’s lives.”3

 

The
notion of relying on the “violence against women” trope for a totalising
expression of women’s subjectivity is inherently flawed. Albeit the shared
experiences of trauma and the unifying need for reparation, the additional
oppression that ideas of race and class unleashes upon women of certain
specific positions, enhances the magnitude of the problem greatly.

 

Legal
theories, both in terms of the legislations of different countries as well
legal frameworks adopted and instituted by international organization tend to
uphold the singular purview proffered by the “violence against women”
narratives. Affirmative actions in terms of addressing the cases of gender
discrimination also emanates from the denomination of gender-based violence. Violence
against women is posited as the only perceptible manifestation of gender
inequalities. In order to be recognized by the international law, issues
relating to gender, almost customarily needs to appropriated in terms of the
victim-subject. But, in almost all contexts, the concerns are multifaceted and a
generalised definition effaces the germ of the problem.

 

To take
cognizance of the gender based struggles, even the United Nations had to rely
on the horrifying and graphic tales of torture, violence and discrimination.4
The resultant approach then is riveted upon the need to resolve and cure the
problem. The relevance of women’s rights is then imagine entirely and
exclusively as the nemesis of violence against women. Little attention is then
paid to the diagnosis of the problem. While violence against women provides an
identifiable locale of malice for legal remedies to develop around, there are
parallel notions of race, ethnicity, class, caste and even sexual orientations
which are strategically evaded.

 

In fact,
on a large number of occasions, where attention is levied upon the concepts of race
and ethnicity, the episodes get invariably broadened to reinforce the racial
stereotypes and a prejudiced representation of a culture. This augments the
“First World” and “Third World” divide with the theorists of the former
category attempting to apply protectionist responses to problems incumbent on the
latter. This phenomenon of cultural essentialism then wreaks further havoc with
localised forms of control, be it in the veneer of state sanctioned laws or
restrictions imposed by the respective familial units.

 

The
coherent set of attributes which the essentialism discourse endorses, dilutes
the simultaneous impact of race, colour, ethnicity, caste or even sexualities
on the construction of the victim. Essentialism exerts a predominant emphasis
on the physiological characteristics of womanhood and the ensuing sexual
vulnerabilities. This delineates the forms of violence in discreet categories
and renders all other facets of a woman’s socio-cultural situation to the
periphery. Such praxis recurs in the works of ‘dominance feminists’ like
Catherine MacKinnon for whom the commonality of experiences of sexual
exploitation occupies the mainstay of the feminist agenda. 5

 

This
approach in turn promulgates generalised and often over-simplified legal
responses to the acts of violence against women, completely oblivious to the
plausible influence that the factors of race, ethnicity, caste or colour may
have on the given circumstances. This also limits the access to justice for
several women who may be encumbered by concerns other than that of their
sexualities and yet are accorded liminal positions in the eyes of law. As
Crenshaw enunciates in her work, often legal provisions abets the subjugation
of women in manners unforeseen by the advocates of such provisions.6
She uses the example of the Immigration Act of 1990 in the United States and
how certain precepts of this act obliged a huge number of women to endure abuse
within the space of their own homes, out of the fear of deportation. A
generalised overview of the “violence against women” denies the need for what
Mari Matsuda calls “coalition”.7

 

Indeed, a
lack of “coalition” between the different categories of identifies within
approaches to feminism, privileges one particular category of women and
relegates a good number of others to the category of “minorities”. Another
dangerous trend which is sustained by essentialism is a misinformed view of the
culture through the lens of gender. In the works of various Western feminists,
we find the certain cultural constructs about the Third World reified and
consequently, racist assumptions get buttressed. What Kapur calls “Death by
Culture”8
becomes the trope of absolving diverse forms of gender violence from the scope
of discussions of these writers. My contention here is that both an absence of
cultural considerations as well as the stereotypical view of the same in
anatomizing violence against women, discredits the unique positionality of
numerous women and in the long term fails to usher any emancipatory impact in
the lives of these women. Law continues to be a distant abstraction for a good
many, while the brutalities of rape and battery remain prevalent in their
lives. Crenshaw rightfully asserts,

    

  “A case
in point: women of colour occupy positions both physically and culturally      marginalised within dominant society and
so information must be targeted directly to them in   order to reach them.”9

 

While
speaking of violence against women, we cannot simply isolate “rape and battery”
from the whole plethora of discrimination and abuses that a woman is subjected
to. Denying the intersectional overview to violence against women by
essentialising it according to one criteria or the other, would imply grappling
with only a partial dimension of the whole issue. Patricia Williams in her
work, ‘On Being the Object of Property’, speaks of the Madrigal V Quilligan
case where 10 Hispanic women were sterilized at the University of South
California, without being lucidly informed or without seeking their consent 10
If the restriction on one’s abortive rights is an accepted form of oppression
inflicted upon the bodies of women, usurping the right of child-bearing is an
equal breach of bodily autonomy for a woman. Now, as statistics reveal the
perception of either will vary according to one’s socio-cultural locale. We
need to look into the shared commonality of the two but at the same time, or in
fact more importantly, we consistently aware of the vast difference between the
two. It is only then that we would be able to advocate for the most effective
and pertinent form of reparation for both paradigms of violence against women.

 

The
perils of politicizing race and culture in the analysis of gender and using
gender as a subsuming category of assessment are many. The totalising potential
of either mars the relevance of an intersectional approach and reinforces the
prejudices which essentialism fodders. But, what is also does is to tighten the
“boundaries of law” and constricts its point of view largely. We have thus far spoken
of intersectionality largely in terms of race and culture. They are by no means
an exhaustive list and the nuanced categories of identities keep expanding as
we navigate through different topographies. I would now attempt to demonstrate
the intersectional backdrop of a certain case of violence against women that
took place in India and how it evoked a rather radical response to the
“boundaries of law”.

 

 

The
protagonist of the current case is Phoolan Devi, a reformed gangster from India
who, after serving a prolonged term of imprisonment, forayed into politics and
remained a member of the Parliament until her assassination in 2001. An outlaw
by virtue of the series of crimes committed by her during the stint as a
bandit, she later becomes participant to the very legislative body of the
state. But this dynamism is merely one angle to the whole narrative about
Phoolan Devi. What makes her a unique exemplar for the purpose of our study is
how she transcended the scaffolds of her gender, class and caste to assume the
gavel in an unprecedented manner. She later abandoned the life of banditry to
join the public service and as may be deduced from the sobriquet, “Devi”
meaning Goddess, was able to earn the reverence of the larger proportion of the
populace.

 

Hailing
from the rural parts of Madhya Pradesh in India and brought up amidst acute
poverty, Phoolan always had a feisty temperament which demarcated her as a
deviant in the milieu of rigorous gender norms of that time. She married off at
the tender age of eleven and suffered physical abuse and humiliation at the hands
of her husband and in-laws, before finally managing to escape from his hold.

Here again, we need to engage with the prevalent social fabric of her times.

Caste has been one of the most important determinant of the social hierarchy in
India since time memorial. The civil and political rights of the member caste
may have been inscribed on paper but a holistic social assimilation has never
really occurred and the lower tier of the caste have always had to bear a
magnified incidence of myriad forms of exploitation. This situated Phoolan at a
juncture of double marginalization, by virtue of both her gender and her caste.

Not only was abandoning or abandonment by a husband a social taboo for women in
India but it was almost unthinkable for women belonging to the lower caste.

Consequently, Phoolan was ostracised by her community and eventually abducted
by a gang of dacoits belonging to the adjoining regions. The smouldering embers
of her traumatic past had fuelled her desire for revenge and amidst the
dacoits, Phoolan, who had been denied the straightforward recourse to legal
reparation, found her channel for avenging herself. She became one of them and
began her career as the notorious ‘bandit queen’. 

 

If a
recurring pattern is to be charted out of her record, the motive behind her
onslaughts become palpable. All her victims were upper caste men, a large
number of whom were her perpetrators in the past. That the desire for revenge
was what spurred her actions was no secret. Many perceive the culmination of
her banditry as the Behmai massacre in 1981. She invaded this village in Uttar
Pradesh in India with her gang and deputed the murder of over 20 men belonging
to the upper caste. Some years ago a warring gang of bandits had incarcerated,
tortured and raped her over a sustained period of time . Heinous as it may be
this deed is unequivocally instigated by her inherent demand for justice. It is
the trajectory of realising that demand where she loses our sympathy. No legal order
ordinarily condones bloodshed irrespective of the ends it serves or the
rationale behind it. Phoolan Devi may have championed the tribe of lower caste
women who’ve been violently subjugated and exploited by her victims for years
but her criminal culpabilities as a mass murderer remained unaltered. Her actions
were categorised unlawful unequivocally. But, we need to bear it mind that she
was an anomalous obtrusion in the premise of law and civilised order. Outlawed
by the society, deprived of the normative resorts to justice, Phoolan could do
little but transgress those boundaries of law which anyway were out of bounds
for her. To her, her actions were the means to reclaim her agency while she
imaged herself as the crusader of the feeble and the downtrodden. Anuradha
Ramanujan in her work, ‘The subaltern, the text and the critic: Reading Phoolan
Devi’ tells us,

 

“…the testimonial contain frequent
references to the dacoit as benefactor and saviour of the downtrodden. As a newly
recruited dacoit in Vikram Mallah’s gang, Phoolan fashions herself in the image
of the avenging Hindu goddess Durga, goaded to righteous violence against rich
tyrants by hunger and injustice.” 11

 

In fact,
she was canonised by many. Phoolan Devi subverts the victim agent dichotomy in
a rather drastic way. She challenges the entire subject of “rape” by refuting
the notion that a woman’s sexuality is the fundamental marker of her selfhood.

However, the fact that she chose violence to demystify another act of violence traverses
a rather controversial terrain. But the transformative prowess of Phoolan Devi’s
deeds cannot be denied. For someone whose existence in the social statutes had
been obliterated, could she have clamoured for equal rights in a milieu which
deemed her sovereign self as “defiled” and “desecrated” because of the
interventions by others? Her unique subjectivity posits challenge for all
designs of alliance that liberal ideals tend to glorify.

 

A
parallel narrative is that of Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan in India, a lower
caste woman who was gang raped by the upper caste patriarchs of the village for
attempting to stall a child marriage. She treaded the path of law and even
after two decades of a futile wait, she awaits justice. What benefit did her
conformity to the normative standards reap? She still lives in the same village
as the one where her violators roam scot free.

 

As long
as law continues to conflate violence against women with isolated categories of
identity by denying the sites of difference, the wait of the likes of Bhanwari
shall prevail, save for the knee-jerks which one Phoolan or the other will
usher from time to time. A uni-dimensional legality essentialises women’s
experiences thus resisting the repression of their multifaceted marginalisation.

Liberal feminist legal theory is entrenched in gender and cultural essentialism
which needs to be ruptured intersectionally by adopting “multiple consciousness
as jurisprudential method.”12

 

1 Kimberle Crenshaw, Mapping
the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women
of Color (Stanford Law
Review, Volume 43, 1991)

 

2
Andrea Dworkin, Landscape of the Ordinary: Violence Against
Women (Washington Square Press 2003)

3 Ratna Kapur, The Tragedy of Victimization Rhetoric: Resurrecting
the “Native” Subject in

International/Post-Colonial
Feminist Legal Politics (Harvard Human Rights Law Journal, Volume 15, 2002)

4 Vienna World
Convention, 1993

5
Catherine
MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified:
Discourses on Life and Law (Harvard University Press 1987)

6 Crenshaw (n 1)

7
Mari Matsuda, Beside My Sister,
Facing the Enemy: Legal Theory out of Coalition (Stanford Law Review, Volume
43, 1991)

8 Kapur,( n 3)

9 Crenshaw (n 1)

10 Madrigal v. Quilligan, 639 F.2d
789 (9th Cir. 1981)

 

11 Anuradha Ramanujan, The Subaltern, the Text and the Critic:
Reading Phoolan Devi (Journal of Postcolonial writing, 2002)

12 Matsuda(n 7)

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