Unveiling the Horror: Women’s bodies as a tool in conflict: Burning Manipur
By Fatima Juned
Throughout history, war or conflict have been intrinsically linked to the control of women's sexuality, their productive and reproductive capacities, through rape, sexual harassment, and prostitution. Rape and sexual violence have been used as a means to terrorise and exert control over women in times of conflict, as was highlighted in a study on sexual violence during the Rwandan genocide (Burnet, 2015).
On July 19, a video of two women, belonging to the Kuki tribe of Manipur being paraded naked and groped by a mob of men, went viral. This happened in a rural area of Manipur, where reportedly one of the women was gang-raped. The video is from May 4, however, no action had been taken by the authorities even after an FIR was lodged, until the video went viral. As we, the viewers watched, and many not, we know that many more women were undergoing a similar horrific form of sexual violence and rape, as also confirmed by the Chief Minister of the state Biren Singh during a news channel interview (Dhonti, 2023).
What’s poignant here are some testimonials about the women group’ Meira Paibis, which is a celebrated civil society group, that came to light in 2004, after protesting naked against the rape and killing of a Meitei woman in Imphal. However, after eighteen years, disturbing reports have emerged. A survivor reported that the group instigated and instructed the Meitei men to rape and kill her. In the viral video, Meira Paibis women were seen to be instigating the mobs (Hlingbiakhoih, et. al, 2023). The transformation of the group from guardians to perpetrators is distressing, and adds to their involvement in politics of the region. The incidents question the credibility of the civil society group, who must be held accountable for their actions against women.
The backdrop of Manipur’s ethnic conflict, that started in early May between the majority Meitei and the minority Kuki tribe, adds a layer of complexity to the distressing situation. The conflict emerged due to the allegation of the government pursuing discriminatory policies against the minority community, giving the majority Meitei the “schedule tribe status” that gave them economic benefits and quotas for government jobs and education. Consequently, thousands have been injured, 60,000 displaced, and around 12,000 sought refuge in the neighbouring state of Mizoram (ibid). However, the outrage against the situation in the state increased only after the video went viral, forcing the Union Government to intervene.
An important point that rises time and again is “why sexual violence and rape are used as a tool in ethnic conflict?” Therefore, this article will attempt to understand why a woman’s body and rape are used as a tool of violence in a conflict from a patriarchal lens and discuss some prompt redressal actions that can be taken for the vulnerable.
To comprehend this phenomenon from a patriarchal perspective, it is important to understand that sexual violence does not take place in a vacuum, rather it is followed by other types of torture or killing. In conflicts involving identity, systematic rape is more prevalent that in other types of conflict, as it intends to target the survivor’s identity taking into account their gender, ethnicity, religion, or any other identity. The strategy has regrettably been used as an effective way of removing groups of people from a territory (Skjelsbæk, 2001). For instance, in Kashmir, rape was used to force the inhabitants, predominantly the Muslims to flee, rape was used as a weapon to humiliate the women and their community. The women were raped during crackdowns, where the male figures in their families were either killed or taken outside the house by the armed forces.
From a patriarchal standpoint, the assault on a woman’s body and ensuing torture is an attack on the honor of the community. As Susan Brownmiller puts it, “the body of a raped woman becomes a ceremonial battlefield, a parade ground for the victor’s trooping of the colours. The act that is played out upon her is a message passed between men—vivid proof of victory for one and loss and defeat for the other” (Brownmiller, 1993). We can say, that the body of the survivor is looked at as a site of conquest, while the idea of disciplining the body of the woman through rape is symbolic of patriarchy and aggressive masculinity.
Tragically, India has witnessed several gruesome cases of rape and sexual violence during the partition, the 1984 Sikh and the 2002 Gujarat riots. Here, we can understand these incidents through the belief that men protect women and that women are a man's possession. When a man rapes a woman from the opposing side in a conflict, it communicates that the husband/father of the woman is unable to protect not only the individual woman, but also his property, his country, and his nation.
As Bell Hooks provides an insight into the violence, and says “The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
However, what’s missing here is the crucial coverage, redressal measures and justice for rape survivors!
The South Asian Women in Media, comprising a group of 102 journalists, have issued a statement urging media organisations to ensure that Manipur stays in the news. They emphasise that the conflict in Manipur has disappeared from the front pages, with mainstream TV channels providing minimal coverage (Newslaundry, 2023). The concerning aspect of this situation is the biased response towards the rape survivors, a contrast to the nationwide outrage for justice seen during the Nirbhaya rape case.
Impunity in such gruesome crimes could perpetuate the cycle of violence. The Gujarat riot survivor Bilkis Bano, who was raped and witnessed the death of her family members in front of her by the mob were released and garlanded this year. Despite her fight for justice, many others have not received the closure they deserve.
The Indian Constitution guarantees the Right to Life, however, in a previous disturbing instance such as, in 2015 the Madras Court had granted bail to the rape accused to mediate with the survivor (Mehrotra, 2021). Instances like this weaken the trust in judicial system, which is the only site for a survivor to get justice. To combat this, it is imperative that first the social stigma related to sexual violence and rape are removed from the courts through the invocation of legal definitions. In situations of conflict within a country, a separate wing or a judicial forum, reserved for women could be started that looks after cases of sexual violence, women in distress, rape, molestation, and harassment without any shame or viewing the survivor as helpless, could be a progressive step.
Sexual violence and rape survivors suffer both physically, and psychologically, that could affect their ability to work, earn a livelihood, or continue their life in the community despite the stigma attached to it. Providing survivors with immediate psychological, legal, and medical aid is of utmost urgency, therefore, the onus falls on the governments to provide the survivors with the facilities urgently. In 2018, the Supreme Court had ruled that a rape of sexual violence survivor would receive a minimum of four lakhs and a maximum of seven lakhs. Here, it is necessary that rather than placing price tags, we take a survivor-centered approach as highlighted in the 9378TH meeting, where speakers had urged the Security Council to take up a survivor-centred approach that would aid in seeking justice and reparations. While the perpetrators of such the brutal crime in Manipur have been caught, justice awaits till they are punished. The survivor must receive integrated care that would help them in reintegrating in the society.
Inger Skjelsbæk (2001) Sexual violence in times of war: A new challenge for peace operations?, International Peacekeeping, 8:2, 69-84, DOI: 10.1080/13533310108413896