July 23, 2011

How Kerala responded to Thasni Banu

LAST MONTH, Kerala witnessed another incidence of violence against women. On June 19th Sunday, Thasni Banu was on her way to work in Kochi on a bike driven by her friend. Oh, how can I forget? Her male friend. And it was 10:30 pm. According to her statement in a Malayalam interview, Thasni was to reach office for her shift at 11pm. Since they had some time, Thasni and her friend decided to stop for tea. In search of a tea shop, they took a different route and did find one. When they realised that there was no tea in stock, her friend bought a cigarette and together they walked towards the bike which was parked in front of the shop.

An auto rickshaw driver who had parked his auto near the shop said to her friend in a degrading tone, “Drop the girl back home.” (Of course, translating the undertones from Malayalam to English is near to impossible). Her friend explained that he was dropping her off at her office since she had a night shift and that she is just a friend. At that point, another person came by and asked them why they were standing there. Her friend repeated his earlier clarification. Both the driver and this person were drunk. Further, they asked him his name, address and even details on where exactly his house was located. He answered all of it.

Then he asked Thasni for her details. Thasni replied that she did not want to share her name or address with them. This provoked them. Why would a girl not answer their questions when the man accompanying her could? The encounter turns into a tussle. The second person started shouting at her, saying that this was not Bangalore, but Kerala and that they would not allow anything like this to happen (anything like what?). An irate Thasni said, “What do you mean by this? Clarify your words. What behaviour is not possible here? This is a public space and I was talking to my friend. So what should we not do here?” A crowd had formed and it began supporting the men.

Thasni and her friend decided to leave the place and started the bike. As they were leaving, the auto driver abused her using a very derogatory word. When Thasni heard this, she got out of the bike, highly agitated and confronted him. In this process, she also called him ‘Da’ which is a term that can be compared with the ‘Tu’ in Hindi. In the interview, Thasni says she actually wanted to beat him and her body language did demonstrate that. He slapped her and twisted her arm and she was hurt.

Thasni is an activist and she called other activist friends who came to the area immediately. Police arrived at the scene but she could not file the complaint on that day, since she was hurt by the attack. She was admitted to the hospital. The complaint was not filed immediately by the police. This was raised to the Chief Minister and finally the police did take action. Thasni is going forward with the case.

This is no sob story. There is no victim. This is the story of a woman, who refused to bend to status quo. However, Thasni’s case is very important not only for the act of violence that happened on that night, but for the response of an educated society to this woman’s guts. I related the incident as per Thasni’s interview to contextualise the responses that this incident received in Kerala. Given below are some of the typical responses:

1. This is an isolated case hyped beyond its value:

Thasni refused to answer their questions which were derogatory in tone. I borrow Thasni’s words, “I felt that there was no need to respond to the authority, arrogance and vulgarity in his tone.” The response from Kerala society is this, “Thasni should have shown some tact. She should have thought about her safety and responded accordingly.” The isolated case arguments stem from this opinion. If only Thasni had responded with her name and address, nothing of this sort would have happened. This does not happen to other women.

This means every woman should bend down to every such act of moral policing and maintain status quo. If you dare to disrupt this norm, you deserve the treatment you get. By the way, “getting provocated” is a male prerogative, isn’t it? How the hell does Thasni imagine that she has the right to get “provocated” at their tone and words?

2. Male friend, 10:30 pm, travelling in a bike in spite of the availability of a company cab, “isolated” space.

This is the comment that gets me rolling. I have only one answer. So what? As per Thasni, it was not even an isolated space but rather a public one in front of a tea shop. Although there is no need to explain, Thasni missed the company cab that day since she had some personal work to complete. Since public transport was not available at that time, she had gone with her friend. So, what does the “public” expect? That every girl who chooses to travel at night with a friend will be accountable to every man in town?

3. They were seen in a “compromising position”

It is high time that we start defining what “compromising position” is, because every case seems to latch onto this one! Thasni clarifies that it was a public space, and that she has enough intelligence and ability to look for other arrangements in case she wanted to indulge in any sexual act. I would argue that even if they were seen in a “compromising position”, the public had absolutely no business to treat her like that. When I read news clippings that argued this point, I realised nothing had changed. If a woman does not follow the norms set by patriarchal society, the most powerful tool against her is this – character assassination. Many women would give up the fight when this happen. Many would not even complain, fearing this.

4. So, what should the common man do?

This is a response I read in an e-group: “When Sowmya was raped in a train, the uproar was against the common man for not responding to the situation. Now the uproar is that the common man is interfering. It is very confusing what is expected out of us”. There were also protests against Thasni. The retort was that those who conducted these marches are ones who have reacted to social issues before. That Kerala had seen sexual exploitation cases busted with such interventions from the common man.

Kerala and its citizens are educated and therefore are often well aware of their rights. Many Keralites are proud of the fact that they are indeed “political”. The outcome of this is a society which is responsive to situations. However, talking to a woman in a derogatory manner, with clear vulgar undertones is certainly not being responsive to the situation. If the crowd intended to intervene in a possible case of abduction/exploitation, they would certainly not have been offensive to her. Let’s take that excuse back!

5. Why so much noise? Compare it to some states in the North

Resting on its laurels is the biggest issue in Kerala. If anyone raises any women’s issue in Kerala, the immediate response is to compare it to a Delhi or a Bihar (where a lot has improved now) and say women are not getting raped here. Women in Delhi however seem to be occupying public spaces. In Kerala, they just don’t seem to be even taking the chance. Families are the biggest upholders of such moral policing and will not risk their daughter’s safety. If it is unsafe outside, it is better their daughters stayed inside.

6. She is not weak. Hence, I am not shocked.

I am borrowing this from Thasni’s interview. On hearing about the earlier mentioned Sowmya’s murder, Kerala shook. There was a huge noise about the lack of safety measures for women and the state literally thundered. After a few months, another death happened. Of a girl named Indu. (This case was heavily criticised for the manner in which inconclusive assumptions regarding her relationships were shared by the police with the media. The news as reported in the above link has also been refuted many times).

I borrow heavily from Thasni: There was a difference in the way Kerala reacted to Sowmya, Indu and Thasni. In Sowmya’s case, it was a clear case of atrocity against a poor girl. She had followed all the norms of society, was going home for her marriage related activities and yet she was brutally raped and killed. Kerala wept with all its heart. However, it did not grieve as much for Indu. The rumours about her relationships were not comfortable to the Keralite mind. Come to Thasni. This brash, arrogant girl shall receive even less support. In fact, there shall be character assassinations of her. So long as the norms of the society are followed, she will have protectors but if she shows any tendency of being able to stand on her own feet, talk back to men in equal terms and be unapologetic about it, Kerala society is perturbed.

7. She hit first.

For many days, the controversy included the allegation that it was Thasni who beat the man first, and that she provoked him to beat back. Thasni, in this interview clarifies that she did not beat the person. However, she says, “It is true, that I wanted to beat him and my body language was indicative of my intention. But he slapped me, before I could do anything. If I had beaten him, I would have been proud of it and would have proclaimed it proudly.”

That being said, once again I ask, so what? They were hurling derogatory words at her. Is it not possible to imagine a woman getting provoked?

Thasni is no ordinary woman from Kerala. She was already involved in social issues and therefore was oriented to respond to such cases. She has the courage to take this case forward, in spite of the character assassination attempts. It is through these activities that she had people to call, at the time of the incident. It was her fellow activist friends who came to the site.

Thasni is also courageous. Many of us would have answered the questions the men asked and felt relieved that we left the place unscathed. But Thasni refused to let status quo remain. She questioned patriarchy. It is sad that a large section of the society thinks she should have cowed down to the powers. But we need the Thasnis among us to remind us that the existing situation is not optimum and that our silence is also a fuel for the oppression.

The response from Kerala to Thasni’s case has been disappointing. There is hypocrisy around women’s empowerment. Women’s rights are talked about widely and yet, the society is not able to tolerate an empowered woman. Society expects its women to be submissive, meek and dependent on men, so that they can “protect” her. Some empowerment, this is. Thasni’s response on that night was an act of defiance against patriarchy. Kerala has to realise that women’s empowerment cannot co-exist with patriarchy.
What needs to be done is to create more spaces for women to participate in decisions regarding their own lives. While I sense the importance of publicising this event, I am equally fearful of the response that this news has on families. As Thasni says in the interview, “Looking at this response from the society, I doubt if any other girl would come forward to complaint.” While action has to be taken against those who attacked Thasni, an equally important action point for the government is to begin confidence-building measures in the state. Families should feel confident to send their daughters out. Women should themselves claim their spaces. If not, this will be forgotten as one of the many other statistics in the country.

3 comments to How Kerala responded to Thasni Banu

  • Rheea

    Good analysis,Preeti. I am actually happy to read an article where we are not figuring out how a female was victimized, but rather, contextualized in terms of how she , unabashedly took the matter into her own hands and out to the public. Half the problem is the shame factor. We women don’t feel confident in confronting our own right to public space like any citizen should be able to. More openness and approval of women standing up for this nonsense, allows us to form a circle of trust. In small increments this will allow us to claim their outrage for these acts.

  • Ajay Appaden

    I see not very many men have read or rather acknowledged this article. The main issue being that men in kerala fail to see that there is a problem and that an issue has to be dealt with.
    I myself being a guy, have never felt the need to insult, grope at, pass lewd comments etc, about any woman ever, that in itself shows that it isnt an innate issue, but rather a social one. We have to work towards changing the way men in kerala de-humanise women, with the use of terms such as “charaku” and “vedi”. I personally feel appalled by the terms and make it a point to let any person whomsoever it may be, who uses terms such as these around me to know of my dissatisfaction with the use of such obscene and disgusting language. I believe that co-ed education, from when kids are young, is the only way to curb this menace. There is the matter of preventing the mind from getting corrupted by this societal nonsense in the first place too.
    It doesnt really make sense at times, you ask any of the men who do anything of the sort, about what their reaction would be if someone else did something of the sort to their sisters or mothers or aunts and they would go ‘but I dont know those people’.
    Its the dehumanizing of women that has to stop first, and the only way to do it is to force it onto the dimwits who do it. Legislation is a very powerful method to move forward. But the main issue once again being, the acknowledgement of the issue at hand.

  • Your analysis (and other user comments) is certainly an interesting one, but I can’t help feel that it simply plays way too much on stereotypes of Keralalites. (Funny enough, the word editor for this page does not recognize ‘Keralalites’ as a word, and offers ‘illiterates’ as a correct alternative, but I digress.)

    The reaction has nothing to do with Kerala and we would be pulling the wool over our eyes if we thought such events or trends were limited to Kerala, South India or even India. This is what was, has been and continues to be observed when societies undergo changes in ‘societal’ norms. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t justify the violence in any measure, but for every perceived change there are those of us who are at the head of the curve, and others who come later on. It’s been witnessed during the re-integration of East Germany to West Germany, the civil liberties movement, and a more recent occurrence, the gay rights movement in the US. Yes, Kerala is a few years / decades behind other societies, but change will come in its own pace. The very fact that we are having these discussions indicates things will change.

    As to what can protect the victims of such events (and what I believe is the only thing that really matters) that scream of resistance to change, is an aware and responsible law enforcement and speedy avenue for judicial remedy. Now that’s something that India absolutely and uniquely sucks at and is a systemic failure, rather than another chapter in change. If we can fix those, the rest of it will take care of themselves.

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