Labeling a failing state is less helpful than fighting one

Indian actress, Swara Bhaskar, called Pakistan a “failing state” on an Indian talk show while promoting her film that was banned in Pakistan for nudity and obscenity. States cannot fail for banning films merely, they fail for something much more insidious – the policing of women, the control of their bodies and the impunity with which they harm their bodies and dignity. By these standards, Pakistan, of course, has a ghastly record – honor killings alone HRW says average 1,000 a year, while laws and their implementation remain weak.

India however, has no fork to stick in Pakistan’s eyes. Under no banner can it claim a better status or even slightly more moral high ground. When it comes to the status of women in South Asia generally, we are more similar than different. If India is better of in inclusion in the workplace, Pakistan is better off in rape data and if India is worse off in rituals like satti Pakistan is worse off in feudal areas where women are denied agency so land is kept among family men.

What strikes me as very deeply troubling is when an empowered woman from one part of “town” shames woman from another part when frankly, the shame is ours collectively. Birth geo-location is nothing to brag about. Rarely is a South Asian man non-toxic in his masculinity and rarely are South Asian states benevolent towards women – women are often avenues of avenging war men made to one-up other men. This India-Pakistan war rhetoric has cost women the most – lost sons, raped daughters, murdered husbands and stolen wealth – let the women themselves, at the least, cry halt on propagating jingoism.

50 Indian civil servants in India wrote in protest to what they thought was the Modi governments callous indifference to the rape of an 8-year old Kashmiri girl child: “In post-Independence India, this is our darkest hour and we find the response of our government, the leaders of our political parties inadequate and feeble.” In this girl’s brutal rape case, police, priests and local influential Hindus deliberately sent a message to the minority Muslim nomad community of Kathua in the district in Jammu. It was as much a hate crime as it was a rape.

This happened India’s holiest Hindu region nested within its only Muslim majority state. If women are treated with hate in India, take the infamous Delhi rape case of 2012, what then of intersectional or multi-disadvantaged women? Mere firewood. Society in this Indus belt wages war on women relentlessly. Patriarchy is to blame. When the state covers it up however, it is not patriarchy – it is a crime against humanity. The Modi government was complacent in hiding the details of how this child was abducted for days, drugged, gang-raped in a temple, murdered with a blunt stone and thrown in a bush.

As the lawyer for the victim, lawyer Deepika Singh Rawat documents this cover-up, she faces death threats and extreme harassment from state and bigoted society. Relentless in her fight against this crime against a vulnerable representation of society, Deepika is what we need so desperately. I wonder also what her answer would be if she was asked to give an example of a failing state.

Feminism is the Deepika Singh Rawat kind of feminism – it is revolutionary. It doesn’t beg for dog treats in exchange for playing dead. It doesn’t ask for concessions – it shows the proverbial high-heeled shoe to the world’s most militarized zone – 700,000 armed and paramilitary forces in Jammu placed by India. Her feminism doesn’t look at her birth religion, geolocation or her caste and hurl stones at those who “other” her. These are the secular values both countries have lost and hurled onto the harbingers of corrupt religious right forces. The difference: one has a label of secular, the other doesn’t.

Merely rebranding feminism – fun films were women have amazing choices – this is not what the radical feminists set out to do. Rebranding women’s rights to make it soft and unthreatening enough for the more popular public to take it on will not protect young minority women from being harmed. It will just expand the cult of feminism.

In Basharat Peer’s book, Curfewed Night, he describes how mothers in Kashmir who’ve lost over 10,000 sons in the last decade alone to ‘martyr graves’ set the dinner table for their missing sons as well. They serve food in the plate reserved for them. Each night after dinner they throw the untouched food away. This tradition is their protest against the state’s attempt to make Kashmir forget its sons – many under the age of 20.

Human Rights Watch states in a report on rape investigations: Central and state authorities have done little to stop the widespread practice of rape by Indian security forces in Kashmir. Indeed, when confronted with the evidence of rape, time and again the authorities have attempted to impugn the integrity of the witnesses. Armed Forces Special Powers Act makes Jammu and Kashmir a safe haven for perpetrators of injustice.

Women’s solidarity networks cannot work when there is a shaming contest based on nationalism. States, both India, and Pakistan are terribly complacent when it comes to protecting women. Making films about how women can gain empowerment by choosing what they want is all brilliant and even admirable, but truly speaking truth to power, in the midst of the war is what makes women heroic. The lead role of Deepika Singh Rawat is what more women need to play on both sides of town, off the screen and on.

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