Violent capitals – Afiya S. Zia


PROMPTED by the escalation of brutal rape cases, Rahul Gandhi described India as ‘the rape capital of the world’. This may not be statistically accurate but as a political observation, he could not be more precise. His comment reveals how the BJP’s political script is underwritten by pathologising women and Muslims, encouraging communalism and sexual violence.

Feminists distinguish between two broad categories of rape; as forcible sexual gratification, and as a political weapon. Rape is not motivated by sexual need, poverty, or due to lack of education or harsher punishments. These are common challenges in all societies and do not explain why rapes are recorded highest in South Africa and America. It is not a coincidence, however, that apartheid and slavery have been the foundational principles of these leading ‘rape capitals’ of the world.

Political violence becomes a collective norm when a state, government, and its officials use gang or mass rape/murders as a deli­berate policy to subjugate minorities, working classes or a gender group. The more defiant these bodies, the harsher the violence.

If too vulnerable, they risk total elimination — the gutting of women’s wombs, lynching, incinerating violated bodies, muting Kashmiris, denying Muslims citizenship. In Pakistan, a puritanical drive to erase perceived infidels has led to the mass murder of minority sects and even, innocent schoolchildren.


Vulnerable bodies serve as a battleground for men’s wars.

When leadership connives, colludes and covers up violent crimes, it creates an enabling environment. The BJP’s political history is a malignant combination of communalism and casteism in a broader cultural context where female foeticide and honour crimes persist. Each time a woman in India is doused with kerosene and burned alive, it recalls the primal Hindu practice of sati.

The engineered attack on the Babri Masjid in 1992 was a performative act followed by gang rape of Muslim women in the Surat riots which were filmed as part of the BJP’s orchestration. In Bangladesh in 1971 and in Gujrat in 2002, mass rapes of Muslim women were defended as patriotic duty not a deviant act. The glorification of male guardians claiming to preserve the religious, cultural and gendered order and the stigma linked with woman’s sexual subjugation by outsiders become excuses for controlling women’s sexuality under the pretext of protection. Outside violence brings dishonour; domestic violence maintains order.

Vulnerable bodies serve as the battleground for men’s wars/disputes. Women are bartered for peace settlements. In peacetime, this agreement is sustained through the institution of marriage. Its political economy is based on contractual exchange of women’s productive and reproductive labour, for male financial and physical protection. Women often use ownership of assets to negotiate protection from domestic violence. There is minimum penalty for men’s sexual transgressions; for women, it’s a deadly risk.

Intertwined sexual and political violence prevails in all majoritarian countries, including Pakistan, where patriarchy and religious supremacy conjoin. Being defensive about deficient human rights serves no pragmatic purpose for women or the vulnerable.

Some intellectuals mock the failure of a secular India but reject any appeal for secular resistance against Muslim majoritarianism in Pakistan. They showcase outrage in select blasphemy cases but do not campaign for the law’s repeal, pretending the accused they support is innocent of the offence.

On both sides, the high priests of postcolonial angst observe liberal, secular lifestyles and freedom of dress and sexual practice but preach how modernity, Western feminism and freedoms are the cause of all ills. They deny indigenised forms of religious politics and patriarchy that squash freedoms of sexual and intellectual expression. They refute how these combine into resources curated and then muscularly used by our theocratised states and religious groups.

Our countries can reform laws, appoint women judges and raise awareness but these are not substitutes for rights of free speech or sexual relations. Religious, pietist and conservative politics prohibits freedoms of sexualities and accepts forced marriages/conversions, and place premium on women’s virginity, docility, domesticity and unequal rights for minorities.

India and Pakistan compete as inhospitable capitals for women and in branding dissenters as traitors. Disconcerting is the lack of clarity from those radicals of the left who flirt with alliances with a minority-hating, misogynist political right. But India is winning because its progressive intelligentsia has been so preoccupied with protesting Western liberalism and tolerating Hinduvta’s indigenous democratic ‘agency’, that the alarming majoritarian violence against women and minorities has turned full-on fascist. It is now left to the enraged youth of the subcontinent to reclaim our capitals from despotic futures.

The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.