The body as weapon

It’s an unusual thing in India to see a group of naked women walking down a public road holding banners inviting rape. Yet that’s exactly what happened in the northeastern state of Manipur recently. In a fury of anger at the rape and murder of a young woman by the army, Manipuri women stripped off their saris and blouses, let loose their hair and walked through the capital city, Imphal, to the army headquarters to stage their dramatic protest. ‘Our anger shed our inhibitions that day,’ said one of the activists.

Manipur has for long been in the grip of an anti-state insurgency. Militants are pitted against the Indian state. Women have been central both to the protests and to attempts to make peace. Shootouts, abductions, pitched battles with the army and the security forces – and sometimes with neighbouring Nagas as well – are common. While women support their men in battle, and occasionally join in themselves, they’ve also led silent processions asking for peace and have been active alongside other women’s organizations engaged in peace work.

The most recent standoff came about because one night the army picked up a 32-year-old woman, Thangiam Manorama, from her home and took her into custody. The suspicion was that she was a militant. The next day her body was found full of torture marks, and there was evidence that she had been raped. It was this blatant violation of a woman’s human rights that threw the women into a fury. They dared the army to come and rape them, offering their bodies, using them as weapons, not to harm but to shame and humiliate.

Their protest let to a resurgence of the demand that the Indian Government withdraw the Armed Forces Special Powers Act which is in operation in Manipur and which gives the army sweeping powers to arrest, hold, interrogate and do more or less whatever they want without worrying about the consequences. The northeast of India has been the scene of what is called ‘low-intensity warfare’ for many decades now, but every now and again things explode into battles and civil society protests.

Women join in these in full force and create their own methods of protest. The best-known of these are the torchlight processions at night: hundreds of Manipuri women – known as Meira Paibis – will take to the streets, shattering the dark of the night with flaming torches held high in their hands. They’ve become a common sight, and they’re an acceptable one. But naked women? That’s a more difficult thing to handle.

When women protest the use of their bodies as commodities the world knows what they are talking about, though many do not sympathize with what they have to say. But when women themselves turn their bodies into commodities, people don’t know how to react. In the case of the Manipuri women, this was clearly visible in media reactions to their protest. While many papers reported the incident, very few carried photos of this particular protest. Either they didn’t have them – which seems unlikely – or they could not stomach the thought of showing middle-class Indian women (read ‘mothers’) naked! And this in a country where virtually every newspaper has a scantily dressed woman poised in a corner of the front page, disturbingly close to the masthead!

One paper, though – a weekly called Tehelka, which sees itself as a ‘people’s paper’ – carried a stunning photo of the naked women, their backs to the camera, but (perhaps in an attempt at modesty or out of respect for the women) it ‘treated’ parts of their bodies to blur the defining lines. People’s paper or not, and considerations of modesty notwithstanding, the editors obviously realized the sensation value of such a photo. And the next week they put the same picture on the front page, printed posters using it and basically turned the women’s bodies into a spectacle! They also probably sold lots more copies that week.

When women protest the use of their bodies as commodities the world knows what they are talking about, though many do not sympathize with what they have to say. But when women themselves turn their bodies into commodities, people don’t know how to react.

All of this was predictable for the media. But the question that keeps bothering me is: what is it that drives women to take this absolutely desperate step? How humiliated, how violated, how angry must a woman feel to think that this is the only way she can make people listen? And what must those women feel when they see their protest being trivialized, their bodies further violated?

Sadly, these are things that people in the media seldom think about. And why blame media people – most of us don’t think about them either. I’ve had this picture with me for a while. When it first appeared I cut it out of the paper thinking I would put it up on my wall. I wanted to salute the women’s courage. I was also intrigued: I wanted to know how they felt about having taken this step, who was the first one to take her courage in her hands and make herself naked, did she go home proudly to her children, her husband? But since then I’ve also been thinking: if the front-page publication of the picture was so deeply offensive, how can I further insult the women and put it on my wall? And surely the protest is more important than the form it takes, the issue more important than the language it’s couched in.

There aren’t any easy answers to these questions. It will be a long time before these long-standing disputes are settled and women and civil-society groups will find new modes of resistance, new forms of protest. But the question remains: will the media find new, sensitive ways of representing these protests?

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.