I was recently invited as a speaker at TEDxITMU, the TEDx event at the Institute of Technology and Management University, Gurgaon. I shared the stage with a range of very interesting speakers like, Actor Vipin Sharma (of Taare Zameen Par fame), Delhi FM station Hit 95’s popular RJ Suroshree Dasgupta, Jazz musician duo Adil Manuel & Vasundhara Vidalur, Babar Afzal Founder, KashmirINK, Artist Roop Chand and others. Here is the complete list of speakers.

One thing that makes me sad about these conferences and gatherings is that there are some speakers who always come minutes before their talk and leave soon after. They never become a part of the full event. I find that very rude and condescending. I think it should be a mandatory rule that TEDx speakers should stay for the full event, just like TED conferences are residential conferences where participants stay for the whole duration of the conferences.

TEDxITMU talk by Sanjukta BasuThe event was good, though some of the talks were not that interesting. There should have been some sort of rehearsals, some of the speakers spoke very randomly and had no preparations at all. TEDx curators should take up the responsibility of giving the speakers and orientation on how to deliver a captivating and entertaining TEDx talk. Perhaps, they can run the speakers through a bunch of TED videos for the purpose. That should explain.

My favorite talk from the event was that by Babar Afzal founder of Kashmir INK. His work in Kashmir is very motivating, and I would love to make a personal visit and learn more. Also felt honored to personally know a veteran artist like Sh Roop Chand.

The subject of my talk was ‘very heavy’ everybody said. It was about Rape and that makes people go ‘Hmm.’ Strange. We should be talking about these issues always, every time, at every gathering.

The transcript of my talk

[This is not the exact transcription, slight deviations are likely]

My introduction you already heard. Feminist, non-feminist, I don’t like to have these labels. Though you need to write something on your profile otherwise people would ask what do you do and you have no answer. But I prefer to not have any labels at all, I am just me.

Before I start talking let me ask, how many of you had a look at this thing (holding up the schedule) this morning and thought “whoa! Rape! She’s going talk about Rape?”

[Few hands were raised]

Let’s be honest, its not easy to talk about Rape. It’s a difficult word, just like Vagina is. We don’t even use the words, we use special characters or hand gestures. But Eve Ensler started talking about Vaginas 15 years ago and that led to a movement. If you don’t know about her, Google her. Also find about the One Billion Rising Campaign scheduled for 14th February 2013. So Eve Ensler talked about Vaginas, I thought I’d talk about Rape. Because we should.

The word’s etymology

If we look at the meaning and usage of the word rape, in 15th century the word meant ‘seize prey; abduct, take by force.’ Eventually it came to define the crime of forceful sexual penetration by the man. Besides the legal and medical definition the word also have a social construct – shame, dishonour and silence of the woman.

When the recent incident of gang rape happened in Delhi, news and opinions started pouring in from all directions and one thing I noticed was that everybody was trying to give her a name, Abhaya, Nirbhaya, Damini etc.

Let’s not do that. Let’s not give her convenient names to hide our discomfort and shame in calling her what she exactly was, a gang rape victim or survivor. Every time we call her by some random feminine name what we do is brush aside certain shameful uncomfortable facts, that a girl was gang raped, beaten to death and it happened in Delhi. Let’s keep reminding us of these brutal truths. Lest we forget.

Having said that I understand that there is a need for an identity, millions of women across the globe facing violence every day and yet we don’t have a face or identity. This invisibility keeps this issue away from mainstream discussion. We don’t talk about the subject at gatherings and conferences such as this. When Chinmay (TEDxITMU curator and licensee) invited me to speak, I could have chosen any subject to talk about, from Law to Social Media to Photography but I chose this because I knew no one else would.

So we need an identity. But why not the real name and real identity? And this question is not to media or public but the survivor herself, or the family members in case she is no more. Why do we hide our face and identity in shame in case of rape? Every time the media whether print or TV reports on rape cases they have an image of a shattered woman hiding her face in shame sitting in darkness. Why?

Rape is not about sex

We don’t hide in shame in case of murder, theft, robbery, cheating. Then why in case of rape? Why can’t sex be treated like another crime? It is rather strange that the law itself categorizes Rape under the heading ‘sexual offense.’ Murder, hurt, grievious hurt – offense against body; Theft Robbery – offense against property; Rape is a sexual offense. Why is it not about body, consent, force and violence?

It is important to take the ‘sex’ away from ‘rape’ and the shame would leave automatically. Rape is not about sex. Actually it is never about any one thing. It is about power, violence, oppression, and more but never about sex.  It is a man’s way to prove his superiority and power over women; man’s way to correct a women, man’s way to seek revenge from another man et all.

Popular Culture

Another common reaction to the Delhi gang rape incident was to attack the item songs in Bollywood films and the talk about objectification of women. I say, leave alone the item numbers and item girls. If you think the item numbers and item girls are the problem, you are again saying women are the problem. You are asking women to not dance in a certain way, not dress in a certain way so they won’t ‘provoke’ rape. That is wrong. Stop telling the Munnis and Shielas what to do. Tell the men what they CANNOT do. If the Munnis and Sheilas after finishing the dance gets down from the stage and visits a local bar, the men cannot rape her. Nothing should provoke rape.

If you see the item songs as part of the film’s narrative, you’d see they are actually sexually empowered women happy about their sexuality and singing and dancing out of their own free will. When you talk about objectification of women, please read the concept of consent and choice in it. Is she allowing to be objectified? Has she given her consent? If yes, leave it there. We are nobody to make any further judgment.

And what about objects? Can you take an object by force? What about a delicious chocolate cake at display in the baker’s window? That’s an object. But can you break open the window and take it? No, you have to buy it. Similarly even if a woman appears like an object, because she allowed herself to be, one can’t take her body by force.

So leave aside the item girls. Let’s look at the item boys:

[I showed them an image of the song ‘Kiss me baby’ from the film Garam Masala staring Akshay Kumar and John Abraham.]

If you consider this song in the film’s narrative, the men here are aspiring to be with many bikini clad women along with their cars and other gadgets and gizmos that men fancy. This is no great a message either, is it? So leave alone both item girls and item boys, what we just cannot accept is this.

[I showed them an image of a rape scene from an unknown south Indian film]

Violence against woman (VAW) should become invisible from our popular culture. First there should be no violence, unless that’s a part of the story where the film itself is based on that issue, like a Damini or Bandit Queen. Second, if at all there is VAW we just don’t need a hero jumping from the roof top as the only saviour of a miserable and weak women facing violence. Enough of making these senseless films.

The language used in popular culture

Films should come with a disclaimer about VAW including sexist abuses like MC and BC. Recently seen in the trailer of a South Indian masala film, the villain is threatening the hero “I would ruin your sister” This is a demented mindset, to take revenge from the man, attack the women related to him. The routine MC / BC abuses between two men fighting are in reality abuses against women who have got nothing to do with the fight. The origin of such abuse is in the patriarchal mindset that treats woman as man’s property. In a land based quarrel, crops are burned down; in a riot women are raped.

In a patriarchal society, Rape is the ultimate manifestation of the enemy’s defeat and destruction. There should be no depiction of this mindset in the popular culture. Like they show cigarette smoking is injurious to health and that the film doesn’t support smoking, they should also give a disclaimer that ‘abuses against women is injurious to human kind’.

The real faces of rape survivors

I showed them two photos, of Eve Ensler and Sunitha Krishnan. Two women who didn’t hide, who shared their real stories, real faces and inspired million other girls.

Real faces of rape survivors
Real faces of rape survivors, inspiration for millions.

Tell your stories

This is an appeal to the girls, victims survivors of violence, share your stories. There are questions for which we have no answers. We need to hear those experiences, those feelings that are unknown to people who have never gone through it. What happens to the rape survivor, how soon does she resume normal life, how does she cope, what kind of cooperation is extended by her family friends and neighborhood, if she had a boyfriend before the incident did he stay by her side? If she got into a relationship after the incident, did he bring up the topic? Did that make her awkward?

The more girls would talk about these, the more easy it would be to overcome the trauma and move on.

Finally coming back to my personal thoughts during the Delhi gang rape incident, ever since it happened I wanted to write about it on my blog, like I always do, but I couldn’t articulate my thoughts. They were scattered and ran in various directions from the patriarchal mind-set that prefers boys and treats girls as second class members of the society; to the archaic Victorian laws; the inefficient police; the corrupt courts; the moral policing of the traditionalists; the regressive religious rituals and practices; the deplorable celebration of men and masculinity along with objectification of women in media and popular culture; the double standards of the society…the list went on.

And then when the news of her death came, suddenly I realized all my thoughts had stopped at me. I could be her, I could be dead. One evening I was there, and then I was dead, because I was a woman, because some men decided to have sex with me by force, because…whatever, point is I am dead.

So assuming I am dead, I would like to look back and ask, did I at all live those 23 years?

  • Did I spend each day feeling proud to be born as a woman chasing my dreams, listening to my heart?
  • Did I always unconditionally refuse, refuse to suppress my feelings, dreams and aspirations, at the cost of being called ill-behaved and bad?
  • Did I reject every notion around me that I felt was created to treat me differently and unequally from the boys relying upon the sole reason of me being born with a vagina?

If I didn’t, I wasn’t living anyway. And if I did, I would know, and the world should know that I survived the RAPE.

Girls, remember our lives are political battle fields where we have to constantly assert our rights, never get too comfortable with your life, protest gender notions and inequality every single time, at the slightest violation, even at the cost of being called whiny, boring and spoilsport. And as I say that, I would make my personal protest right on this stage against my previous speaker who made a sexist joke about girls being bad at shopping. Please girls, do not accept gender notions, even as a joke. ‘Girls can’t drive’, ‘girls take too much time to shop’ please protest at these statements. And you have to do, men won’t. Trust me the men won’t. Thank you!

[End of transcript]

At the lunch break several girls and boys, all students of ITMU came up to me and said they loved the talk, but they had queries and concerns. I chatted with a group of them over lunch. It was an interesting discussion. The girls were all very vocal, men were supportive and enthusiastic about women rights. There was an air of positivity, I felt good. I felt the next generation would do better. Some men were a bit hurt though, “Mam, you became a bit pessimist in the end, you said men won’t do.”

I smiled and said, “True, I was being pessimist.  I am sorry.”

At the end of the 3rd session post lunch, I requested to have the stage for a minute. I took the microphone and addressed the crowd. “Friends, I think my talk ended on a negative note and have hurt a few men here. Imagine how angry we feel when these notions are thrust upon us for all our lives. Anyway, since some of you mentioned it, I want to ask, how many of you are ready to take a pledge with me right here right now, that you would never make another sexist joke, and you won’t laugh at a sexist joke?”

Barely one or two hands were raised. I said, “I understand it’s not easy to face this question publicly, but do so in your heart. Ask yourself and if you can take that pledge, never make a sexist joke. Small change but means a lot”

Thank you!