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An Indian spring

By Sheleyah Courtney - posted Tuesday, 8 January 2013


"She is not with us but her story must awaken us," have read many banners carried by young people demonstrating against rape in cities across India provoked by the terrible gang-rape of a young woman student in Delhi last December.

As I write and to my surprise but fierce pleasure, demonstrations with women largely in the vanguard continue to peacefully operate even all over arch-traditional Varanasi, North India, where I have lived, worked, and witnessed and written about sexual violence against women over the past fifteen years.

There, in Delhi and elsewhere in India, I have been and continue to be regularly sexually harassed myself - sometimes physically - age, modest Indian dress and comportment, nationality and various provocations signified by whiteness notwithstanding.

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While many shortcomings of India's gender relations culture, policing and judiciary subsequent to the rape and murder of the young woman whom we may now know was Ms Jyoti Singh Pandey on December 16 have been closely scrutinised in the past weeks, rendering the case and indeed Delhi now internationally infamous since, it is the significance and implications of these banners' words that I think are what warrant closer contemplation.

The youth carrying these placards are of India's growing middle class which having access to social media have been able to organise in such a way that simply is not possible in India otherwise.

The 'banner' can be thought of as another dimension and extension of the social medium that is as important in this context as is a Facebook page.

It is important since it is a direct action in the public space while Facebook is indirect or virtual action.

However it is worth pointing out that this kind of 'clicktivism', has been until recently underestimated - world-wide - as a powerful new tool for the potent exercise of democratic rights which constituents of many nation-states seek to engage and exercise beyond the arguably limited choices the franchise alone offers.

Recall that recently, thousands of people publically demonstrated an outpouring of poignant grief and anger over the abduction, rape and murder of a young ABC employee Jill Meagher in Melbourne whose "Missing" Facebook page went viral in a matter of a few days.

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The Occupy movement too, owes its albeit brief success to social networking.

Hence even though these young Indians have been characterised at worst in some of the recent reportage as elites protecting their own, perhaps it is economy which is facilitating the activistic articulation of a desire for the freedoms of a modernity that arise from a national change in economic fortunes.

Some of what I have read recently primitivises Indian men and Indian culture in general although this is not to say that men do not rape brutally or that there are tenets of persistent misogyny in all societies the intensity of which depends on the duration of or lack of a women's movement.

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About the Author

Sheleyah Courtney is lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney. Her research is among marginalised Hindu women of Varanasi, a city in North India that is holy for Hindus. She explores issues in Indian urban and diasporic communities of violence, cosmology, sexuality, and gender. Her work embraces phenomenological and psychological anthropology; and is informed by critical feminist theory. She is a catlover and Bollywood movie enthusiast.

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