Kathua Rape: Remembering Asifa

According to SBS News, on April 9, 2018, a group of lawyers barricaded an Indian courthouse to prevent police officers from filing specific charges. These charges weren’t convicting innocent civilians, but rather eight individuals responsible for the rape and murder of an eight year-old girl in January, 2018. Asifa Bano belonged to the Bakarwal community, a Muslim nomadic group from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It was there in the city of Kathua that the girl was lured into the forest by a group of Hindu men on January 12th, kidnapped, drugged, imprisoned, and then repeatedly raped and strangled.

The girls name was Asifa, and the last moments of life were mired in depravity, and yet, what makes this heinous crime even worse is the motivation behind it. As reported by the New York Times, the apprehended perpetrators confessed to targeting the girl in order to terrorize her nomadic community and drive them away. Essentially, the rape and death of this young girl was used as a means to promote Hindu superiority over Muslims, as part of what Amnesty International considers systemic discrimination. As social scientist Deepa Narayan stated, “this was a planned-out crime’, with Asifa reduced to a ‘political weapon’.”

In the wake of this tragedy and the filing of charges in April, India is currently experiencing mass protests, much akin to those in response to the 2012 rape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey. Current protests, similar to previous, are protesting the patriarchal values evident in Indian, and indeed, global societies, that contribute to women being perceived as mere objects. Analogous again are demands for justice. In the aftermath of Pandey’s death in 2012, several measures were taken to heighten women’s safety, including the launch of a helpline to register sexual assault, the fast-tracking of pending assault cases and the changing of laws to ensure that perpetrators are adequately punished. What is ever so apparent now is that these measures, whilst well-founded and necessary, are not enough. In place of such reactive action, proactive procedures must be implemented to actively ensure women’s safety. Measures that account and aim to combat the embedded ideologies of society that serve to condone sexual violence.

In a statement to the Hindustan Times on the anniversary of Pandey’s attack, student Mehak Sodhi expressed her lack of faith in the law, arguing that it is “impotent in the face of existing patriarchy.” However, this assertion is not so much damning to Indian law as it is to society. For as Sodhi later notes, it is this patriarchy that is “embedded in our homes, our institution and in our laws.” Fundamentally, change will not be eventuated through short-term ‘band-aid’ solutions, but rather approaches that consider the issue as a complex problem with various contributing factors. The occurrence of continued protests signal the first steps to achieving this. Such debates serve to deconstruct taboos concerning the discussion of this violence, and subsequently challenge the hegemonic ideologies that validate it.

Whilst protests condemning sexual violence in response to Asifa’s death are necessary, it is important that due attention is given to her exploitation for political ‘gain.’  According to Al Jazeera, religious minority groups in Indian, particularly Muslims, are often ‘demonized’ by Hindu groups.  These tensions are further exacerbated by the support that the current leading party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), lends Hindus, as evident by the protesting of BJP members against the arrests of Asifa’s accused, citing Muslim bias. For these parties, Asifa was not a young girl, but rather a political weapon- a pawn.

May Asifa’s untimely death serve as a timely reminder of the necessity of shifting potentially damaging ideologies, and moreover, the intrinsic humanity of everyone that entitles them the right to live.

Emily Forrester