'A Crime of Power', Hawal Acid Attack Case Is a Warning

Gendered and generalised violence against women in Kashmir needs immediate attention 

By Ayshia Zehgeer

GENDERED and generalized violence against women is not new. The interwoven nature of gender based violence and permissive societal mechanism, exacerbate, historically, pre-existing patterns of discrimination against women. The abhorrent acid attack on a 24-year-old woman in Srinagar, effectively, brings to the fore the uncomfortable but omnipresent reality, marking the existence of patriarchal blueprints in our society. An attack aimed at dismembering and disfiguring a woman’s face, which according to the popular construct, is an important constituent of her identity.

In 2013, sweeping and potent changes were made to the criminal laws of the country. These changes were necessitated by public outcry, following Nirbhaya gang-rape case in Delhi. The changes based on the Justice Varma Committee report made acid-attack and attempt to throw acid, specific offences, under Sections 326A and 326B, of the IPC, respectively. The punishment for voluntarily causing permanent or partial damage is imprisonment not less than 10 years, which may extend to life imprisonment and fine. A victim compensation scheme envisaged under sec 357A and 357B Crpc provides for compensation to the survivors of acid attacks. The law on paper therefore, might seem sufficient. However, long drawn trial procedures continue to mar the efficiency of law and the deterrent effect of the severity of the punishment is lost. The victim is put to trial and not the accused. The delay in trials has rendered the conviction rate as low as 2 percent. Therefore, time bound completion of investigation and trial, in cases like these, remains the only imperative means by which the certainty of punishment can be ensured.

Acid attacks and the motives behind them are varied; however, underpinnings remain the same — a sense of entitlement, superiority and power. A crime aimed at, socially isolating, invisibilizing and physically maiming women can, therefore, not be dismissed as a social malady or acts of individual aberration. It requires a deeper enquiry into the existing structures of the society that grant tacit approval to such acts and are complicit in making women vulnerable. An evidence of this fact is that countries ranking lowest in gender-gap index have the highest number of reported cases against women, especially crimes like acid attacks.

Behind every grave crime, there is a supply of myriad factors that ensure its recurrence. Mainstreaming and normalizing conversations that antagonize women and show them in bad light, therefore, insidiously informs a population’s collective motivation to carry out such crimes and rationalise them.

Managers of social and religious thought have especially taken upon themselves to devise rules and norms of permissible conduct for women within the patriarchal construct. All interpretations of social customs and misinterpretations of religious scriptures are, therefore, handmaids of one thought that aim at confining women as an adjunct or vestige of the misogynist structure. This, then, is the efficacy of a system that sidelines women from public-discussions, decision making and public forums. This renders women susceptible to crimes.

The fear of reprisal and stigmatization for breaching the accepted norms pushes women into silence.  Women, therefore already, the pall-bearers of a society’s shame, are expected either to conform or to remain silent. Any outcry is seen as a possible affront to the institutions. All this and more, cumulatively, makes women vulnerable to crimes. Institutionally, a woman’s formal complaint is first dismissed as trivial and then either disposed of with no redressal or delayed without relief.  The brick and mortar of any robust institution facilitating protection of women, is the sensitivity of those that run it. However, our institutions continue to reel under the same regressive thought process that runs through our society.

There is bound to be an awakening in every society. Sometimes, as a jolt, sometimes as a result of efforts of well-meaning sections of the population. However, a society that is in denial about the existence of its obnoxious practices remains subservient, both to power structures and to self-Inflicted suppression. Opening up of public spaces to women for voicing their concerns, a calibrated institutional and judicial approach to providing safe spaces for women to an end to the usage of pulpits of social and religious institutions  for marginalizing a gender, are as  emergent as our current feeling of rage.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

  • The author is a Lawyer in J&K High Court 

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