South Asian Women Writers Breaking the Tradition of Silence

Master's Thesis, 2009

69 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Violence
2.1. Violence against women
2.1.1. (Female) Child sexual abuse
2.1.2. Rape
2.1.3. Intimate partnerviolence
2.2. Consequences of violence against women

3. Silence
3.1. Silence - a cultural construction?
3.2. Agents of silence
3.3. Speakinganditsconsequences

4. Conclusion



1. Introduction

The phenomenon of gender-based violence has become a too-frequent and ubiquitous issue nowadays. Manifested through various forms and supported by an overwhelming number of agents1, male violence against women is not always perceived as a violation of human rights2. In these circumstances, its victims become each day more numerous3, also due to the fact that they are prevented from reporting the crimes and the perpetrators remain unknown and unpunished.

Many social systems around the world are confronted with the phenomenon in discussion but few have shown their willingness to attempt to sanction the abusers and protect the victims. Gender-based violence has reached outrageous proportions4 due to an encouraging gender-biased social system, which has endorsed the construction of a tradition of silencing the issue and the victims with the help of a series of agents involved in propagating this tradition. Nevertheless, it is exactly the tradition of silence, which proves that the witnesses and the victims of male violence are prevented from revealing their victimization. More precisely, the fact that the number of the authors who have approached this delicate question is insignificant in relation to the number of crimes (reported or unreported), suggests that speaking about gender-based violence represents an exception.

The present paper aims at approaching the exceptional cases of five South Asian women writers who grapple in their novels with different manifestations of male violence against women. What will be examined is their aesthetic perspective and representation of the given topic, as well as their significant contribution to the effort of breaking the silence on gender-based violence by transforming it into a speakable subject.

In doing this, the paper will serve as an attempt to answer the following questions: do the literary texts try and succeed in mirroring a social gender-biased reality? how do they approach and illustrate the phenomenon of gender-based violence and its implications?

Despite the fact that the present topic is imbedded in a controversial political debate, the present paper will be limited to analyse its aesthetic engagements by focusing on the following fictional works: Manju Kapur (India) - Home, Taslima Nasrin (Bangladesh) - My Bengali Girlhood, Mukhtar Mai (Pakistan)- In the Name of Honor, Tehmina Durrani (Pakistan) - My Feudal Lord, and Anita Nair (India) - Ladies Coupe. The visible interest in the South Asian5 literary writing is legitimized by the writers’ argument that the social systems referred to in the texts display a visible predisposition to protect the male abusers and silence the victims. In an attempt to explore their indictments, it is relevant to introduce theories and empirical results from the area of sociology and psychology, as well as pertinent statements of literary critics, Indian and Pakistani writers and journalists.

The present paper will contextualize and thematize the issue of gender-based violence and the silence camouflaging it on the basis of the following structural outline: the next chapter will provide a brief view on the phenomenon of violence, then it will deal with one of its particular areas, namely violence against women. Further, the paper will provide the reader an introductive outlook on gender-based violence, its various implications and the objectives of the three sub-chapters on child sexual abuse, rape, and intimate partner violence.

The third chapter will be dedicated to the question of silence on male violence against women; the purpose of this chapter will be to investigate the causes of this particular type of silence, its mechanisms and the factors that contribute to its propagation. Also, in focusing on the possibilities and consequences of disrupting the silence on male violence, the paper will seek to discover what are the costs and chances of success of such an non-conformist endeavour.

Finally, the last section of the thesis will be concerned with the review of the main ideas developed along the two main chapters in order to verify the substantially and relevance of the arguments.

2. Violence

The multiplicity of implications and meanings of the concept and phenomenon of violence has fascinated various scholars of political science, psychology, sociology, or philosophy. In an attempt to explore its significance and purpose, Hannah Arendt opens up new perspectives on violence, thus challenging simplistic and limiting definitions of the term that only engage with its physical manifestations.6 Therefore, the political theorist argues that

Violence, finally, as I have said, is distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength.7

However, what Arendt does not incorporate in her discourse on violence is the idea of vehemence, damage, and impetuosity suggested by the Latin etymology of the concept - ‘violentia’. It may be argued that in mentioning that violence’s purpose is ‘of multiplying natural strength’ the theorist leaves space for the reader to reflect on the possibilities of increasing one’s natural strength. In this sense, innumerable conceptualizations of violence have been developed, either by exposing it as an instrument of political manoeuvres (colonization), of historical figures (Vlad Tepes as ‘Dracula’), and of social issues (revolutions), or by envisioning it as a goal, a cause or an effect. Violence has also been approached from different literary angles when speaking of the rights of minorities in terms of class, gender, race, ethnos, or religion. At the heart of all these thematizations on violence resides the pervasive concern with the desire for power, be it legitimized or not. As noted by the Indian writer Meenakhsi,

The aim of both physical and psychological violence is the same: the disempowerment of persons which ensures domination over them.8

Meenakhsi’s perspective on violence, as a way of achieving (more) power in order to dominate other individuals, foregrounds the idea of abuse as a further central concept lying at the basis of the present paper.

A prerequisite for the examination of the literary representations of abuse and violence is to define the two terms. Therefore, both concepts will be employed and analysed in the following sub-chapters based on the fact that not only violence but also ‘the term abuse includes physical as well as non-physical acts’9. Moreover, it should be mentioned that in the context of the chosen narratives all forms of violence and abuse are regarded as a deliberate means of inflicting verbal, physical, and emotional (or psychological) injuries on an individual in order to achieve different goals.

The following section of the paper aims at introducing a specific form of violence and at addressing its central implications and aspects.

2.1. Violence against women

What numerous statistics and sociological studies on male violence against women strive to communicate is the pervasiveness and high frequency of this phenomenon that cuts across all categories of female victims and male abusers. At the heart of these researches lies the assumption that violence against women represents a strategic device employed by men within male-dominated social systems in order to maintain women’s low position. As Francine Pickup remarks,

The violence to which women are subject is not random, or abnormal, or defined by specific circumstances alone. It is used as a weapon to punish women for stepping beyond the gendered boundaries set for them, and to instil in them the fear of even considering doing so. It is a systematic strategy to maintain women’s subordination to men.10

Seen thus as a widespread commonality rather than various isolated cases, the present issue implies the idea that female victims experience a twofold torment: the act of violence per se and the lack of legal and social norms that fail to sanction the abusive act, hence discouraging the victims to report the crime.

Whereas sociological and psychological studies approach the issue of male violence against women from an objective perspective, their theories being supported by empirical evidence, literary texts engage in presenting the subjective aspect of the problem. Unlike scientific researches, which provide wide ranges of numbers and theoretical arguments, writers strive to particularize extensive series of ciphers and thus envision the story of only one case of gender-based violence at a time. In doing so, they intend to present the reader what figures cannot, namely the situational factors leading to the violent act, the abuser’s gestures, the victim’s reactions, her thoughts and feelings.

Numbers cannot voice the devastating experience of having been abused, nor can they provide an image of the victims or the offenders. By contrast, literature enables one to express how ‘a woman endures an invasion of self, the intrusion of inner space, a violation of her sexual and physical autonomy.11

Moreover, since few of the women who experience male violence find the courage to press charges against the assailant, a high percentage of abusive cases are not included in the official statistics. Nevertheless, Tehmina Durrani, Taslima Nasrin and Mukhtar Mai have discovered a different method of inscribing their experience; as they argue, the three authors have disclosed their victimization to the readers, thus formulating a literary testimony. However, despite their real experience, the three textual representations of gender-based violence will be primarily analysed as fictional texts, together with Manju Kapur and Anita Nair’s stories that raise no pretension to real events.

At this point, it is imperative to clarify the meaning of the concept of gender-based violence, whose significance is essential for the present thesis. Therefore, this notion will be operationalized as bearing the meaning of ‘male violence against women’ and defined as ‘any attack directed against a (usually female) person due, at least in part, to a disadvantaged position within male-dominated social systems.’12

The phenomenon of gender-based violence may take diverse forms of manifestation. Nevertheless, the purpose of this paper is to analyse only three of them, namely female child sexual abuse (narrated by Nasrin and Kapur), rape (Mukhtar Mai), and intimate partner violence (Nair, Durrani, Nasrin). In examining these discourses on male violence against women, the following aspects will be taken into consideration: the circumstances of the violent act, the assailant’s pretext to use violence, his behaviour towards the victim, the detailed description of the act, the woman’s reaction to the male violent behaviour, her strategy of resisting and fighting back, as well as the stylistic techniques employed by the authors. A further interesting element to be approached is the idea of the authorial intention, which implies the question as to whether the narrator’s voice and perspective juxtaposes the one of the victim.

When speaking about male violence against women, it is useful to specify which methodological approach will be employed. In this sense, starting from Margaret Abraham’s dichotomist pattern of analysis of domestic violence13, it should be noticed that since the present paper is primarily concerned with the representation of diverse forms of violence against women, approaching the ‘feminist perspective’, which focuses on ‘the abused woman’, represents the best option.

Additionally, it is worth remarking that the analysis of the above-mentioned issues will be complemented by scientific arguments from the field of psychology and sociology. The present paper will seek to demonstrate that since not all of these theories are rooted and refer to the South Asian area and yet support and reinforce the ideas formulated in the South Asian literary works, gender-based violence is a phenomenon that transgresses cultural or ethnical particularities.

Taking this idea a stage further, it should be pointed out that in exploring the question of the power structures at the level of each of the seven given relations ‘victim - assailant’, it is important to consider a particular thesis. More precisely, the paper will verify the validity of the widespread idea about the role of patriarchy in legitimizing the phenomenon of gender- based violence, expressed by researchers from India, Pakistan, and U.S.A. as it follows:

The patriarchy must be emphasised as the institutional source of violence against women and contextualised with other realities of class, caste and race.13 14

Women in Pakistan continue to be victims of this senseless violence. Though patriarchal family and tribal traditions exacerbate violence against women, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Pakistani government to protect these women and to prosecute those who commit these horrible atrocities.15 16

Gender-based violence is only partly centered in the individual psychology - the beliefs, decisions, and personality characteristics - of the attacker. It is also woven into the cultural fabric of a society that grants disproportionate power to men. [...] Within these cultural conditions, violence-prone men feel entitled to wield that power irresponsibly, and social systems often fail to hold them accountable for their violence.1

This having been said, the following three sections of the thesis are dedicated to the detailed analysis of female child sexual abuse, rape, and intimate partner violence. It is significant to mention that the asymmetrical proportions of the sub chapters is legitimized by the fact that the majority of the present narratives addresses the question of intimate partner violence17, whereas only two of them grapple with the topic of child sexual abuse and one with that of rape.

2.1.1. (Female) Child sexual abuse

The present subchapter on child sexual abuse is mainly based on literary representations of sexual violence against female children, namely Manju Kapur’s novel Home and Taslima Nasrin’s autobiographical text My Bengali Girlhood. The fact that these narratives differ in terms of their writers’ geographical (Indian, respectively Bengali) and religious (Hindu, respectively Muslim) background, as well as the fact that one is fictional (Kapur’s) and the other inspired by events experienced by the authoress (Nasrin), provides us with the opportunity to examine comparatively how the two writers have transposed this delicate and too often unspoken issue from the area of male violence against women into words.

In the case of Nisha (Kapur’s character) and Nasrin as protagonist, one may remark a first similarity: both characters have been sexually abused18 by male characters from their familial circle at an early age. Sandra Butler, a sociologist concerned with the traumatic effects of incestuous assaults, emphasizes the crucial role of the early stage of psychological development of children who are sexually abused by a male relative. Therefore, at a literary level, both Nasrin and Kapur reflect in their writings how the young victim ‘has not yet developed an understanding of sexuality that allows him or her to make a free and fully conscious response to the adult’s behaviour.’19

The omniscient narrator in Home clearly alludes to the fact that the young female victim’s reaction to the first signs of sexual abuse indicates her lack of maturity and her childish behaviour as she starts crying and seeks for her mother’s protection.

Entranced, he put his hand on the inside of her beckoning thigh and whispered, ‘How soft you are, Nisha.’

An intent look came on his face, his gentle fingers kept up a steady stroking. He began to trace the elastic of her panties all around the leg. ‘What are you doing? Chee, that’s dirty, take your hand away,’ she cried, but Vicky was in no state to hear her. [...]

He put those fingers against his mouth. ‘Give me your hand,’ he went on. ‘I want to show you something.’

‘I don’t want to see.’ Nisha was crying.

‘Of course you do.’

‘No, I want to go to Mummy. Leave me.’

‘See, another secret.’ And quickly, so quickly that she didn’t know how it happened, he introduced it to her. Terror-stricken, she looked at the black thing sticking up, and then quickly looked away. [...]

Vicky gripped her wrist so hard and painfully that her fingers opened around the big dark thing. [...] When she tried to struggle, he increased the pressure of his hand. [...]

‘It’s our secret. If you tell anyone, they will beat you and me.’ He gripped her arm. ‘No one must ever know. No one. You understand.’

Nisha nodded wordlessly.20

It is important to notice how the narrator constructs the scene by introducing to the reader an ‘entranced’ Vicky whose gestures are initially rather seducing than violent - he ‘whispered, ‘How soft you are, Nisha’’ and ‘his gentle fingers’. Moreover, it seems that the first phrases of the passage indicate the assailant’s point of view, since Vicky feels ‘entranced’ and touches Nisha’s ‘beckoning thigh’.21 Furthermore, the narrator shifts the attention from the perspective of the abuser to that of the child victim, followed by a gradually increasing tempo of replicas between the two protagonists. One might presume that the authorial intention is to create the impression of a crescendo rhythm in order to allude to the idea of an abusive sexual act.

Taking a closer look at this episode, one may remark that Nisha’s attitude reveals a series of interesting ideas. First, if at the beginning of the scene the young female protagonist appears to be strong enough to withstand Vicky’s assault and express her repugnance, she rapidly loses control over her body when he uses violence to make her surrender to his plans. Therefore, the narrator skilfully underlines the significance of violence, may it be verbal or physical, in the case of a sexual assault with the help of expressions like ‘gripped’, ‘painfully’, ‘increased the pressure’.

Secondly, the quotation emphasizes Nisha’s reactions - her evident disgust and high discomfort - ‘Chee, that’s dirty, take your hand away’, her fragile emotional state - ‘terror- stricken’, as well as her powerlessness and confusion caused by her lack of experience and her physical weakness in comparison to her abuser’s scrupulousness and physical strength. Once the perpetrator assures himself of his victim’s silence and submission, he sees no reason why he should not repeat the experience. Thus, he denies her the right to choose, by refusing or accepting his intentions; it seems that he does not consider it necessary to ask for her consent. Furthermore, the narrator underlines the fact that Vicky develops a distorted image of Nisha, reducing her to the role of a sexual object designed to fulfil his needs.

Meanwhile Vicky’s preoccupation with Nisha increased, his eyes fixed on the small white hand that had caressed him [...] Just thinking of the excitement and the release made him long for it again.22

Not surprisingly, Nisha becomes Vicky’s victim once more, the phenomenon of revictimization being easily predictable in this situation.23

A similar prediction could be reached when reading Nasrin’s story on the same topic; like Nisha, the seven-year old girl protagonist Taslima experiences feelings of powerlessness, confusion and humiliation as two of her uncles sexually abuse her. However, their attitude towards the victim displays different strategies of manipulation and silencing. Uncle Sharafs behaviour resembles that of Vicky; both characters impose their will on their victims by force and threaten them with a fierce punishment unless they keep silent. Additionally, they both ignore the physical harm they cause their younger female relatives during the sexual assault, apart from the obvious emotional injuries. More precisely, Vicky ‘was in no state to hear her’, he disregards Nisha’s recurring refusal and ‘increases the pressure’ when she tries to escape from his grip. At her turn, Nasrin the narrator presents an unscrupulous Sharaf who is amused to take advantage of his younger niece and shows no sign of compassion.

Uncle Sharaf laughed and threw him self down on me. Then, with one hand he removed my shorts once more, and with the other took off his own, pressing his willie hard against my body. My chest felt heavy; I could not breathe. I tried to push him away. ‘What are you doing, Uncle Sharaf? Let me go!’ I shrieked, pushing with all my might. But I could not move him an inch. [...] Uncle Sharaf pushed himself harder against me. It looked so ugly to me, I covered my eyes with my hands.

Suddenly, a rat scurried across the floor. The noise made Uncle Sharaf jump off the cot. I did not lose a second. Pulling my shorts up I ran out of the room as fast as I could, with not a thought to spare about the snakes in the bushes. My heart thudded crazily, as if a hundred rats were jumping in my chest.

Uncle Sharaf called after me in a threatening voice: ‘Don’t tell anyone about this. If you do, I will kill you!’24

Significantly, the two female children attempt to defend themselves and escape their male oppressors’ entanglement; although they are confused and too inexperienced to understand the implications of the event, both naively asking ‘What are you doing?’, they feel that it is something that should not happen and strive to return to a safer environment.25 Instinctively, Nisha and Taslima comprehend that their abusers are stronger than they are and that they are trapped. Hence, both seek to evade the distressing scene by looking away or covering their eyes. The traumatic feelings triggered by these violent acts are textually mirrored by highly suggestive phrases like ‘terror-stricken’ or by means of comparison - ‘a hundred rats jumping in my chest’. Furthermore, Taslima’s second sexual victimization (quoted below) is narrated with the help of phrases like ‘horror’, ‘went numb with fear’, or ‘totally petrified’.

To get my hands on the matchbox I moved nearer to Uncle Aman. He pulled me to him. Then, instead of giving me the matches, he started tickling me [...] I shrank like a snail. He picked up my tense, curled-up body and threw it in the air. He caught me as I fell, his hand sliding down my body, stopping at my panties. Then he began pulling my panties down. I tried to roll off the bed. My feet were on the floor, my back still on the bed, my panties near my knees, my knees neither on the floor nor on the bed. [...]

Uncle lifted his lungi. I saw a big snake raise its head between his legs, poised for attack. I went numb with fear, but to my greater horror, the snake did attack, in that little place between my thighs - once, twice, thrice. I remained totally petrified. Staring into my wide eyes, Uncle said, ‘Would you like a candy’? Tomorrow, I will buy you candy. Look, here’s the matchbox. Take it. And listen, sweetheart, don’t tell anyone that you have seen my cock and I have seen your little sweet pussy. It’s bad to talk about such things. You must tell no one.’ [...]

Uncle Aman had told me not to tell anyone else. I started to think he was right. It was not something one talked about. Suddenly, at the age of seven, I was filled with a new awareness. Whatever had happened was shameful, and it would not be right to talk about it. It had to be kept a secret.26

Unlike Nisha, Taslima becomes the victim of two male abusers, both being her uncles, each of them expressing themselves differently. Whereas Sharaf threatens to kill her if she fails to remain silent, Aman, more experienced, treats Taslima according to her young age. In this sense, he seeks to trick her by promising to buy her candies, calling her ‘sweetheart’, and then typically impel the victim to preserve the secret. When employing the term ‘typically’, what is meant is the common strategy used by the offender to persuade the victim that she will also suffer severe consequences in case the abuse is disclosed. Nisha and Taslima perceive the gravity of the threats more acutely than other victims of sexual assault whose abusers are unfamiliar to them. In other words, ‘the female child is powerless: her position in the family structure (as child, not adult), her lack of life experience do not often give her the structural or emotional power to fend off sexual advances.’27

Returning to the remark mentioned at the beginning of this subchapter concerning the dissimilarities between the two literary illustrations of child sexual abuse, it is noteworthy that Nasrin’s autobiographical writing slightly differs from Kapur’s fictional narrative mainly due to the unequal textual representation of the emotional and psychological effects of the abuse.

The poignancy of being the victim of such a violent act determines Nasrin to seek refuge in writing about her unspoken experience; the vehemence of her long hidden feelings, the tumult of her memories, and the need to disclose the crime in detail offer her the necessary tools to fabricate a reliable and authentic storyline. Moreover, the Bengali writer Nasrin strives to generate the impression that the abuse is narrated from the perspective of her self as a child. Hence, she suggests that the tone and the linguistic repertoire of the fragment are instruments employed by a female child narrator, whose naivety hinders her to comprehend that her descriptive speech on the sexual abuse involves taboo issues concerning language and behaviour. The advantage in opting for a first person narrator’s perspective confers her story a plus of authenticity and veracity, attributes that lack in Kapur’s third person narrative. Moreover, it is easily noticeable that Kapur creates a skilful description of Nisha’s experience but does not elaborate on the victim’s inner discourse.

The protagonist Taslima, despite her youth and naivety, is affected by the violent events that suddenly generate the seven-years-old girl’s untimely psychological maturity, manifested in her reflection on the implications of the experience. Analysing the threats of her abusers and internalizing the feelings of shame and humiliation, Taslima herself feels guilty and responsible28 for what has happened to her.

At the end of this section, it should be mentioned, in relation to the last two distinctions between Nasrin and Kapur’s stories, that neither the religious, nor the territorial factor seems to play a decisive role in the question of child sexual abuse.

2.1.2. Rape

‘‘Rape is a man’s right. If a woman doesn’t want to give it, the man should take it. Women have no right to say no. Women are made to have sex. It’s all they’re good for. Some women would rather take a beating, but they always give in.’’29

The pungent and misogynist tone emanating from the fragment above, which quotes a sexual aggressor’s perspective on rape, represents only one example out of many that have influenced researchers of gender-based violence towards a certain direction of thought. Therefore, the feminist political activist S. Brownmiller argues that in the case of rape ‘the intent is not merely to ‘take’, but to humiliate and degrade’.30 Moreover, ‘sexual violence is less the expression of an individual man’s unrestrained sex drive than it is a reiteration of patriarchal social structures and norms. Rape is primarily motivated by power, not sex.’31

When speaking about rape, a wide series of issues of ethical, legal, psychological, or social nature comes into question. Nevertheless, the interest of this section is to explore the moral, emotional and psychological implications of such an act from a literary perspective, namely Mukhtar Mai’s illustrative novel In the Name of Honor.

Unlike any of the other four narratives that are in discussion in the present paper and which engage to some extent with the question of violence against women, Mai’s piece of writing deals exclusively with the most severe form of sexual assault, namely rape. Like Nasrin and Durrani, Mai also avows that her literary discourse emerges out of her own experience; therefore, she suggests that she embodies the voice behind the lines of In the Name of Honor and is at the same time the female victim protagonist.

According to Mukhtar Mai’s story, an ever-lasting game of power between the clans of the same caste in the Pakistani village Meerwala has led to a gang rape dictated by unwritten rules applicable in the case of a question ‘of honour’32 33. The narrator mentions that the Mastoi clan has manipulated the tribal council responsible for solving internal conflicts and thus had Mai’s family punished by raping one of their female members. As a result, Mukhtar Mai becomes the victim of a group rape (four male aggressors) despite the fact that Mai herself, as she is arguing, was not directly involved in the presumed divergence. Nonetheless, the female narrator clearly avows that her experience is strongly suggestive of women’s condition in the village Meerwala where tribal rules dictate women’s lives, her argument being supported by a researcher on women’s rights in Pakistan . Furthermore, according to Mai’s argumentative line, the fact that a woman has been gang-raped as an aftermath of a disagreement between two clans proves that women(’s bodies) are used as weapons in men’s34 tribal war for power and prestige.

For them, a woman is simply an object of possession, honour, or revenge. They marry or rape them according to their conception of tribal pride. They know that a woman humiliated in that way has no other recourse except suicide. They don’t even need to use their weapons. Rape kills her. Rape is the ultimate weapon: it shames the other clan forever.35

However, the female protagonist fails to carry out the expectations of a conventional community, namely to commit suicide; instead, she finds enough strength to fight against the tribal conventions. Hence, she seeks revenge by embarking on the mission to struggle to prove in front of a legal commission that she has been raped and that her aggressors should be punished. In Brownmiller’s formulation, women like Mai eagerly struggle to make ‘rape a speakable crime, not a matter of shame.’36

Mukhtar Mai finally succeeds in publicly disclosing the crime, her abusers and the exact order and details implied by the act in front of the judiciary. Nonetheless, what is noteworthy about the process of transposing her statement into a literary form is that, unlike Nasrin and Kapur37, her narrative does not provide precise information on how the crime has been committed, but it chiefly focuses on the victim’s emotional and physical reactions.

I am there, true, but it isn’t me anymore: this petrified body, these collapsing legs no longer belong to me. I am about to faint, to fall to the ground, but I never get the chance - they drag me away like a goat led to slaughter. Men’s arms have seized mine, pulling at my clothes, my shawl, my hair.

‘‘In the name of the Koran, release me!’’ I scream. ‘‘In the name of God, let me go!’’

I pass from one night to another, taken from the darkness outside to the darkness inside an enclosed place where I can distinguish those four men only by the moonlight filtering through a tiny window. Four walls and a door, guarded by an armed silhouette.

Escape is impossible. Prayer is impossible.

That is where they rape me, on the beaten earth of an empty stable. Four men [...] I don’t know how long that vicious torture lasts. An hour? All night?38

Taking the comparison a stage further, it is remarkable that Mai displays a tendency to conceal shameful (in her view) details of the ‘vicious torture’ as she calls it, whereas on the contrary, the other two writers seem to be much more concerned with creating a realistic and complete illustration of how the sexual abuse happened. An explanation might be the fact that Nasrin and Kapur may invoke the point of view of the girl victim who is not aware of the cultural taboos of sexual acts. On the contrary, Mai writes about an experienced mature woman, who has internalized strong feelings of shame and humiliation and is aware of the fact that her testimony represents an exception in the context of a community that maintains silence about severe cases of gender-based violence.

One could further argue that unlike Mai, Nasrin’s focus on reconstructing the puzzle of an event that she has experienced as a child may imply that over the years she had the time to reflect on and overcome to some extent her emotional trauma.

Mai’s textual representation of the abusive act brings to light a significant sense of authenticity translated into the following observation: at a conscious level, the victim perceives how the magnitude of the event triggers the dichotomy between her mind and body. The narrator brilliantly records this detail suggesting that the shock caused by the gravity of the act ‘petrified’ her body; the impossibility to pray or to escape, as well as the awareness of this fact, impels her to put her body (as the direct sufferer of the assault) at distance from her mind. Mai actually refers to an interesting defensive process -effacement or denial (‘I am there, true, but it isn’t me anymore’) as a way of dealing with a traumatic experience.

The narrative might represent a strategy of rapprochement; more precisely, Mai constructs her discourse in the form of an inner dialogue by which she seeks to re-establish the connection between her body and mind. In the case of a traumatic event, the victim’s first sign of recovery usually consists in accepting the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on her and discussing about it. In doing so, the victim allows herself to recollect and formulate a multitude of reflections and details about the event, like in Mai’s case - ‘I am about to faint, to fall to the ground’, ‘arms have seized mine, pulling at my clothes, my shawl, my hair’. The phrase ‘they drag me away like a goat led to slaughter’ alludes to the abusers’ use of violence - expressed by the verb ‘to drag’, to the gravity and brutality of the act - suggested by the term ‘slaughter’, as well as to her position - that of a goat which, being ‘dragged’ to slaughter, has no possibility to defend itself. In fact, Mai’s position as victim of four men’s abuse indicates that her possibilities of fighting back are rather unrealistic39.

Further on, Mai gradually shifts away from the animalistic image of the goat to men’s sphere and then to divinity. In an attempt to awake her abusers’ compassion or moral sense, she first invokes the sacred book of Islam, the Koran, and then God’s name - ‘‘In the name of the Koran, release me!’’ I scream. ‘‘In the name of God, let me go!’’. Despite the fact that her initiative proves to be unsuccessful, the larger implication of the idea of divinity in the profane context of the rape might suggest that in such a moment of crisis Mai’s only hope remains

God, although ‘prayer is impossible’. The presence of the divine element invests Mai’s narrative with a subtle sense of morality and religiousness.

Returning to the scene that narrates the sexual abuse, it is relevant to examine the role played by violence in the given context. Therefore, what first strikes the reader is the textual indication of the abusers’ violent behaviour - ‘they drag me’, ‘men’s arms have seized mine, pulling at my clothes, my shawl, my hair’, which points out the fact that the rape involves more than a presupposed physical desire, since it provides proof of evident violent manifestations. Therefore, the present textual example seems to confirm Brownmiller’s view that ‘in a sexual assault physical harm is much more than a threat; it is a reality because violence is an integral part of the act.’40

Moreover, after the abuse comes to an end, the victim is allowed to leave the ‘enclosed place’. Nonetheless, according to the fragment below, Mai continues to feel a high degree of discomfort and shame, increased by the awareness that ‘the entire village’ knows what has happened behind the doors and the embarrassment that they see her half naked.

Then they shove me outside, half naked, where I stumble and fall. They throw my shalwar at me [...] Everyone is waiting. I am alone with my shame before the eyes of the entire village. I have no words to describe what I am at that moment.41

These highly suggestive lines are charged with the victim’s acute feelings of shame, humiliation and helplessness; at the same time, one should not overlook Mai’s talent of creating a powerfully emotional image of herself as protagonist. At this point, it is worth mentioning that the writer skilfully traces the victim’s weariness as she appears in front of the crowd. What the narrator might want to indicate by ‘I stumble and fall’ is that the aggressors have managed to shatter Mai’s dignity, honour and mental stability42 ; literally referring to the protagonist’s stumble, Mai inscribes her fall at a metaphorical level.

Keeping in mind the narrator’s comments and reflections on the experience of having been raped due to a matter of tribal vengeance, one could infer that the aggressors were not driven by an irrepressible physical impulse but by their desire to take revenge, to humiliate and dishonour a female relative of their offender. According to Mai, this solution represents the most efficient one for the abusers since ‘for them, a woman is simply an object of possession, honour, or revenge’.


1 One of the agents propagating gender-based violence is represented by the mass-media, as Lashgari notes - ‘paradoxically, the violence permeating the media - television, movies, newspapers- makes it more difficult, rather than easier, for us to hear. Packaged and sanitized, ‘violence as entertainment’ can have an anaesthetising effect that prevents us from feeling or acting.’ (See Lashgari, Deirdre (ed.), Violence, Silence, and Anger. Women’s Writing as Transgression, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995: 2).

2 See Appendix: 1.

3 ‘There are no signs of crimes against women declining so far.’ (See Rustagi, Preet, Gender biases and discrimination against women, New Delhi: Centre for Women’s Development Studies (& UNIFEM), 2003: 73).

4 See Appendix: 1-2.

5 1 will use the term ‘South Asian’ in a restrictive sense, namely in reference to three social and cultural spaces - India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Also, I will keep in mind the fictional references to these spaces and the way the protagonists and writers identify themselves in relation to them.

6 A case in point is the definition of violence as a ‘behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill.’ <>

7 See Arendt, Hannah, On Violence, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970: 46.

8 See Thapan, Meenakshi, Images of the body and sexuality in women’s narratives on oppression in the home, New Delhi: Centre for Contemporary Studies, 1996: 8.

9 See Saravanan, Sheela, ‘‘Violence Against Women in India’’, Institute of Social Studies Trust, (2000): 27. 20 Jan. 2009 < _Saravanan_(ISST)_.pdf>

10 See Pickup, Francine, Ending violence against women: A challenge for development and humanitarian work, Oxfam: Oxford, 2001: 303 (my emphasis).

11 See Stanko, Elizabeth A., Intimate Intrusions: Women’s Experience of Male Violence, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985: 9.

12 See Kilmartin, Ch./ Allison, J., Men’s Violence against Women, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007: 5.

13 ‘Two main theoretical approaches have so far dominated the study of domestic violence; these are the ‘family violence perspective’ and the ’feminist perspective’. In the former perspective the family is considered to be the basic unit of analysis, whereas in the feminist perspective the abused woman is taken as the unit of analysis.’ (See Abraham, Margaret, ‘‘Speaking the Unspeakable: Marital Violence against South Asian Immigrant Women in the United States’’, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, (1998): 5. 14 Jan. 2009 <> )

14 See Jesani, Amar, ‘‘Violence Against Women: Health Issues Review of Selected Works’’, (1998): 12. 10 Jan. 2009 <>

15 See Bettencourt, Alice, ‘‘Violence Against Women in Pakistan’’, (2000): 6. 18 Jan. 2009 < violencepkstn.pdf>

16 Kilmartin, Ch./ Allison, J. 2007: 61-62.

17 Another argument may be read in Appendix: 2.

18 1 will employ the following definition of child sexual abuse - ‘any sexual activity between a child and a closed related family member (incest) or between a child and an adult or other child from outside the family. It involves either explicit force or coercion or, in case where consent cannot be given by the victim because of his or her young age, implied force.’ (See Ernst, Lisa (ed.), broken bodies, broken dreams. Violence against women exposed, Malta: Progress, 2005: 19).

19 See Butler, Sandra, The Conspiracy of Silence, New York: Bantam, 1979: 2.

20 See Kapur, Manju, Home, London: Faber &Faber, 2006: 58-59.

21 The argument is supported by the idea that only an ‘entranced’ male protagonist could refer to a child’s leg by means of the expression ‘beckoning thigh’, which suggests seductiveness.

22 See Kapur 2006: 60.

23 ‘Once a person has suffered an attack, she is at greater risk of being targeted by a perpetrator in the future.’ (See Kilmartin, Ch./ Allison, J. 2007: 79).

24 See Nasrin, Taslima, My Bengali Girlhood. Vermont: Steerforth, 2002: 71-72.

25 An explanation for their reaction is provided by Saravanan - ‘Children are not given proper answers when they ask questions about sexual organs. They get the messages that certain body parts are dirty and they should never be talked about. So, when a child is abused, there is total silence. The child knows that there is something wrong going on, yet the child does not have the language or the words to express it.’ (See Saravanan 2000: 33, my emphasis).

26 See Nasrin 2002: 94.

27 See Stanko 1985: 23.

28 E. Stanko explains how in the case of a young victim of sexual violence, ‘by the time she is old enough to understand or at least to know that something is seriously wrong, the feelings of guilt, self-blame and humiliation may be well entrenched.’ (25)

29 This is a rapist’s statement about rape, for further details see Ernst 2005: 153.

30 See Brownmiller, Susan, Against Our Will, New York: Penguin, 1975: 378.

31 See Anderson, I./ Swainson, V., ‘‘Perceived Motivation for Rape: Gender Differences in Beliefs About Female and Male Rape’’, Current Research in Social Psychology Vol. 6 No. 8 (2001), in Ernst 2005: 153.

32 ‘According to Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of Unicef, in 1997 at least 300 women were killed by men in the family for so-called reasons of ‘honour’ in a single province in Pakistan.’ (See Romito, Patrizia, A Deafening Silence. Hidden violence against women and children, Bristol: Policy, 2008: 18)

33 ‘Strict family, tribal and traditional Pakistani Islamic values dictate that women are considered property of male family members. Pakistani society essentially views a woman as being owned by her father or brothers before marriage, and her husband after marriage’ (See Bettencourt 2000: 3).

34 The writer suggests that women play no role in decision-making issues.

35 See Mai, Mukhtar, In the Name of Honour, New Y ork: Atria, 2006: 10.

36 See Brownmiller 1975: 396.

37 See previous section on child sexual abuse.

38 See Mai 2006: 9.

39 ‘No simple conquest of man over woman, group rape is the conquest of men over Woman. It is within the phenomenon of group rape, stripped of the possibility of equal combat, that the male ideology of rape is most strikingly evident [...] proof of a desire to humiliate the victim beyond the act of rape through the process of anonymous mass assault.’ (See Brownmiller 1975: 187, my emphasis).

40 See Brownmiller 1975: 384.

41 See Mai 2006: 10.

42 It seems that ‘the experience of fear, helplessness, or horror is nearly universal in those who have experienced rape.’ (See Kilmartin, Ch./ Allison, J. 2007: 72).

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South Asian Women Writers Breaking the Tradition of Silence
University of Constance
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Indian women, violence against women, domestic violence, gendered violence, silence and violence against women, child abuse, rape, women's empowerment
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Roxana Palade (Author), 2009, South Asian Women Writers Breaking the Tradition of Silence, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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