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Bilkis Bano’s fight is every Indian woman’s fight | VIEW

Will we, as women of the world and this country, not raise our voices, in support of another woman? We must! This is not a rant, but an earnest appeal. If we do not stand by Bilkis today, no one will stand for us tomorrow!

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Bilkis Bano’s fight is every Indian woman’s fight | VIEW
The 11 convicts serving life sentences in Bilkis Bano case were released on August 15.

By Leher Sethi: On the one hand, we had “Nirbhaya”, the “Fearless” who became a beacon of resistance and protest to accelerate the fight for women’s safety, and on the other hand, we have Bilkis Bano, whose name evokes sadness, injustice and shame!

For a while now, I’ve tried to fathom how to register my feelings towards the Bilkis Bano case, because, this time, I didn’t feel anger. No, I feel sad, helpless and dejected! The visuals of the eleven convicts being released from jail were enough to send chills down my spine, but to see them being garlanded and celebrated, and to see women feeding them sweets, while some went as far as to bow down to touch their feet in obeisance, was just too much for me!

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And to add to that, the fact that these convicts serving life sentences were released on the 15th of August, on the day we were meant to be celebrating 75 years of our country’s independence, “Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav”! Ironically, the rapists and murderers celebrated freedom within a few hours of the Prime Minister’s speech on women empowerment during his Independence Day address.

ALSO READ | 2002 Gujarat riots: My case is about state's shameful failure in protecting its people, says Bilkis Bano

What truly enrages me, though, is not what transpired, but how people have reacted to this travesty of justice; how those around us have become comfortable living in a society that lacks moral ground, empathy and compassion; how the envelope has been pushed so far that injustice, the rule of law, women’s safety and empowerment don’t seem relevant causes anymore.

What enrages me is that people, in particular, women are NOT enraged enough! What will it take for Indian women to wake up and fight for their rights, and to stand by each other?

How can we stand by and watch as women stand by and support these gang-rape convicts and feed them sweets, like they have returned after winning some war?

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Women’s support to the marital rape case also exposes how inherently patriarchy and misogyny are ingrained in our society, and how women can be enablers.

World over, as society progressed, it was the women who came together to fight for their rights. It was women who fought for equal rights, fair and equal wages, voting rights, bodily autonomy, right to own property, education etc. In fact, they continue to fight even today, but most of these changes would have never come about, unless women stood up for themselves.

A recent example that comes to mind is that of the New York Times Square. Up until the 70s and early 80s, Times Square was a hotbed of crime and pornography with 132 brothels and as many saloons with peep shows, porn theatres and live porn shows. It was only due to the efforts and protests by feminists, college students and community activists against pornography, that Times Square transformed into what it is today. Violence against women had come to a head around the time the Times Square Killer was active. If it weren’t for the women standing against pornography and violence against women, many more lives would have been lost. There is great strength in unity when standing for a valid cause.

In India, there is the Nirbhaya case that made national and international headlines, finally leading to the convicts being hanged after 7 years (which is extremely rare)! The Government of the time was forced to act, and it led to much-needed amendments in the laws. This was only made possible due to the sustained pressure through civil society and continued public interest.

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Bilkis Bano was 21 years old, and five months pregnant when she was brutally gang-raped by the convicted men. Her mother was raped in front of her eyes, and she was raped in front of her mother! As if this trauma wasn’t enough, her three year old daughter’s head was smashed and she was killed while Bilkis must have watched, helplessly. Can you imagine the pain of watching one’s child being killed, while rendered unable to stop it?

Of the sixteen members of her family who accompanied her, only a man and a 3-year-old child survived, besides her. Eight were found dead and six remain missing. How can the men who did this, who were helped and guarded at every step (according to the CBI, the Head Constable who wrote Bilkis’s complaint “suppressed material facts and wrote a distorted and truncated version” of her complaint? When the CBI investigators exhumed the bodies of those killed in the attack, none of the bodies had skulls. According to the CBI, the heads of the corpses had been severed after the autopsy, so that the bodies could not be identified.), who did not plead guilty or apologise, be given remission in a case this severe and brutal, involving gang rape and the murder of a toddler?

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ALSO READ | Every rape convict will now apply for remission: Bilkis Bano's lawyer on release of rapists

As per a recent report, the Bilkis Bano case convicts got frequent parole and threatened witnesses. House-warming ceremony, son’s wedding, and mother’s knee-replacement surgery — these were among the reasons cited by some of the convicts in the Bilkis Bano case who approached courts seeking parole or temporary bail even as prosecution witnesses wrote to government authorities citing threats from the convicts who took “frequent parole”. No action was ever taken, and the witnesses gave up eventually.

The convicts were released under the remission policy of the Gujarat Government made in 1992, whereas the Remission Policy of 2014 clearly states that remission should not be given to convicts of heinous crimes like rape and murder.

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As per law, any remission for a case handled by CBI needs concurrence from the Central Government, but there is no transparency on whether the Gujarat government consulted the Centre. This raises pertinent questions.

Can the laws in India be manipulated this easily to help release the convicts?

Are the State Government’s sympathies with the convicts and not with the survivor who fought tooth and nail, against all odds, for justice?

Is it okay to provide a blanket remission to all the convicts based on an appeal by one of them?

What was the basis on which this decision was taken and by whom exactly?

Where are the various students’ unions, independent bodies and women’s rights groups who were all on ground, protesting during the Nirbhaya Protests? Barring a few groups, everyone else seems to be absent this time around. Why?

According to the National Crimes Records Bureau statistics from 2020, the number of sexual offences against women has increased by 70% over the past 20 years, yet only 10% of these cases actually go to trial and result in a conviction. Are you still wondering why?

Friends who have been speaking against the given remission have been subjected to whataboutery as if one rape is different than another, and the gruesome rape of Bilkis Bano is somewhat justified because “Muslims have also raped Hindu women!” Why aren’t we outing these rape apologists? Why isn’t there more outrage in this case? Why are we not screaming for justice on the streets anymore?

Will we, as women of the world and this country, not raise our voices, in support of another woman? We must! This is not a rant, but an earnest appeal. If we do not stand by Bilkis today, no one will stand for us tomorrow!

Bilkis’s fight is every Indian woman’s fight!

(This article is authored by Leher Sethi. All views are personal.)

ALSO READ | Bilkis Bano Case: Women of the world, unite because enough is enough

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