Women’s Protest against Sexual Violence by Armed Forces

On 11-12 July 2004, Indian security personnel (of the Assam Rifles) brutally raped and murdered Thangjam Manorama, a young woman of Bamon Kampu. On 15th July, Meira Paibis staged a dramatic protest against this rape. Twelve elderly activists disrobed in public, carrying a long white banner bearing the slogan—INDIAN ARMY, RAPE US. Meira Paibis explained that often in the past, women have been raped by armed forces in front of family members.

Ima Ngambi said, “They raped her…. It was too much for us to take. I cried a lot a day. It could have been my daughter in Manorama’s place…. I stripped along with other women protesting and shouted, ‘Indian Army, rape me! We are all Manorama’s mothers.’…. The police were upset with me…. I was arrested at midnight and released after three months in jail. Later I was again arrested when I was part of an agitation against fake encounters.”

The protestors refused to accept the usual patriarchal definition of rape, as dishonour to the woman, her family and community. Instead, they assigned dishonour to the rapists, and the state which protected such crime. Their discourse focused on the violation of one woman as symbolic of the violation of all women. They demanded safety and non-violation for all women. They spoke on behalf of all women, and particularly for the younger generation. They spoke in defence of their daughters, the younger women like Manorama.

The protestors were ordinary, elderly women: housewives, mothers, workers, traders, vendors. Collectively they expressed rage, challenging brutal hyper- masculine power. It was the first time in recorded history that women collectively used their bodies in this manner. It was a spirited challenge and exposure of sexual violence and murder by the official security of forces.

One protestor, Loitam Ibetombi Devi, explained what pushed them to imagine and undertake such a difficult action: “Our humiliation was beyond endurance”, she notes, recounting several instances of atrocities by security forces. The women’s action required great personal courage, for they were transgressing entrenched codes of honour and womanhood, and risked further criticism and social stigma. Ima Gyaneswari felt that it was a do-or-die situation for Manipuri women.

Meira Paibi activists explained that often, in the past, women were raped by armed forces in front of their children and other family members. This time they decided to stand up against it. One activist noted, “Our anger made us shed our inhibitions that day. If necessary, we will die – commit self-immolation to save our innocent sons and daughters…. Our struggle is to protect the people caught in the crossfire between militants and security forces. We are neither protecting militants nor fighting security forces. Our only concern is the safety of our children. Our fight is to protect human rights.”

In one radical moment, the women exposed the state and its conception of security as patriarchal and hyper-masculine: rather than protect women citizens, it poses a serious threat to their safety and survival. A law that turns a blind eye to rape and murder is unacceptable, and must change. If AFSPA is helping the military to commit heinous crimes, it should be removed.

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