Northeastern Women: Through The Lens, Darkly
Mary, 23, managed to escape the lustful hands of her landlord, who had forcibly entered her room. Her resistance made him so violent that it took her a few days at the hospital to recover. Although physically fine now, her psyche has still not healed. "For years, my family in Manipur saved money so that I could work in Delhi. This incident happened two days after I moved to the city," she recalls.
Unlike Mary, who has stayed put in Delhi to fight her case, many Northeastern girls have left the city permanently after similar harassment. Some like Ramphanchy Hongray, 19, could not even live to share their harrowing tale.
Ramphanchy was murdered in cold blood in October 2009 by an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi researcher, when she resisted his sexual overtures.
The incident has pushed Delhi police and the state government to offer more than mere words against the rising crime against Northeasterners, especially women. Are these cases only of sexual violence or are they racial attacks in the garb of sexual crime? Do race and gender intersect to create double discrimination for the Northeastern woman in Delhi? Sadly, the answer may be "Yes".
Sexual violence against women - in the house or on the streets - is not new to Delhi. In fact, the city had gained notoriety as the 'rape capital' of the country.
According to statistics by the National Crime Record Bureau 2005, Delhi records the highest incidents of crime against women - rape every 29 minutes, molestation every 15 minutes, and sexual harassment every 53 minutes. However, crimes against women from the Northeast seem to have risen. According to research by Madhu Chandra and his team at the Delhi-based North East Support Centre & Helpline, a large percentage of reported crime against women in Delhi is against women from the Northeast. Of the nearly 100,000 Northeastern people estimated to be living here, 86 per cent have reported racial discrimination, and 41 per cent of total cases handled by the Support Centre were regarding sexual abuse. Though men have been harassed too
The issue at hand has two dimensions - racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Racial discrimination involves prejudice and violence against a certain group whose skin colour, hair texture, facial features, and so on, are different from a larger set of people. People from the Northeastern states have distinctive looks that make them stand out in Delhi. Yarom Sho Ngalung, affiliated with the Naga Students Union of Delhi, is convinced that these attacks are racially provoked. "People in Delhi often refer to Northeastern people as 'Nepali'. They do not know that Indians from the Northeast come from a different racial stock. They also do not know that there are many different tribes in each of the seven states. They assume that people from China, Nepal, Tibet, and the North East are all the same," he says.
While this may appear incredible, a small, random vox pop, particularly in the working class pockets, will vindicate this claim. Northeastern people are generally called "Chinky", a popular slang for Chinese. In fact, not just them but even the 6,000-odd Burmese refugees settled in Delhi complain of discrimination and harassment. Nunu Ping, a volunteer with the Women's League of Burma, says, "Since we look very different and do not speak their language, we are treated in a shoddy manner. Recently, two minor children died hours after a doctor at a city hospital refused them admission. The mother could not explain how seriously ill the two children were. We face prejudice and discrimination every day. Burmese women are harassed sexually and often mistaken for Nepalis."
That all Indians look similar or that people from the Northeast or China are one homogenous group reeks of naïve ignorance. Such ignorance creates havoc when people with little knowledge of cultural differences and pre-conceived notions migrate to a metropolis for education or employment. They live next to each other with no knowledge of and no interaction with the other. For decades now, Delhi has been a patchwork city with communities from different socio-economic and cultural settings inhabiting various pockets, especially in the fringes of Delhi's urbane landscape. Since the construction of the 'self' and the 'other' is based on borrowed notions of race and ethnicity, it gives rise to lawlessness and new vectors of inequality, suspicion and conflict in cities. In such settings, where the 'other' is relegated to social peripheries, misperceptions are bound to grow.
The Northeastern woman, for one, looks different and thus becomes the 'other'. Besides, the perceived morals of the other as fast or loose and the consequent stigma also triggers such attacks. Men and women in the Northeast interact freely. This, too, is misunderstood by people as indication of the 'poor character' of Northeastern women. Talking about women from the Northeast, a 25-year-old corporate executive from Delhi said, "I have never had a friend from the Northeast but I think these girls are carefree and footloose. They stand out of with their different facial features. They are attractive so men lust after them." New Delhi-based Patricia Uberoi, a distinguished professor whose research interests span gender, kinship, the Northeast and China, says, "Traditionally, in India, the ideal of masculine beauty has been located in the north while that for feminine beauty is towards the Northeast."
In the northern parts of India, feminine modesty comprises, among other things, a social and physical distance from men. This notion, however, is not free from ambiguity. While a working woman is liked for financial reasons, her being seen out on the streets is not. So the freely moving woman from the Northeast is seen as vulnerable, unprotected and, thus, fair game for sex.
However, there are larger reasons behind such aggression, besides the cultural alienation. Uberoi explains, "The varied landscape of India - geographically and culturally - is lost in contemporary times. Since the colonial and post-colonial times, all eyes are on the West and the richness of the country's Asian connection has been disregarded. Thus, civilization continuities established by the Northeast as an ancient bridge between China or South East Asia and the rest of India have been lost. In fact, there is prejudice in north India about people who look like the Chinese. Even in cinema, China has been left off the horizons unlike Indo-Pak ties that have been the subject of popular and art cinema." This answers the question about why it is not just Northeastern girls who are subjected to discrimination but men as well. At the Support Centre, there are frequent complaints from men about harassment from landlords or employers, and even incidents of stray violence.
While women's groups and civil society organizations have protested against the rising crime against Northeastern women, the Naga Students Union has submitted a memorandum to Sheila Dikshit, Chief Minister, Delhi, asking for immediate steps to ensure the safety of their community living in the National Capital Region. As the fabric of the city undergoes rapid and radical transformation, there is urgent need to educate people about India's cultural and racial diversity while sensitizing them about gender.
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Amrita Nandy Joshi
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