“Patriarchy is the nucleus of this problem and all other factors contributing to violence against women manifest themselves around it.”

— No Nation for Women, Priyanka Dubey

IN her introduction, Priyanka Dubey reminds us that while we — collectively as a society — are aware of rape as a threat to women, there is no comprehensive reportage or literature documenting sexual assaults across the nation. This data is not readily available; there are no accurate numbers; and in very few cases, the perpetrators are behind bars. We acknowledge that India has a ‘sexual violence’ problem, but cannot see a thorough (non-fictional) report about it. How do we tackle the problem if we cannot even see it in its entirety?

Dubey spent her career as a journalist focussed on reporting gender and sexual crimes. In this book, covering six years of her work across the country, she attempts to examine not just the reasons that men rape women, but also how these ‘reasons’ are constructed and how the narrative is shaped to blame the women, re-victimise them and silence them after. How does male toxicity express itself? Through caste power, through custodial or military power, through political power — Dubey traces the intersections of the ‘state, caste, religion and politics’ with which the patriarchy operates to oppress, exploit and wound various communities, and the women of those communities. Or it is the other way around — the ‘state, caste, religion and politics’ express their dominion through the patriarchal system?

Dubey initially worked on 15 narratives. In her introduction, she also tells us that she and her editors decided to drop two — an incident set in Kashmir and one set in Assam, where the perpetrator was a god-man. She tells us that there was enough reportage on those assaults, with survivors telling their own stories. So much that these outrages did not need to be included in No Nation for Women! I personally believe it would have added to the book, giving us more context for the ways in which power is handled against civilians and devotees. Due to constraints of time and energy, the book mostly focuses on cases in North India. We cannot expect a single book to comprehensively deal with sexual assault in a nation like ours, but there are some glaring absences, and I suspect a second volume would be well-received. (Explorations of child sexual abuse and rape of male victims would still fall under the umbrella of patriarchal violence, but this report looks mainly at male-on-female violence.)

No Nation for Women is concerned not only with violence against women, but their survival and lives after. Do they get justice? Do they heal? If they are dead, what of their families? How do we treat rape victims, and what can be done to restore and maintain dignity to them? These are part of a larger fabric of questioning — how do women hold their agency and dignity in their daily lives and aspirations? How does a community create, withhold and ‘allow’ these strengths? We are not sure if the increased reportage of rape as a crime is because more women are speaking up in the last few decades, or if more rapes are actually being committed. What we do know is that at a national level, the response and laws are incoherent at best and deliberate at worst. Dubey is cynical, though you can tell she wants to be hopeful. Dubey’s prose style is plain, but thoughtful and observant. It allows for her own musings to show in slow, haunting prose that form a welcome relief from the inexorable movement of the narrative from one blood-drenched assault to the next. For the most part, she maintains a distance in the narrative, letting her interviewees speak for themselves without her intervention. However, there is some authorial intrusion, mostly to remind the reader that she is a woman, vulnerable to this form of violence herself — sympathetic and caring. Generally, these intrusions throw you out of the survivors’ experiences, and point instead to the author’s feelings and sensations. There are some moments of poverty sensationalism as well: “there are NO approach roads and NO electricity in this village.”

Would we understand the concept of a minimal/non-existent infrastructure and attendant poverty without those capitalisations? If the author had reined this in just a touch, she would have achieved the contextualised, objective document she clearly aimed for. It has to be said that the book is hard to read. Who can blame the reader who decides to avoid the subject — because it is depressing, because it is terrifying, because it triggers memories of trauma? The book was clearly difficult to write and research — we see hints throughout the narrative and Dubey admits it in her introduction. Why should anyone go through thirteen accounts of rape across the country, with the only reward being sometimes beautiful, tender prose? Why should I call for more? The exercise of reading and writing the book is difficult, yes, but many women live these lives. Many women and girls are alive now, with these experiences, and far too many died with them. Dubey is right that the problem of rape needs to be documented, collected, and held together, and not just examined piecemeal or as individual cases alone.

Cautiously, we need to read No Nation for Women, and build a strong case for more books like this, covering more range, with more detail, with as many lenses as we can bring to bear. We cannot solve rape if we look away.
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