Tara Atluri’s paper titled ‘Light and Darkness: Jyoti Singh Pandhey and the Question of Justice’, presented at the third Oecumene symposium, examined the Delhi gang rape case, and the protests, changes in legislation and debates regarding gender it triggered in India and transnationally. Through looking at Foucault’s interpretation of space, Atluri’s paper looked at the space of commemorating gang rape and how the case was interpreted, examining it within a larger context of Orientalism and its relationship to conceptions of political subjectivity, agency and constructions of the figure of “the citizen”.
Atluri’s paper explored how discourses of speaking for the oriental woman, the latter being denied agency to author her own experience, become transformed into discourses of protecting the oriental woman, authored instead by male elites. Taking into consideration as well the discourses on citizenship suggesting that only the occidental city can be called a ‘city’, Atluri discussed how gendered orientalism left little room for the oriental woman to become a citizen. Atluri added that even with increased urbanisation, women are still denied the simple pleasures of having safe access to public space like the city, due to the ideological domestication of women’s sexual and political positions, and the discourses of protectionism that prevent them from accessing certain public spaces. The Oriental woman in that sense is again invisible and only partially recognized as a citizen through her domestic role in the home as an object exchanged in alliances of male property owners.
Atluri then examined Jyoti’s case through discourses on nationalism, exploring how women’s bodies have been used to demarcate borders of nation states through sexualised torture, and how rape acts as a microcosm of nationalist acts of torture. Drawing on comparisons with the civil rights and black feminist movements in particular, Atluri also looked at how women’s bodies and female sexuality have always played a contentious role in political movements. The paper finally examined the increasing politicization of young Indian people in India, which protests like those against the rape of Jyoti Singh symbolized, and the increasing politicization of the public sphere. The paper concluded that undoing orientalism and imagining citizenship must begin with the story of Jyoti; in order to imagine citizenship after orientalism, and unlearn how the citizen has been understood, gender, as it is normatively understood through colonial moralities, must also be reconsidered.
Rahul Rao (SOAS, University of London) responded by picking up on the paper’s focus on space, and the distinction often made between space and time, suggesting that time and space are not separate. He elaborated by explaining that the spacialisation of time occurs in the sense that daytime is a safe place, while night-time is not a safe space, while the temporalisaiton of space also occurs when ‘they’ are represented as how ‘we’ once were; ‘they’ are ‘our’ past, and ‘we’ are ‘their’ future. He also suggested that space can have different dimensions, such as absolute space, imagined space, memory and space, and private and public space.
Melissa Butcher (Open University) responded by noting several issues and tropes that stood out from the paper: the issue of class and its role in the reproduction of orientalist discourse, the relationship of gender and orientalism, thinking of or defining urban space and access to it, the nature of protests, and the issue of silence. Further to Rao’s comments on time and temporality, Butcher elaborated that all these issues are framed within past, present and future imaginaries, and that we must tease out orientalist notions of women as bearers of tradition. She elaborates that women are fixed in the past, and Jyoti for example represents both tradition and modernity.
Further questions emerged from the participants’ discussion. Pablo Mukherjee (University of Warwick) suggested three important questions that the paper triggered in relation to key shaping issues to Jyoti’s crime: what kind of city are we talking about? What kind of mobility? And what kind of state? Marie Beauchamps (University of Amsterdam) asked about the process of politicisation that the paper discussed: What is the political? Is it only the visible protests? What about invisible forms of protest? And how can we think about the political in different ways? Leticia Sabsay (Open University) asked more broadly: how are similar crimes taking place in other places where orientalist mechanisms are not in place? She also suggested that some of the key issues to the paper are how the media constitutes the case as a gendered space, its international reception, and the way it creates the victimization of a particular subject. Zaki Nahaboo (Open University) concluded with the broader and more challenging questions: is orientalism changing? And what is the relationship between neoliberalism and orientalism?
Report by Dana Nassif