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Breaking the silence ... Barkha Dutt. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Fault lines

Indian journalist Barkha Dutt speaks out about being a sexual abuse survivor

By Abigail Pesta on April 9, 2016

When Barkha Dutt was a girl growing up in India, she was sexually molested by a male relative, a crime she kept to herself for years. Now one of India’s most famous journalists, she described the experience at the Women in the World Summit in New York on Friday, saying, “It feels like yesterday, even sitting here today. I’m 44 years old, but I feel like I’m eight years old again. I can see that man’s face in my head every time I talk about it.”

She joined Dr. Menaka Guruswamy, an attorney at the Supreme Court of India, to discuss gender and violence in modern India with summit host Tina Brown. The women discussed the paradox of India, a country that is “an emerging economic superpower,” Brown said, but also a nation with an unfulfilled promise, “especially for women, who feel caught between the energy of modernity and the dire gender inequities that bedevil their progress.”

Dutt said it was a difficult decision to go public with her sexual assault. “When something like this happens and when you’re a child,” she said, “you bury it and try and forget it.” She chose to share her experience, including it in her recent book about India, This Unquiet Land, because she felt she had been silent long enough. “I cannot with any honesty write about feminism, call myself a feminist, or talk about the need to lift the veil of silence and the conspiracy of silence around sexual violence and abuse, if I’m not ready to break the silence in my own life.”

Barkha Dutt. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)
Barkha Dutt … breaking the silence on sexual violence. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Dutt encountered violence again years later, she said, when she was beaten by a man she was dating in college. This time, “I did try and come forward because I told myself that I’m not going to be silent,” she said. “I could understand my silence as a child, but less so as an adult.” But when she consulted lawyers, they told her, “You’re going to waste your time. You’re going to be in court for the next 25 years. Nobody is going to believe you. You were dating this guy. They’re not going to even punish him. Just forget about it.”

She took their advice, a decision she now regrets. “I feel I should not have listened to those lawyers. I feel I should not have been defeatist,” she said. “I should have gone to court because so what if it takes 20 years, it’s important.”

Dutt discussed the “contradictory culture” in India, noting that the country had elected a female president and that women are leading banks, hedge funds, television channels. Yet there is no law on marital rape. A proposed law has “gone twice to Parliament, and parties that are headed by women have sent it back, as if to suggest that marriage is a license to rape,” she said. “India is caught in the middle of that contradiction.”

Barkha Dutt and Dr. Menaka Guruswamy, interviewed by Tina Brown. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)
Barkha Dutt and Dr. Menaka Guruswamy, interviewed by Tina Brown. (Marc Bryan-Brown/Women in the World)

Dr. Guruswamy agreed on the contradictions. “Look, we are a country of 1.2 billion and counting. We are of deep inequality, yet we are a committed constitutional democracy,” she said. “We are an argumentative, dissent-oriented, deeply diverse country. Deeply diverse people, that’s what makes India so interesting. Are there contradictions in the extraordinary representation of women in positions of power but yet positions of many women who don’t have any power? Absolutely. But we are also a country where an extraordinary proportion of our population is below the age of 30.” This group “of diverse faiths, diverse genders, diverse aspirations,” she said, “gives us cause for optimism.”

Dutt described a story that opened her eyes to the problems of gender violence and caste in the country in 1992. A lower-caste woman in Rajasthan named Bhanwari Devi was gang-raped by five men for “stopping the marriage of a one-year-old girl,” Dutt said. For more than two decades, “this woman has been fighting for justice and has not gotten it,” she said. “A judge in the court said that men belonging to a higher caste could not possibly want to touch a woman of her caste, so the rape could not be true.”

Brown asked why the young woman has not received justice. “I think it’s shameful. I think it’s revelatory about the lower court system in India,” Dr. Guruswamy said. “Much needs to be done. We have not committed to reforming the court system. We don’t invest enough in infrastructure, in judges, in appointment of judges. It’s a deeply uneven system.” However, she said, “I think we also live in a country today where there is much more awareness of sexual assault. Extraordinary women put under extraordinary circumstances, survivors of assault, speak out. They speak unequivocally, they say that we are not ashamed. It is those who perpetrate these acts that should be ashamed. And that is the real revolution in India.”

Brown noted a “national pivotal moment” in 2012: the horrific gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi. The woman died from her injuries, and the crime sparked outrage around the world. Tougher rape laws in India followed. Yet Brown said the response from India’s female politicians was “reticent and cowardly.”

Dutt agreed, saying, “I discovered, to my horror, that if we thought more women in politics necessarily means a less misogynist political system, that did not happen. We automatically assume that numerically having more women will make it a more sensitive system, but women are as conditioned by the culture of misogyny as men.” She added, “Women in politics feel the pressure because they’re deconstructed in ways that men aren’t, to be much more like men than even the men. This is something that really is a deep long-term fight.”

Dr. Guruswamy noted that misogyny is a problem around the world. “We sit here in the time of Donald Trump,” she said. “He’s emblematic today of misogyny. He’s emblematic today of the fact that in political spaces and through democratic politics, you will also have a horrific phenomenon like the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. I think it would be deeply unwise to categorize a culture as being pervasively misogynistic. I think we all live in a world that is deeply patriarchal.”

Watch the entire panel on “India’s fault lines” here.


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