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Heart beats, gives courage

As I flew across the Pacific three weeks ago for my yearly trip to Calcutta to visit my elderly and ailing father, I was eager to reconnect with friends in the city who are involved in social justice movements.

My students at the University of Hawaii and I had spent some time during the spring semester this year discussing the western media coverage of the December 2012 Delhi gang rape in the context of my women’s studies course on gender violence and its connections to political and structural forms of violence.

While we talked about the ahistorical accounts in the Western media — accounts that suggested that people in India had just “woken up” to violence against women, I was curious to learn what my friends, who have been active in women and social justice movements, thought about rape and the responses to it in India.

What I had not anticipated was that within days of my arrival, I would read of gang rape and murder of women in Bengal, where I have grown up, attended college and worked. While the particular rapes and murders were exceptionally horrific, it was clear that these acts of violence fell on a continuum of the daily sense of terror women in Bengal feel while going to school or work. The murder of the women reinforces their disposability — a chilling message for all women and their loved ones.

I decided to walk in the rally today, despite the various cares of attending to my father during my all-too-short visit, in order to join those who have decided to occupy public space to demand women’s safety in these very spaces. As a part of the movement that addresses all forms of gender violence in the US, I felt compelled to walk in solidarity and to bear witness to people’s power on the streets to demand women’s safety and bodily integrity as they traverse public space to access education and employment.

I often stress to my students the harmful ways in which the anti-violence movement in the US has retreated from the streets to shelters, courtrooms and offices of social workers. And that we should learn from so-called Third World countries the importance of occupying streets and squares as spaces of public protest.

Today, I was struck by how the people of Bengal did just that. They marched to take the streets back. Also, as a person who has organised protests against gender violence in various cities in the US, I was moved by the presence of men, a sea of them of all ages. When we organise such marches in the US, men are scant.

Today’s show of strength across various social divides was a heartening reminder that under the neoliberal veneer, the city’s heart still beats and gives us courage — this time around — to express our will to fight for the safety and dignity of our sisters.

The author is associate professor of ethnic studies and women’s studies at the University of Hawaii in Manoa. She wrote the book, Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States