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Justice for Asifa: Sexual Violence, Religious Conflict, and the Politics of Outrage

On January 17, Muhammad Yusuf Pujwala and Naseema Bibi saw the body of their eight year old daughter, Asifa Bano. The child, a member of the nomadic Bakerwal community, a Muslim herding community residing in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, had been missing for several days. While her parents hoped for her safe return, they were greeted with the worst possible news: Their child had been raped, physically tortured, and murdered.

While Asifa was killed three months ago, the case has just gained enormous traction in the Indian and international media now. That’s partly because of the sheer human brutality of the violence, and that too on a child. But the murder of Asifa has also prompted nationwide outrage and serious interrogation over religious and ethnic violence, and how sexual violence is used as a tool of domination. Preliminary reports reveal that Asifa, a Muslim nomadic girl, was raped by a group of men from the dominant Hindu community, including a police officer and retired government official, in a Hindu temple explicitly in order to terrorize her community. The violence visited on Asifa should be a cause for anger for any person, and especially anyone who cares about gender issues: For the person she was, the person she cannot be, and the many girls and women like Asifa whose attacks and murders do not get global attention. It should also prompt serious self-interrogation on the use of sexual violence as a tool of political, racial and material domination in the U.S. — from the sexualized war crimes at Abu Ghraib to ICE officers committing sexual violence against immigrant women.

Religious Violence and Official Complicity

Jammu is a Hindu-majority region in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, in a Hindu-majority country currently ruled by a right-wing, Hindu nationalist governing party, the BJP. Kashmir itself has long been the site of political violence, as many Kashmiris reject Indian rule in favor of independence or accession to Pakistan, believing the Indian army’s presence in Kashmir to be an illegal occupation. Indeed, Kashmir is the most heavily militarized zone in the world, and the Indian army has been suspected or found guilty of numerous and egregious human rights violations in Kashmir, from the use of human shields to the widespread sexual violence committed by Indian soldiers in the villages of Kunan and Pushpora.

It is impossible to consider Asifa’s case without considering this context. That’s because a preliminary investigation has revealed that Asifa was tortured and killed not only as an act of misogynistic violence, but also of religious and ethnic violence, by local men of the dominant Hindu community who wished to chase away the Bakerwal community out of resentment of their Muslim faith and nomadic lifestyle. The perpetrators claimed that Bakerwals were trying to overtake the dominant Hindu population, both demographically and through land use. It is a chilling detail that the place where Asifa was kept and tortured for four days was a Hindu temple.

Asifa’s case has also revealed a chilling level of official complicity. The accused consist of a retired government official and four policemen, who have also been accused of tampering with evidence. Asifa’s family and lawyer have been facing intimidation from both the local community and officials: A violent local group prevented them from burying the child’s body in the local cemetery and they were initially intimidated not to report the crime. On top of this, two BJP Members of the State Legislative Assembly participated in protests in defense of the accused, in full public view. While they have since been fired from their posts by the state’s Chief Minister, their presence there to begin with suggests a troubling impunity.

National Response

Asifa’s rape and murder is one in a long string of sexual assault cases that has challenged the public conscience in India in recent memory. The 2002 Gujarat riots witnessed widespread mostly anti-Muslim violence, including the burning of Muslims’ shops, murder of Muslim people, and severe sexual violence against Muslim women. This is violence has been tacitly endorsed by some politicians affiliated with the ruling party, for example in the notorious threat of one right-wing state governor’s supporter at a political rally that Hindu men should rape the corpses of Muslim women.

In the past couple years, the December 16, 2012 rape and murder of Delhi’s Jyoti Singh, dubbed Nirbhaya, or “fearless,” by the media, also spurred a massive nationwide movement. This led to the adoption of some (but not all) suggested progressive measures to prevent sexual violence. In another recent case, an 18-year-old woman attempted to immolate herself in front of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister’s residence, saying she was raped by a state legislator from the ruling party.

Debates around Asifa’s case have focused on how exactly to understand the role of religion and identity in the violence. Progressive writers and activists have argued that it’s impossible to separate Asifa’s identity as a girl from her identity as a Bakerwal and Muslim, especially considering the stated aims of the perpetrators. Protests — of students, workers, politicians, feminists, Bakerwals, and other citizens — have raged across India, demanding justice for Asifa and accountability in preventing future sexual violence against girls and women.

We should be outraged about what has happened to Asifa. But stopping at outrage is easy. What’s harder, but more necessary upon witnessing such violence, is to use our outrage as an invitation for self-reflection. What happened to Asifa is about her own life, but it is also about the persistence of ethnic, religious, and resource-based violence that plays out brutally on the bodies of girls and women across the world. As we look toward the Justice for Asifa protests in India, we should also look at ourselves: Who are the Asifas among us, women whose bodies have been made into battlefields, yet whose stories remain to be told?

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