A Review on “Life and Dignity”

Matthew Wilkinson Review article: Life and Dignity: Women’s Testimonies of Sexual Violence in Dimapur (Nagaland) by Dolly Kikon (2015)   Dolly Kikon’s manuscript discusses the lived experiences of survivors of sexual violence in a militarised and ethnically and politically fragmented context –Dimapur, in the Indian state of Nagaland. Despite a long history of sexual violence, often at the hands of military personnel, Dimapur has only recently been brought into global consciousness by the March 5 2015 lynching case of Syed Farid Khan. Khan, an Assamese born resident of Dimapur, was arrested for the rape of a local Naga woman. Following his arrest, a large and vengeful mob overpowered Dimapur police, storming the prison and lynching Khan in the street. Kikon uses the example of global responses to Khan’s lynching, overwhelmingly focused on the unruliness of the mob and presenting the Naga community as reactive and xenophobic, to open the discussion of core issues of sexual violence and a culture of impunity in Dimapur.  

Kikon makes three arguments. First, that sexual violence in Nagaland cannot be subsumed as part of Naga culture or as a recent phenomenon in Naga society, but has to be placed within the transformation of the structures of family, law, society, and the language of gender equality, that are still being configured in a changing Naga society. Through her interviews with sexual violence survivors in Dimapur, Kikon highlights the role that families of perpetrator’s and victim’s play in excusing and protecting perpetrators, the inefficiencies of legal systems for protecting victims and punishing perpetrators, and even how societal expectations and gender roles, such as young women often being caretakers for their younger siblings, place them back in the family home, back with their attackers.   Second, Kikon examines how issues of women’s rights and Naga culture are often juxtaposed as opposing ideologies, arguing that proponents of such viewpoints invoke culture as a cloak to condone all kinds of inequalities, including violence against women. This naturalization of sexual violence explains and excuses men’s violence towards women (“But it is the trait of Naga man to be like this: we have to adjust and forgive them”) (70), while placing responsibility for such violence on victims,by beguiling men with ‘rape signs’ (70).   Finally, Kikon discusses the existing culture of impunity and the debates about sexual violence as being grounded in a complex political reality. Since 1997, agreements between Naga insurgent groups and the Government of India have ushered in a period of the ‘peace process’. Despite the official end to hostilities, Nagaland continues to be a space of militarization and structural violence. While discussions of sexual violence within the militarized framework are not lacking, Kikon considers how structural violence in militarized societies are produced in intimate spaces – families and communities, where presumedly secure and familiar networks are fraught with violence and insecurity.   While Kikon’s monograph shines light on sexual violence in both militarized and domestic spaces, her critical approach to acceptance and impunity of sexual violence in Dimapur opens up new research possibilities for studies of impunity and insecurity. More broadly, Kikon’s manuscript opens discussions of how cultures and certain parts of cultures silence and censor certain crimes and acts, which ignores and conceals some types and spaces of insecurity while highlighting and magnifying others.

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