Stripping as a technique of law and governance is constitutive of cultures of impunity that deface at different sites of law and governance in prolific ways.
ALTHOUGH stripping despised religions, communities, castes, and genders of their dignity is a routineised technique of domination, the critique of institutionalised forms of stripping remains confined mostly to non-State law. Routinised forms of stripping by State law are often not named or redressed. However, stripping as a technique of law and governance is constitutive of cultures of impunity that deface at different sites of law and governance in prolific ways.
Stripping can be an offence against chosen constitutional identity. Denying Muslim women students access to education when they wear a hijab has been rightly named as a form of stripping, literally and symbolically. Male majoritarian logics rest on stripping women of their identity, sense of self and personhood. Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab are pathologized in a majoritarian political order that normalises targeted public violence against them. Interim orders which suspend women’s choices make defacement the very condition of how women access education. Defacement is gendered for such interim orders only to regulate women’s choices.
Every visit to the court and back might result in a demeaning strip search – the stripping of the body is then made a condition of access to justice.
The juridical order ignores the subjectivity of young Muslim women who have been repeatedly targeted on social media platforms such as Git-Hub. Such targeted violence not only strips women of their dignity and privacy, but also treats them as objects that could be sold. This form of targeted violence steals their identity to deface them. Today, such cultures of defacement stand commodified.
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Stripping of prisoners
The hyper-criminalisation of students, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, women, victims and ordinary people is accompanied by an increased toleration of institutionalised forms of indignity and violence. Stripping of undertrials when in custody is normalised as a procedure in police lockups and prisons. In 2020, a rape survivor was locked up in a pandemic struck prison in Bihar on grounds of contempt for speaking back at law in the voice of trauma. Stripped and fettered bodies are often searched and probed in front of others. Women prisoners have repeatedly named stripping in prisons as one of the most humiliating experiences of incarceration. Pregnant, menstruating, and lactating bodies are subjected to institutionalised forms of stripping in front of prison guards and ward mates. Menstruating women who are strip searched have reported being denied sanitary napkins in prisons.
A 2018 Union Ministry of Women and Child Development Report issued recommendations to abolish such strip searches. Yet, in 2019, the Madras High Court was ‘shocked’ to hear that most prisons had punishment cells where inmates were stripped naked and put in solitary confinement for breaking prison rules, even though the undertrials merely demanded basic amenities. Every visit to the court and back might result in a demeaning strip search – the stripping of the body is then made a condition of access to justice.
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Stripping of victims of sexual violence
Stripping is often institutionalised for victims of sexual violence under the sign of forensics. While debates on sexual violence are often staged mostly around death penalty in TV studios, one of the most harmful institutionalised ways of stripping rape survivors has remained unnoticed. It is standard procedure to seize clothes for forensic analysis. However, rape survivors (or the accused) are not given a spare of pair of clothes to replace the ones seized. The seizure of clothes for the purpose of forensic evidence is not seen as an act of institutionalised stripping.
In the 1980s, lawyer and scholar Dr. Vasudha Dhagamwar wrote about this form of institutionalised stripping of women in rape cases. She pointed our attention to the indignity on which everyday practices of forensic science are erected. She spoke of how the police confiscated the only sari of a destitute woman as evidence of rape which meant she could not leave her hut for several days until she could find help. Yet rape survivors are not given a spare pair of clothes even today.
It is standard procedure to seize clothes for forensic analysis. However, rape survivors (or the accused) are not given a spare of pair of clothes to replace the ones seized.
It is also often forgotten that the rape law is also used against men and women who choose their partners. They too are forced to strip and give their clothes for forensic analysis. When love is criminalised through criminal law and now the anti-conversion laws, it expands the field of operation of stripping as impunity. The demand for de-criminalisation of relationships of love and choice essentially challenges stripping as impunity.
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Outrage-reporting of stripping incidents
While stripping and parading is central to caste or community domination, this is de-linked from how crime is reported in the media. This was apparent in the shock expressed after a 20 year old woman was gang-raped, tonsured and ‘paraded’ in East Delhi on January 26 earlier this year. The viral video of the riot that targeted the victim depicted women assaulting and abusing the tonsured victim whose chilling cry evoked jeers and cheers from the rioters. Phone cameras were directed at the victim’s tonsured and blackened face recording the abuse, violence, and degradation of the human body. The media sought comments from ‘experts’ to explain their sense of ‘surprise’ that such atrocities could be staged in the capital city for the ‘first’ time. The violence now characterised as ‘medieval’, ‘rural’ or ‘animal’ like, was pathologized as out of place in the capital city.
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Instead, the image-spectacle of stripping a gangrape survivor of the last vestiges of her dignity by ‘parading’ her was deployed to generate outrage. The viral videos of the public humilation of the rape survivor were uploaded on social media by both the Delhi Commission of Women and the National Commission of Women along with the notice to the police. This governance by image-spectacles rests on creating feeds that generate thousands of likes after twitter publics consume the images of debasement. These are videos that are choreographed, produced, and circulated as trophies of sexual violence.
When these women’s commissions tweet these videos as supplements to the written notice to the police, they deface. This defacement by law and society becomes the dominant mode of sexual governance that traffics in image-spectacles. Outrage is not generated at the way women are represented by such statutory bodies that are supposed to fight for their dignity in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. Rather, defacement becomes the condition for generating excited outrage, thereby entrenching sexual impunity even more.
Outrage is not generated at the way women are represented by such statutory bodies that are supposed to fight for their dignity in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. Rather, defacement becomes the condition for generating excited outrage, thereby entrenching sexual impunity even more.
Feminists have repeatedly named stripping as a technique of law and governance. One might even argue that one of the most significant and neglected contributions of the women’s movement to social, legal, and political theory is its conceptualisation of stripping as impunity. Yet the feminist naming of stripping as impunity has been largely ignored, despite the annual routinization of public memory that recurs on each Women’s Day.
(The views expressed are personal.)