DAY SIX: At the centre and yet forgotten: Violence against women in Oral Narratives

Tanuja Kothial discusses the portrayal of marginalised women and gendered violence in oral narratives and Hindu epic literature.

Tanuja Kothiyal

Featured image above: “Arjuna shooting at the eye of a fish to obtain Draupadi in marriage” source: Wikimedia Commons

Every year I teach a course in Oral Epic traditions in India, aiming to explore the processes through which identities shape up in the performance of traditions among different communities. In the course of teaching, we usually conclude that oral epics provide space to identities which are elided over in the written sources controlled by the dominant groups. However, what we come to see is that hierarchy and dominance remain embedded even in the most marginalized of traditions.

In most oral narratives, often belonging to marginalized groups, portrayal of women and of gendered violence remains caught in stereotypical frames: either benevolent goddesses, mothers, wives who protect families or wronged women, often located outside of marital structures, who become the cause and means of destruction of societal harmony.

Women’s lives are often rendered meaningful through their devotion towards men in their families like that of Sadu Mata in the Devnarayan epic, the mother in the Anananmar epic or Damayanti in the Dhola epic. When denied motherhood or marital spaces, or located outside of familial spaces, women unleash their wrath upon the world and destroy it, like Kannagi from Cilappatikaram, Jaimati from Devnarayan epic, Deval from Pabuji epic, Tankal from Annanmar or Bela from Alha. Then there is the ‘free’ woman, invariably tribal, lower caste or working-class, who is often depicted as ‘loose’, lascivious and sexually available. In the epic traditions all these women are at the receiving end of cycles of gendered and sexual violence irrespective of their social locations.

Among the multitudes of narratives drawing upon the Hindu epic literatures we often find references to women like Menaka, Rambha, Shakuntala, Ahilya, Satyavati, Kunti, Draupadi, among many others subjected to lustful gaze of men, violated and then subjected to a life of guilt and suffering for abandoning children born out of violence. Sometimes, they are erased out of narratives like in the oral epic of Pabuji, where his mother is depicted as a heavenly nymph who vanished when a promise was broken. Alternate readings of the epic suggest the possibility of the mother having been a tribal woman whose identity was erased to create an upper caste identity for the Rajput deity Pabuji.

In several oral narratives we find similar references to forced marriages to tribal or lower caste women, as part of protection treaties. Daughters and sisters were often used as collateral in political treaties. In narratives from Rajputana, women are portrayed as willing participants in the ritual suicides by fire.

Though we do get some references to women refusing to follow men to death, the fear of sexual violence as well as a life of hardship and neglect in absence of any rights outside of marriage, could well have motivated women to seek death over life.

In some narratives where marginalized groups seek revenge it is through inflicting sexual violence upon women, and yet in other narratives it is the danger of sexual violence towards women that is used to justify suppression of lower caste communities.

While the Mahabharata contains numerous references to sexual conquests of the Pandavas, in the Bhili Bharat, an epic of the Dungri Bhils of Gujarat, an episode depicts the rape of Draupadi by the Naga king of the netherworld to spite her husband Arjuna after tying him up. Only in some rare narratives, often referring to goddess traditions, do women faced with sexual violence retaliate, like the Charani goddess Avad of western India who, angered by a king’s insistent marriage proposal, shifted the course of a river rendering his kingdom a desert. In rare instances like in the Bhili Bharat, they emerge as possessors of wisdom and knowledge, as gurus, witches and goddesses, who navigate the events in the face of collective lack of wisdom among the men.

Thus, while we expect oral traditions, which provide voice to marginal communities and groups, to create space for women’s voices, even in these traditions women’s locations remain marginal and mostly with respect to the male figures.

Women’s marginality is ‘invisibilised’ even in the narratives of marginality. The only manner in which they become visible is as ‘bodies’ whose violation or preservation provides cause and context to the actions of men.

Women characters do not escape the cycles of gendered sexual violence. Dominance as well as retaliation to it takes the form of sexual violence upon women’s bodies, imagery of whose brutalization further perpetuates cycles of violence. Women exercise no control over these cycles of violence, irrespective of the side they are located on, as violence is unleashed upon other women to protect their bodies. Women’s bodies are placed at the centre of narratives and yet remain marginal.

Author’s bio:

Tanuja Kothiyal is Professor of History in the School of Liberal Studies, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi. She is the author of Nomadic Narratives: A history of mobility and identity in the Great Indian Desert (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and co-edited a book ‘South Asian Borderlands: Mobility, History, Affect, CUP 2021) Her recent research project will be published in 2022.

DAY THREE: Voices of Resistance: Women’s Folksongs and Response to Domestic Violence

Garima Singh engages with the everyday resistance posed by women’s folk songs to the dominant social structure and their response to domestic violence in their own melody. 

Garima Singh

Featured image: A group of women assembling to sing together

Ek chup sau sukh

Silence can yield hundredfold happiness

This popular North Indian idiom is often employed to curb women’s free voices. I remember this coming from my mother and my aunts, to my habitually defying objections against patriarchal conduct. Time and again they reminded me and other women around of being subservient to the dominant order and finding happiness as dictated by patriarchal forces.  The memories of this idiom have compelled me to scrutinize the patriarchal world as a seemingly stubborn and in-flexible mechanism but at the same time an easily threatened order that finds risks in women’s free expressions and often works to silence them.  

The motivation of the patriarchal values placed on women’s silence often impelled me to look at women’s voices that the social structure has been so fearful of. In my attempt to recover such voices of rural North Indian women, particularly Haryana, I was driven to recognize the power of women’s voices contradicting the submissive and repressed images that they are often portrayed in. While silence may be a conscious or a non-conscious strategy of self-representation deployed when it is expedient to do so, resistance often comes at multiple avenues.

Far from representing themselves in ways dictated by the dominant, women often imaginatively analyze and critique the social order that they experience and give voice to it in subversive expressive traditions or actions, some more blatantly defiant than others.  

James Scott in his work Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance’ (1985)  highlighted the relevance of everyday hidden resistance posed by the dominated Malay Peasants by often inoffensive behaviour  such as false compliance, clandestine sabotage, slander, and other hidden ways that ultimately posed restraints on dominant structures and debilitated their ability to extract resources from the oppressed.

In my analyses of finding women’s resistance against the patriarchal order, it was interesting to discover that women in their everyday life extend their limited boundaries and challenge the patriarchal society in their own melody.

Women voices can be heard unhesitantly offering firm criticisms to social structure in the local folklores. These collective voices may not pose an apparent threat or an overt rebellion against the dominant but they are the lens to find the women’s deeper consciousness and willingness to lament or resist the patriarchal order in its own way. 

While there is ample evidence of women being subjected to violence within the home and more so coming from a hegemonic masculine society like Haryana, it is exciting to note that women’s voices are not muted to the injustices that they so receive.

Resiliently recognising the wrongs and countering them, women’s songs are a way to understand how instances of domestic violence are often spoken about and addressed in solidarity, with a warning message, although in a different tone. One such song, where a woman resists against the advancements of her brother-in-law, highlights her assertion to respond to such household threats.  

Aadhi raat sikar mein ae mera jeth jiman aaya,

Roti ghal k deyan lag gyi, ae I tedi nazar lakhaya,

Thali bhi mari ae , mane bela bhi marya,

Gail patila uthaya,Rota rota gya bhai dhore, bolya teri bahu ne dhamkaya

My brother-in-law came to have food in the middle of the night,

I served him the food, but he had malign intentions,

I threw plates at him, I threw a rolling pin at him,

And I also picked up another big utensil, Crying he went to his brother to complain against me.

Addressing violence within these melodies not just hints at the women’s domestic miseries, but the voices of revolt show that such responses are registered individually as well as collectively. 

Image above: women assembled together to sing songs during wedding ceremonies

Another such song is sung like a crying narration by a woman who, besides being compliant to the patriarchal expectations. has to face regular violence by her mother-in-law. After her husband leaves for work, she duly performs all the duties expected out of her, but is treated with violence at home. Lamenting over her destiny, she finally lashes out at the mother-in –law and wishes for her family to be cursed.

Hey aape tahe jala naukari digar gaya chodh saas k bharose

Hey saanjhe te mere jetha keh gaya, tadke einkh nalana

Hey neend fikar mein aai kona, saanjhe chaakki jhoyi

Hey atharan ser maine gehun pise, fir makki piswai

Hey pis khot ke gayi khet mein, suraj mandare aai

Hey saara te maine einkh nalaya, pher mirch nalwai

Saanjh hui jab ghar ne aai, saasu ne kari pitai

Eb lagte sasu teri sunu thi, eb sunle tu meri

Sare te thare danger Mario, bhaisayan ne leja kasai

Charo te tere bete Mario, Mario tera jamaiBuddi ri tera Buddha Mario, huio rand lugai

My husband left for his job leaving me under my mother-in-law

My elder brother-in-law in the evening told me to go for weeding of sugarcane

I was not able to sleep due to tension, I started grinding from the evening itself

I grinded 18 kg wheat and then I grinded the corn

After grinding I went to the field, sun was on my head

First I weeded the sugarcane, and then I weeded the Chillies

In the evening when I returned home, my mother-in-law hit me,

It’s enough of you, now you listen to me my mother-in-law,

May all your animals die and may butcher takes away your buffaloes,

May all your four sons die, may your son-in-law die too.

These lamenting voices of women against violence inflicted on them signifies how women have been conscious of their everyday struggle and time and again, consciously and unconsciously, individually and in solidarity, pose a potent threat to the dominant.

These small acts of rebellion may not count as open revolts, but are still visible and loud enough protests to mark women’s expression in a society where voices are given to man alone.

Author’s bio:

Garima Singh is an Assistant Professor at the Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, Vivekananda School of Law and Legal Studies in Delhi. She has a keen interest in gender studies, particularly gender and language. She has published on the topics of caste and exclusion and has undertaken ethnographic work on the folk culture of Haryana. Her PhD awarded by the University of Delhi was entitled, The Gender and Politics of Language: Voice of Jat women in Rural North India.

Day Eight | Reflecting on Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi Genocide through Poetry

Dudu Ndlovu



Everyone knows of that time

That time nobody wants to go back to

That time that will never be forgotten

That time we never speak of


Screams in the night 

Fear gripping the most brave

Nobody wants to witness the shame

Gukurahundi Genocide


Daylight brings sunshine and blue skies

Yet the brightest song from the birds

Can never soak away 

The blood drenching the earth 

Calling out for justice 


Mothers bear a fatherless generation 

Girls pay with their sexed bodies 

Young men flee for their lives

Fathers killed for their politics


Silence labours to erase 

The trace of that time 

But like a woman bewitched

Produces a thousand times more

The stench of death

(Poem by Duduzile S. Ndlovu, 2015) 


Zimbabwe, a country on the southern tip of Africa, gained independence from direct colonial rule in 1980. This signalled the end of the liberation struggle; however, people in the Matabeleland and Midlands parts of the country (which were also strongholds for the opposition party at that time) experienced another war, this time at the hands of the army of the newly-independent country. 

The poem above reflects on this period, which is popularly known as Gukurahundi, where 20,000 people were killed or disappeared from 1980 to 1987. Much has been written on the causes of the Gukurahundi violence and most importantly that its victims have not received any acknowledgement or restitution for the pain suffered. Many see the Gukurahundi as a genocide meant to annihilate the Ndebele from Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government has justified its silencing of the memorialisation of the violence by arguing that speaking about the Gukurahundi will incite ethnic division in the country.

Since the late 1990s, Zimbabwe began to experience economic decline resulting in an increase in the number of those migrating to neighbouring countries such as Botswana and South Africa, some as far as the United Kingdom and other countries across the globe in search of economic opportunities. As people migrate, they carry along with them their memories and trauma across the borders. Some of the victims of the Gukurahundi who migrated to Johannesburg find in it space to commemorate the Gukurahundi – which they couldn’t do in Zimbabwe, where the government prevented such efforts.  

There are calls for the acknowledgment of the Gukurahundi and for the truth about the atrocities to be made public so the perpetrators can be held accountable.  However, a male-centric, ethnic and nationalistic memorial narrative prevails in these memorials and calls for acknowledgement, reparation and reconciliation. Some calls for acknowledgement, for example, demand the cessation of borders to create an ethnically pure nation for the victims. This is despite the fact that many women were sexually violated and conceived and bore children out of the rape, thus making the idea of an ethnically pure nation impossible. Speaking about the sexual violence that many women (and some men) experienced and the presence of children born out of this thus presents an inconvenient truth. 

These calls for acknowledgement therefore do not provide women with spaces where they can speak about their pain from the sexual violence. The gendered location of women, their experience of conflict and how it is remembered is rarely captured and represented in popular memory (see, for example, ‘Gender, Memorialization, and Symbolic Reparations’ by Brandon Hamber and Ingrid Palmary). The above poem, ‘Silence’, which I wrote in 2015, seeks to rectify this, and make visible the ways in which violence is gendered, and how conflict is felt differently on different bodies.


Dudu Ndlovu is a postdoctoral fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society. Her research interests include exploring arts-based research methods as a form of decolonising knowledge production; interrogating intersectionality through narrative work; and analysing the gendered politics of memory. Since March 2018, she has been developing this research agenda through a Newton Advanced Fellowship attached to the University of Edinburgh, Centre for African Studies (CAS) (2018-2020). Dudu completed her PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand focusing on Zimbabwean migrants’ use of art (poetry, music, drama, film) to navigate precarious lives; speak about violence – including the Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe and xenophobia in South Africa, and memorialise those events. More of her poetry can be found here.

Day Five | Holding foreign fighters accountable for sexual violence

Sexual violence YT video

Susan Hutchinson

As the security situation continues to deteriorate in Syria and Iraq, Western nations are being forced to reconsider the issue of what to do with their nationals stuck there since the war with ISIS. When Turkey invaded northern Syria, the Kurdish authorities who had been managing the prisons holding ISIS fighters, including those who are foreign nationals, said they could no longer prioritise the management of these prisons. Many of those prisoners are responsible for perpetrating gross sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But the Kurds are now facing another genocide of their own.

Too often, conflict-related sexual violence is considered a problem too difficult to resolve because it occurs in another country, by people from another country, against people from another country. But we have a unique moment in time to help end impunity for conflict related sexual violence. An estimated 40,000 foreign fighters from 89 countries travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS. Many of the source countries are State Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, obliging them to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in their own domestic court systems. 

We needn’t wait indefinitely for the big boys of the UN Security Council to refer these crimes to the International Criminal Court. Countries like Australia have incorporated these crimes into their own domestic criminal code and have an obligation to investigate and prosecute their own nationals for the sexual violence they perpetrated as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide while fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. We have the jurisdiction and the competent authority; all that remains is the political will and investment. 

For the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, ‘prosecute; don’t perpetrate’ released a short, animated video (above) explaining why and how we need to end impunity for conflict-related sexual violence. We made it with sketches and graffiti from an incredible Afghan artist and professor, Shamsia Hassani, who does a lot of beautiful work on women’s rights. 

There are countless incredible women from conflict-affected countries defending women’s rights. Nadia Murad has been fighting for years for justice for survivors like her, not just of trafficking and sexual violence, but of genocide as well. She has shared her story countless times, but so far not a single ISIS fighter has been prosecuted for sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. The time has come for us to take up the baton, to fight for women like Nadia, to make sure she receives the justice she deserves, and all the women like her. 

Investigating and prosecuting these crimes would be the responsible thing to do from the perspective of the rules-based international order. It would be the responsible thing to do if we wanted to end impunity for conflict-related sexual violence. It would be the right thing to do if we wanted to take action against gender violence. It would be far more responsible than leaving perpetrators in Syria, Iraq, Turkey or elsewhere to continue wreaking havoc on the world. It is also more responsible to ensure they are securely imprisoned within our own borders under the auspices of our own security agencies rather than in extremely unstable countries recovering from the conflict with ISIS.

When Yazidi activist Ameena Saeed Hasan bemoaned the UN Security Council’s inaction during a debate on trafficking of persons in armed conflict, she told of a Yazidi girl who had phoned her, begging, “if you can’t free us, bomb us”. “Where is the justice?” Ameena asked aghast by the total inaction of the international community. 

Today is the International Women Human Rights Defenders Day. As part of our activism this 16 Days, we can help women human rights defenders like Ameena and Nadia. We can work to ensure our governments meet their obligations to investigate and prosecute their own nationals who perpetrated sexual violence as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. 
Susan Hutchinson is the architect of the prosecute; don’t perpetrate campaign to help end impunity for conflict related sexual violence. She is also a PhD scholar at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. Her research focuses on the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Susan regularly blogs for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter and BroadAgenda. She is a member of the Australian Civil Society Coalition on Women, Peace and Security and the Australian Arms Control Coalition.

Day Four | #MeToo and the work of ending men’s violence against women

Karen Boyle is a professor at a striking UK university. This blog was submitted on 21st November.


‘ME TOO and her too and them too and him too’ by Cyndy Sims Parr and used under a Creative Commons licence

On 15 October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: 

Me Too. 

Suggested by a friend: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me Too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. 

(@AlyssaMilano, 15 October, 2017) 

Within 24 hours, 12 million Facebook posts using the hashtag were written or shared; within 48 hours, the hashtag had been shared nearly a million times on Twitter. 

In some ways, #MeToo exemplified the feminist possibilities of social media: each new post joined an existing conversation and allowed us to build a picture of what they had in common. This was not a million miles away from the consciousness-raising groups of the Women’s Liberation Movement, where women shared their experiences – including of sexual violence – in order to build an analysis of what they shared in a patriarchal society. But, where consciousness-raising typically took place in small, closed groups, #MeToo brought with it a more politically diverse and potentially global audience. 

However, I want to sound a note of caution about the way #MeToo is now increasingly referred to as a movement. To do this, I want to think about the relationship between #MeToo as a hashtag and Tarana Burke’s Me Too, founded in 2006. Burke founded the Me Too movement in response to a young woman’s disclosure of sexual abuse. At the time, Burke shut the young woman’s testimony down as quickly as she could. Yet, part of the reason for Burke’s reluctance was that the young woman’s testimony echoed her own experiences. For Burke, Me Too was (and is) about the pain and difficulty of recognition and solidarity, and the work this knowledge demands of us. 

When Milano tweeted #MeToo, she was not aware of Burke’s work. After the tweet went viral, Burke’s work was publicly acknowledged, following a by now well-established pattern of Black feminist mobilisation online. However, Burke notes that the mainstream acknowledgement has been limited: 

While it’s true that I have been widely recognized as the “founder” of the movement – there is virtually no mention of my leadership. Like I just discovered something 12 years ago and in 2017 it suddenly gained value. #metooMVMT #metoo 

(@TaranaBurke, 21 February 2018) 

Burke has consistently differentiated between the act of speaking out and the work that must follow on from that acknowledgement of personal experience in order to effect change. The media emphasis on Burke-as-founder obscures this, not least by emphasising her own personal story as a survivor. 

In my research on the media coverage of the Harvey Weinstein case, I have similarly found that the decades of feminist activism and research on sexual harassment and abuse preceding October 2017 have largely been ignored. Not only have spokespeople for organisations like Burke’s been largely missing from mainstream accounts, where feminism has featured it has too often been as a site of suspicion because of the (in)actions of prominent, individual feminists. 

What I want to emphasise, then, is the importance of understanding #MeToo not only as a social media trend, but as a mainstream news story. #MeToo was a response to a mainstream news story with Hollywood at its centre, so it is hardly surprising that #MeToo in turn became a major news story for global media outlets. Equally unsurprising has been the emphasis placed on the experiences of economically and racially privileged US women in this coverage. But this is a critique of the media, not of a movement, or even of the individuals using the hashtag on social media.

Louise Armstrong, who has written about media coverage of child sexual abuse testimony, argues that for the media “the personal is the personal” – and this can stop us seeing the bigger picture. There is also the risk that it makes stories about violence the stories only of the victim/survivors, as though the perpetrators somehow had nothing to do with it.

Even in the #MeToo era, men in public life have not been routinely asked if they perpetrated sexual violence, though after #MeToo went viral, there was a period where women in the public eye were almost routinely asked in interviews if they had a #MeToo story. This relentless focus on personal trauma compromised victim/survivors’ abilities to choose whether/how to tell their own stories, but also downplayed the expertise amassed by feminist organisations and researchers who have been listening to survivors for decades.

The feminist slogan “the personal is political” doesn’t mean that telling personal stories publicly is always or necessarily politically progressive – nor does it place an obligation on survivors to speak out. Unlike the women in consciousness-raising groups, those sharing #MeToo on social media since autumn 2017 haven’t necessarily had very much else in common, including how they make sense of their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. This is only surprising if we think of victim/survivors as a homogenous group. 

Of course, some women (and men) have been galvanised to political action by #MeToo, but a diverse group of people posting #MeToo do not necessarily constitute a movement. A movement, as Tarana Burke says, is work. Emotional work is part of this, but not all of it: the work this generates then includes advocacy, support, campaigning, policy development, research. This work takes time, and can be obscured by a focus on one-off statements.

For all of these reasons, I refer to #MeToo as a moment rather than a movement. As the women of the Tufnell Park Women’s Liberation Workshop wrote in the inaugural edition of Shrew in 1970:

We can be so written about and give so many interviews that we can be deceived into thinking that there is a movement when all we’re doing is dealing with the press and TV. (Tufnell Park Women’s Liberation Workshop 1970: 4)

Of course, dealing with the press and TV matter. But we should not allow the media to define our movements to end men’s sexual harassment and abuse of women.

Karen Boyle is Professor of Feminist Media Studies at the University of Strathclyde (@Unistrathclyde) in Glasgow, Scotland. She is the author of #MeToo, Weinstein and Feminism (Palgrave, 2019) and Director of Strathclyde’s Applied Gender Studies programme.