Person of the Month: Sunita Murmu
It's a sort of pervasive, long-term mob behaviourism that underlies the collective legitimization of treating women and girls like deviant contaminations to be tolerated in society only for the value of their reproductive capacities. The lies that uphold a belief system that women are the property of men, to be traded like commodities with their chastity incessantly fretted over, have to be widely adopted in order to become firmly entrenched, and thus almost immovable, in a society. When the masses participate in perpetuating an idea, however fallacious, it takes a great deal of courage to go against the grain. And so it happens all too infrequently.
But that status quo changed in Birbhum, a district in India's West Bengal, where 16-year-old wage labourer Sunita Murmu took a tormenting experience of victimization and became a maverick for justice.
Sunita fell in love with a boy from outside her tribe. Her romance with the boy was discovered in June 2010 by her tribal panchayat (an unelected caste-based assembly, sometimes self-proclaiming themselves to the 'moral panchayat', distinctive from authorized, elected panchayats in India). The panchayat members sentenced Sunita to be stripped publicly and forced to walk around her village for two hours, "while being jeered at and sexually harassed by random villagers," according to one report.
Onlookers not only did not intervene, they recorded the event in photos and videos, then circulated the files on their cell phones, supposedly to send a warning to other village girls, and to maximize and draw out the humiliation that Sunita would experience. Police failed to intervene during or immediately after the incident, and the teenager returned home where she was further taunted by her neighbours and other villagers.
Her parents kept her in isolation, dissuading her from seeking justice. Forget about it and move on, they counseled.
And yet, despite every factor firmly stacked against her, Sunita listened to her own sense of right and filed a formal complaint with police. Though no villager collaborated with the investigation, within 48 hours, six men were arrested.
This year, Sunita was awarded a National Bravery Award, and recognized by Indian President Pratibha Patil for her act of courage.
But speaking out came with a price. Ostracized from her village, Sunita now lives in a welfare home elsewhere. Her family remains unsupportive of her fight for justice. At 16, she lives away from her family and from the community where she grew up.
And at 16, she has demonstrated more audacity, courage, and tenacity of spirit than all of the adults in her village combined. She confronted the mob mentality that erupted into an actual physical mob, bloodthirsty and whipped into sexual frenzy, devoid of all reason and conscience, as they stripped, taunted and harassed a young girl, because she had fallen in love. Sunita disrupted the sheep amidst her and wrestled the wolves, as she took on the 'moral panchayat' and its seemingly unshakeable authority.
When everything and everyone signalled to her to do otherwise, she held fast to her own conviction that she had been deeply wronged, and that she deserved justice. It takes the rare appearance of a genuine fighter to bring into such sharp relief how cowardly are the masses, and how responsible they are for their own miserable, depraved state, a failure of community.
We have much to lament in a world where so many countries still habitually fail their women and ultimately their whole societies as a result, with regressive policies and practices that preserve and perpetuate backwards ideas about women's place in the world. One tragedy supercedes another in an endless chronology of incidents where women and girls are flogged, raped, mutilated, assaulted, killed in the name of honour, tortured, maimed and degraded. But once in a while, someone stands up and speaks out, and for a brief moment, gives us reason to celebrate, and perhaps even to believe that the lies adopted by the masses can be obliterated and the mob thinking sterilized some day, for good.
Lauryn Oates is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.