Violence is not for me. Scenes of real-life fighting and bloodshed make me uncomfortably anxious. Sometimes even a little nauseous. Conflict may be an inevitable part of life… but when it leads humans to induce harm, injury, or even death on others, I do not want to be around.
In December 2012, a violent encounter occurred less than ten feet from where I was standing. I couldn’t avoid it. I couldn’t pretend like nothing was happening. It was, quite literally, in my face. But in this rare instance, the fighting made sense to me. A group of seven women were, to put it mildly, beating the tar out of a middle-aged man. The melee, which occurred during a peaceful demonstration, was completely unexpected. Naturally, many of the bystanders, including me, became nervous by this sudden onslaught of blows. But we did not interfere. We understood that these women weren’t fighting a battle against one man or one body. They were physically taking on much bigger issues.
It occurred near the bus stand of a small city in a rural district of Tamil Nadu. A few colleagues and I were there on a fact-finding mission, intent on gathering statements and information regarding the case of Amaal. At sixteen-years-old, Amaal had already managed to publicly challenge local systems of patriarchal oppression in a tangible way. She went to school.
The jamaat in Amaal’s village had prevented girls from studying past the eighth grade. She circumvented this ban by continuing to her education in a neighboring town. In retribution for her defiance, male elders spread false rumors throughout the community that viciously attacked the girl’s chastity and moral character. But Amaal continued to study. She had reached the eleventh grade, showing no signs of stopping.
One day, a village elder saw Amaal speaking with a male classmate at a neighboring town’s bus stand. Enraged at the fact that she would publically associate herself with a boy, the elder slapped the girl, pulled her hair, and commenced to bring her back to their village. Upon arriving at the village square, members of the jamaat took Amaal and her mother – who had been summoned by other community leaders after hearing of her daughter’s “transgression” – to an isolated room in a building adjacent to the village’s mosque. There, they verbally abused the girl, calling her a prostitute. And then, in a premeditated act of violence, they thrashed her. When her mother tried to intervene, they pushed her to the ground and began to kick her chest. Fortunately, both women were able to leave the scene without life-threatening injuries. But the jamaat showed that they would use drastic action to preserve their authority and the status quo.
However, Amaal and her mother were not so easily defeated. They relayed their story to a local women’s rights organization, which, in turn, organized a public rally and fast. Amaal, her mother, and the leaders of this organization were intent on letting these jamaat members know that their crimes may have went legally unpunished, but they would not be overlooked by the public.
I attended that fast. In a large, open tent near the bus stand, I joined groups of women and a few men who gathered to chant, sing, and listen to impassioned speakers who demanded women’s rights. After meeting some of the event organizers and hearing their statements, I went toward the edge of the tent to take pictures for documentation purposes. While at the periphery of the gathering, I noticed that many men, who were clearly not part of the rally, were watching from a short distance. Most looked curious. Some looked amused. Others irritated. But all of them remained glued to their spots, only turning their heads occasionally to comment on the proceedings.
During one speech, a group of women became visibly agitated. Their rushed whispers grew louder into an aggressive chatter that drowned out the speaker at the microphone. They stood up in the middle of the speech. Like a single organism, this cluster of eight women fluidly navigated a seated crowd and hovered toward the edge of the gathering. Amaal was in the center of the group. Though she looked panicked, she was well protected.
As the women stopped at the crowds’ edge, they began to speak rapidly to the girl. I could not clearly hear the conversation, but later came to understand that they sought her confirmation. Apparently, a member of Amaal’s jamaat had come to the rally with the intention of threatening the girl. When making eye contact with her from the periphery of the crowd, he ran his pointer finger across his neck, indicating that he would kill her.
This act of sheer arrogance did not go unpunished. Amaal quickly pointed out the man who threatened her. And the women’s shouts quickly turned to blows. They surrounded him, hitting his arms, chest, and back with brutal force. One woman punched him in the back of the head repeatedly, forcing him to cower. After several moments of chaos, he was able to break free. He ran away as fast as he could with his back bent and arms covering his head. If he had a tail, I imagine it would have been placed squarely between his legs.
I do not know this man outside the context of this incident. But, if I may venture a guess, I think it may have been the first time in his life that he had ever been afraid of women. And he had every reason to be scared. These women were fierce.
The entire incident lasted less than a minute. But it likely impacted Amaal’s community for generations.
Despite the sheer intensity of the scene, I still contend that the violence made sense. It did not make me feel nauseous or make me want to hide my face and pretend that nothing was happening. In fact, it was borderline inspiring. But I am not qualified, in the very least, to assess if physical fighting was the best answer. After the incident, police arrested the man who made the threats. But, considering the assault against him, they found it too difficult to press charges. He walked away with a few scrapes and a bruised ego, but no criminal record. Perhaps the bruised ego was enough, but it’s too soon to tell.
Amaal has been granted admission to a new school in a completely separate district. She continues to study. Though the communal pressures she faces has died down (at least temporarily), it’s difficult to know what other challenges she will face in the coming months and years. But uncertainty and the threat of violence have never stopped her before.
(All names have been changed, minor details altered, and locations removed to protect the identities of individuals described in this post.)