Portrait of a murdered young woman

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – this proverb, sometimes used in jest by men referring to an ex, sometimes said in all seriousness by men and women – flies in the face of all recorded evidence about relational violence across the world. If Chennai techie Swathi’s case is anything to go by, there doesn’t even need to be a relationship, but a mere obsession, and a spurned man can decide to kill you.

 

I had been mulling about this piece since Swathi’s family first came out with an appeal to not tarnish her character, but wanted to wait till the culprit was caught. Now that Ramkumar has been arrested, one hopes, the police builds a water tight case against him and secures justice. But Swathi’s death has burst the bubble most of us urban women live in, a world where the woman has agency. It has proved once again that it is the woman’s sexuality (character for the more morally inclined) that trumps everything, even death.

 

One can’t really blame Swathi’s family for spending more time talking about her character than raging about public apathy or the need to catch a killer who has exposed the lack of safety in Chennai’s middle class neighbourhoods. Their fears were proven right each time after all. When a young woman is murdered in India, if she is unmarried, the first things that come to everyone’s mind is a rape attempt gone awry or a stalker (jilted lover is a euphemism just like eve teasing, please don’t use it). The unfortunate part is that whichever be the case, it is considered to be the girl’s fault. If a girl raises an alarm about a stalker, she is first asked if she smiled or spoke to him a lot and encouraged him somehow. Or she is asked if she angered him somehow. The onus is always on the girl. One doesn’t know if Swathi’s family buys this argument, but they surely knew that the society jumps to this conclusion, hence the fervent appeals to not tarnish her.

 

In this twisted world of patriarchal assumptions, a girl’s life is worth less than perceived assault to her character. An FB post was circulated all across Tamilnadu within days, where a deranged boy had posted that all girls who betrayed lovers should be killed like Swathi – the underlying assumption, that every man is entitled to romantic reciprocation. Yet another Whatsapp message circulated, claimed responsibility for her murder, slandering her with exaggerated claims of her love life. Fed up with all this, Swathi’s sister, whose own life had come under scrutiny, wrote a well-meaning, if misguided note on FB, talking of how her sister was a pious girl, always visiting temples, always saying her prayers. Her post underlined the cultural narrative that bad things happen only to bad girls. We only have to look at Suzette Jordan’s case to understand what happens when bad things happen to a girl whom society deems bad. Which is why when bad things happen to normal girls, everyone has to overemphasise her goodness, we have to give her names like Nirbhaya.

 

Then of course, gossip mongers got to know about Swathi’s male friend. That this male friend was Muslim and was close enough to have come to the crime scene when the police reached, seemed to be enough for the rumour mongers to make claims of love jihad. Wild allegations were made about how being upper caste meant she wouldn’t get justice in caste conscious Tamilnadu. One piece even went on to talk of how her body was not touched because she was a Brahmin girl who cannot be sullied by the hands of commoners, even in death. Both sides of the caste divide did their best to exploit this; to what end, only they know best. As for the religion angle, less said the better.

 

The accused Ram Kumar comes across as a loner who perhaps bought into the narrative that every man is entitled to the love of the woman he fancies. Moreover, romantic companionship is perceived to be the only companionship worth having and also the one that solves all the other problems in one’s life.

 

The conversations around Swathi’s murder have proved once again that we delude ourselves when we are surrounded by people like us, that women have progressed in our country. The truth is agency and consent are still mostly only available to men.

 

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