The acid attack is something that hasn’t happened for the first time in our part of the world. We often hear about events where acid is thrown (mostly) on women’s bodies and faces (mostly) by men. The prevalence of this event tells us something about the relationship between men and women in our society, which is an extremely important component of human relationships in our society and the kind of lives we allow ourselves to live. Even though women are individuals, as is the attacker, the atmosphere that enables something like this to happen is social and everyone who is a part of society is responsible for it.
The women are young students, at an age where much of what they do is in conformity to the notions and standards of their parents and society at large. They are at an age when they are only beginning to be aware of the world around them, its politics, its arrangements of power. They had been waiting at their tuition centre for their classes to begin. They were cornered by the attacker and could neither escape nor retaliate. The attacker had hidden his face. The girls stood immobile in an enclosed space and did not know what was coming to them. He was the one with the knowledge of the girls’ whereabouts; he had planned the attack and his escape, so he was the one with the mobility. He was the one with the intent to disfigure and mutilate, and the means to do so. So, we could say he was the one with the power, whereas the girls were entirely vulnerable and powerless.
We live in a society where men feel that they are entitled to claim this kind of power for themselves. It is an unspoken dictate that in a patriarchal society, a man acts, a woman is either acted on, or at best, supports a man in his actions. Let’s say that is one of the abstract principles that operate in a patriarchal society (which is not to say that there can be no exceptions to this rule). The incident certainly conforms to that principle. But the scope of such action is limited, and human life is both wider and deeper than the beginning and end of such action. Was the man really empowered? Obviously someone who is angry is also injured and desperate, powerless in some way. That’s the only way I can understand an angry person. And certainly, an angry person would deserve the pity of a truly empowered person.
But it is not enough to feel pity for the attacker as an individual; we must also understand this incident from a social and collective perspective. As a society we do not teach men to deal with their anger, to value love and openness, to find shelter in closeness and intimacy when they feel injured, instead we glorify their aggression and encourage them to maintain a status quo where their belligerence and disregard for others is celebrated as a virtue. We teach both men and women to see each other as polar opposites, or even enemies. We do not attend to the tangled strands of our emotions which exist in relation to each other, instead whenever we feel challenged we break those ties in order to establish ourselves as autonomous individuals: Because my self-esteem depends on you, and I feel ashamed of that dependence, I hurt you to prove that I am free of you. Because I sense that you have power over me, I hurt you, so that I can take away your power and claim it for myself. It is obviously because we are interrelated that we have such feelings towards each other, but instead of understanding this relationship more fully, we teach men to act as if they exist above this relationship and women to continually adjust themselves so that men may retain their feeling of power.
In this incident, we see that the women are ultimately left in a position where they must make sense of what has happened. Their victimhood has become the entire story and is circulated over and over in the media and social media. The boy has taken himself out of the picture. We may rebuke him, we may criminalise him, which is a way of dismissing (in the sense of explaining away) his actions but by doing that haven’t we let him off the hook? By thinking of his actions as the result only of his individual will, haven’t we taken away his responsibility as well as ours as parents, guardians, brothers and sisters of these boys and girls? Without him in picture we will not be able to resolve this issue and many other issues that are the result of the separation of men and women in our society. And if he manages to escape, emotionally/psychically more than physically, it will only be to carry out another attack on a fellow human being. We must think more seriously about his responsibility and our own responsibility, for the event, for the girls who were affected so deeply by it, but also the boy whom we brought up to think that throwing acid on a woman is a legitimate outlet for his emotions.