Striptease as impunity in law and governance
Stripping as a technique of law and governance is constitutive of cultures of impunity that are degrading across different sites of law and governance in prolific ways.
EVEN IF stripping despised religions, communities, castes and genders of their dignity is a routine technique of domination, criticism of institutionalized forms of stripping remains mostly confined to non-state law. Routine forms of recount by state law are often not named or fixed. However, recounting as a technique of law and governance is constitutive of cultures of impunity that are degrading across different sites of law and governance in prolific ways.
Stripping can be an offense against the chosen constitutional identity. Denying Muslim female students access to education while wearing the hijab has been rightly appointed as a form of stripping, literally and symbolically. Masculine majority logics are based on stripping women of their identity, their sense of self and their personality. Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab are pathologized in a majority political order that normalizes public violence targeted against them. Interim orders that suspend women’s choices make disfigurement the very condition of women’s access to education. Disfigurement is gendered for these interim orders only to regulate women’s choices.
Each visit to court and back can lead to a degrading strip search – the stripping of the body then becomes a condition of access to justice.
The legal order ignores subjectivity young Muslim women who have been repeatedly targeted on social media platforms such as Git Hub. This targeted violence not only strips women of their dignity and privacy, but also treats them as objects that could be sold. This form of targeted violence steals their identity to disfigure them. Today, these cultures of disfiguration are commodified.
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Stripping of prisoners
The hypercriminalization of students, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists, women, victims and ordinary people is accompanied by an increased tolerance of institutionalized forms of indignity and violence. Stripping custodial subtrials is standardized as a procedure in police camera and the jails. In 2020, a rape survivor was locked up in a pandemic-affected prison in Bihar on the grounds of contempt for responding to the law with the voice of trauma. Stripped and chained bodies are often searched and probed in front of others. Female prisoners have repeatedly named prison stripping as one of the most humiliating experiences of incarceration. The bodies of pregnant, menstruating, and breastfeeding women are subjected to institutionalized forms of stripping in front of prison guards and wardmates. Menstruating women who are strip searched said they were turned away sanitary napkins in jails.
A 2018 Union Ministry of Women and Child Development Report issued recommendations aimed at abolishing these strip searches. However, in 2019, the Madras High Court was “shocked” to learn that most prisons had punishment cells where inmates were stripped naked and put in solitary confinement for violating prison rules, even if court trials simply required basic amenities. Each visit to court and back can lead to a degrading strip search – the stripping of the body then becomes a condition of access to justice.
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Stripping victims of sexual violence
Striptease is often institutionalized for victims of sexual violence under the sign of forensic medicine. While debates about sexual violence are often framed primarily around the death penalty in television studios, one of the most harmful institutionalized ways of stripping rape victims has gone unnoticed. It’s standard procedure to seize clothing for forensic analysis. However, rape victims (or defendants) are not given a spare pair of clothes to replace those seized. Seizure of clothing for forensic evidence purposes is not considered an act of institutionalized undressing.
In the 1980s, lawyer and scholar Dr. Vasudha Dhagamwar wrote about this form of institutionalized stripping of women in rape cases. She has drawn our attention to the indignity on which the daily practices of forensic medicine are built. She told how police confiscated a destitute woman’s only sari as evidence of rape, which meant she could not leave her hut for several days until she could find help. Yet rape victims don’t get a change of clothes even today.
It’s standard procedure to seize clothing for forensic analysis. However, rape victims (or defendants) are not given a spare pair of clothes to replace those seized.
It is also often forgotten that the rape law is also used against men and women who choose their partners. They too are forced to undress and hand over their clothes for forensic analysis. When love is criminalized by criminal law and now anti-conversion laws, it widens the scope of stripping as impunity. The demand to decriminalize relationships of love and choice essentially challenges stripping as impunity.
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Reporting Incidents of Stripping
While stripping and parading are central to caste or community domination, this is divorced from how the crime is reported in the media. This was evident in the shock expressed after a 20-year-old woman was gang-raped, tonsured and “paraded” in East Delhi on January 26 earlier this year. The viral video of the riot which targeted the victim showed women assaulting and abusing the tonsured victim whose chilling scream evoked boos and cheers from the rioters. Phone cameras were aimed at the victim’s tonsured and blackened face, recording the abuse, violence and degradation of the human body. The media sought comments from “experts” to explain their sense of “surprise” that such atrocities could be staged in the capital for the “first” time. The violence now characterized as “medieval”, “rural” or “animal” has been pathologized as displaced in the capital.
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Instead, the imagery of stripping a gang-rape survivor of the last vestiges of her dignity by “parading” her was deployed to spark outrage. The viral videos of the rape survivor’s public humiliation have been uploaded on social media by the Delhi Women’s Commission and the National Women’s Commission with the notice to the police. This governance by spectacle images relies on the creation of streams that generate thousands of likes after twitter audiences have consumed the images of degradation. These are videos that are choreographed, produced and released as trophies of sexual violence.
When these women’s commissions tweet these videos in addition to the written notice to the police, they degrade. This disfiguration by law and society becomes the dominant mode of sexual governance that traffics in performance images. Outrage is not aroused by the way women are represented by these statutory bodies supposed to fight for their dignity in a predominantly patriarchal society. On the contrary, disfigurement becomes the condition for generating excited indignation, thus further entrenching sexual impunity.
Outrage is not aroused by the way women are represented by these statutory bodies supposed to fight for their dignity in a predominantly patriarchal society. On the contrary, disfigurement becomes the condition for generating excited indignation, thus further entrenching sexual impunity.
Feminists have repeatedly named stripping as a technique of law and governance. It could even be argued that one of the most important and overlooked contributions of the women’s movement to social, legal, and political theory is its conceptualization of stripping as impunity. Yet the feminist designation of stripping as impunity has been largely ignored, despite the yearly routinization of public memory that returns every Women’s Day.
(The opinions expressed are personal.)