Correspondence between Manasvinei Manoj (Law student, National Law University – Delhi) and Kato De Staercke (Law student, University of Antwerp)
My name is Manasvinei Manoj and my pronouns are she/her. I am studying law at National Law University, Delhi. I have to confess, that I am thrilled at the prospect of meeting you virtually. I am extremely sorry for the delay, I have not been keeping well.
I visited the US Capitol 3 years ago and I saw this one piece of artwork that still captivates me. The name of the piece is The Portrait Monument and it was made by Adelaide Johnson. It has the individual busts of 3 important feminists in the US Feminist movement and has a 4th unsculpted slab. The meaning of the same is widely debated but a widely accepted interpretation is that it was left blank on purpose to show that the fight for feminism is not finished and never will be.
I agree with the sentiments of the artist. The feminist movement in India is picking up and more people are getting involved. While we have many rights in India when it comes to gender, the fight is far from over. We face a number of issues on a daily basis from unequal pay to restrictions on movement to sexual harassment. Women are seen as the weaker gender due to the payment of dowry.
Dowry is the payment of goods (gold, money or property) that the bride’s family pays to the groom’s family before the marriage. This sole “tradition” has led to many women going through emotional abuse, injury and in many cases leading to death. In the year 2020, 19 women were killed every day due to dowry. This system has also contributed to female infanticide in the country. Many prospective parents terminate the birth of their child if it is a girl because they don’t want to pay for dowry later in life.
It was only this year that I truly realised the impact of dowry. I was either too young or ignorant till this time. My cousin sister got married recently and I was so excited for her. She had an arranged marriage and the groom is really nice. But I’m diverting from my point. I was having a conversation with my mother about the marriage and she informed me that my cousin was supposed to enter the house with a suitcase full of gold. It was apparently a “custom” for them. I do not know the extent of truth in that statement. I was shocked and I argued that this was dowry hidden in a wolf’s cloth. But while my mom agreed with me, we both knew that the true power of the marriage functions and customs lies with the groom’s family. If they break off the marriage, it will affect my cousin sister more than it will affect the groom.
Another issue I want to touch upon is sexual harassment in India. It is one of the most commonly committed crimes in India and thus the title of “Rape capital of the world” for India. The city where I am studying is one of the most unsafe cities for women and it terrifies me every day. In fact, all of my friends wanted to buy me some pepper spray before I came to campus but I can’t carry it on a flight. I forget how desensitised I am to rape that when I read about I feel no emotion. It is a horrifying crime but I have seen, heard and experienced sexual assault too often for someone who has been on the planet for only 2 decades.
In another letter, I will talk more about rape and the impact it has had on my life. For now, I will mention the infamous Nirbhaya case and how it changed the lives of Indian women. It has been 10 years since the incident but I feel the aftershocks of the same. The 4 convicts of the case were hanged last year and while I may not agree with the imposition of the death penalty, I will agree that I slept without any fear that night.
The case happened when I was really young and had just transferred to India from Sharjah. Sharjah is an emirate in the UAE which is a very safe place. I shifted from Sharjah to Kochi, a small city in the Southern part of our country and finished my schooling there. I took an entrance exam and got into National Law University, Delhi which is how I ended up there. I had a huge culture shock, especially with the way people talked about sexual offences. The case lead to everyone getting a sensitization session in our class and that’s how we all learnt about rape. It was a shocking, painful and necessary conversation. I remember discussing the case at length with my classmates until the conviction. The case shook the nation but no structural changes have been made. So many people I know have felt the same pain Nirbhaya felt and they live to tell their story. I am trying my best to protect my friends and be cautious of my surroundings, but how much longer must I do this?
10 years wasn’t enough and I still roam the same streets Nirbhaya roamed with fear and desperation to reach my campus in one piece. I still feel the fear she felt and I am always reminded that at any point in time, I could be her. I could be another rape statistic that scares me so much. I don’t know when or how it will get better but what I do know is that living in a state of fear is exhausting.
I’m extremely sorry for that really long rant. Now the questions I wanted to ask you are
1. Do you agree with the sentiments of The Portrait Monument that feminism is a continuous battle?
2. Is there any system similar to dowry in your country?
3. What are your thoughts on the Nirbhaya case?
Looking forward to your response!
My name is Kato De Staercke. I’m 20 years old, and I live in Antwerp, Belgium where I also attend the law faculty of the University of Antwerp.My pronouns are she/her as well. I must say that I feel the exact same way to have a friend like this. I loved your “letter” and I look forward to the future. Your writing is truly impeccable. The delay was no bother at all, I hope you’re doing well now.
First and foremost, I am most jealous of your trip to the U.S., I truly dream about travelling and adventures. I researched some more about the monument which you talked about, and I must say, it is beautiful. However, I think I have a different opinion regarding the meaning behind the unsculpted slab. What if Adelaide Johnson was trying to give the impression that the slab could be anyone? Or that the slab is for all the feminists we don’t know of around the world? In my mind the slab represents the feminists who don’t get enough recognition, you, me, maybe an unknown woman in Central-Africa who rescues girls who ran away because they don’t want to get married because they’re underage. We don’t know. Although I have to give in, the interpretation you provided sounds more likely to be true than mine.
The same as you told me about India, we women have the same rights as men. It’s written in the constitution. However, we still deal with the wage gap, glass ceilings and all problems that come with it. In Belgium, we don’t really have a tradition like a dowry. Mostly because we are not really traditional people. It is so that most of the wedding itself is paid for by the parents of the couple, or that the parents give the couple a big present. In general, giving a dowry is not a thing. I’m truly the least racist person but please keep in mind that I speak of the “Catholics” when I say this. I have a couple of Muslim friends, or immigrants from the Balkan, where my boyfriend comes from, that still do this. However I don’t think the situation is as bad here as it is in your country.
Because you mention the Nirbhaya case in your letter, I looked it up because I wasn’t familiar with it. When I looked it up, I was truly shocked by the horrors. The fact that they threw her out of the bus was just an indication of the fact that the men who did this saw her as a woman unworthy of just normal human decency. I don’t mean to say that raping and abusing a woman states otherwise, but that detail was just something I really thought about and couldn’t get out of my head. Just the same as you, I don’t agree with teh death penalty in any case, but I do understand why you, and so many other women, felt safe that night and got a good night sleep. I don’t blame you for it.
In Belgium we also have a case like this. The Julie Van Espen case. It happened back in 2019 so quite recently. The whole nation was shocked to its core and everyone talked about it. Since then I don’t feel safe anymore as a girl walking the streets, this case had the same effect on me as Nirbhaya had on you. If it’s not too triggering, and you have the time, I truly recommend looking it up. Julie isn’t the first one, as every year 43.000 women get raped here. I don’t know what was it about this case that had everyone in a chokehold. Maybe because the man who did this was convicted before and got out of prison on parole, or the fact that he murdered her. I truly don’t know. However, the day I saw it on the news, I knew I would never be the same girl ever again, and I blame the man for it. I miss being careless, free, and just generally happy. The man destroyed Julie, but he also destroyed so many girls, their fate in men, the world and their horrible Belgian justice system, including mine.
I truly hope my response was as eye-opening as your letter was, and I hope to hear again from you soon as I feel we could have lovely, deep and meaningful conversations about things that actually matter in this world. How horrible they might be.
Thank you for your email.
I agree with you, the slab could be for anyone. It could be for the woman who saves girls from being trafficked, it could be the mother of 3 trying her best, or it could be our new president (who is a tribal woman). I think the main point here is everyone can be a feminist in their own regard. Anyone can be on that slab and that drives the point of how any feminism is good feminism because it drives the movement forward.
Secondly, I am glad I was able to bring some of my U.S. trip to you. It was a wonderful experience and I hope you get to see the sights yourself. It is a beautiful country with a very rich history. The history in itself is so vast however I think it is important to mention how people of marginalised communities are not are the forefront of the textbooks due to systemic racism.
I understand what you mean by rights being written only in the constitution. Our constitution guarantees many things but not all of them are achieved to date. And please don’t fret, I understand why you mentioned how some communities are more traditional than others.
I read more about the Julie Van Espen case and I am truly shocked. It was horrifying to read and I cannot begin to understand how it must have felt for you to be in the country at that moment. I know what you mean by losing your innocence due to a case like this and I truly empathise with you.
My main goal is to restore the faith of many little girls in the justice system. So many girls get sexually assaulted each day and while the numbers are still underreported, I hope my contribution by becoming a lawyer and role model, will help give the victims a new reason to come forward with their stories and say #metoo.
I am truly grateful for this experience. I am so lucky to have met you virtually and had this conversation. It was eye-opening and I am glad to have found a pen-pal like you. Your letter made me very happy and I hope we get to communicate again. I wish you the best and hope you have a good day.