What are men trying to prove with #AcidAttacks?

On close inspection of the 300 acid attack events, a pattern emerges that explains most attackers’ motives.

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Margaret Atwood made this observation in a pathbreaking 1985 essay on gender trouble and power relations between men and women in intimate relationships. Atwood seems to believe, like scores of intellectuals of our time, that biological essentialism, or the idea that men and women are differently made and should stick to traditional gender roles, is coded right down to what terrifies each sex.

The work of seminal sexologists like John Gagnon and Michael Kimmel have resulted in a body of theoretical and empirical evidence that cis-heterosexual men suffer some degree of homophobia, which asserts itself in close relationships. When a female partner laughs at a man he re-imagines himself as a gay man being laughed at by a heterosexual, more powerful and more prototypically “masculine” entity. In short, men are fearful that they will be treated by women as they (men) treat gay men, and women. Men have, and will continue to go to great lengths to avoid being ridiculed by the other gender.

We might surmise that men have some awareness as to how their gender victimizes women as a collective. The processes of inflicting violence and trauma on women are so subtle and practiced, and so entrenched in patriarchal value systems, that many men have no awareness that their speech or action damages women. With that said, statistics of men perpetrating assault on women- think sexual harassment, stalking, domestic battering, molestation, rape, acid attacks- are disturbing. None of these crimes are accidental; many, like acid attacks, are premeditated.

Acid attacks, which have the highest incidence in South Asian countries, including India, are a troublesome category of assault for the very fact that 85% of victims are women, are from low socio-economic background families, are young, and are well-known to their assailants. On close inspection of the three hundred acid attack events that scar women, literally and figuratively, a pattern emerges that explains most attackers’ motives.

The commonest cause of assault that tried acid attackers have admitted to is having been spurned in love. A smaller group of acid attack survivors have been targeted because of family vendettas; Rupa, from northern UP, for example, was beaten and attacked with corrosive acid by her immediate family member, a resentful stepmother. Some more have sustained grievous bodily harm at the hands of jealous husbands, including Zakira from Bombay, whose husband suspected infidelity and doused her in sulphuric acid with the stated intent of punishing her. One prominent acid attack case in Delhi was fought, and won, by a hotel bar dancer named Anu Mukherjee, who was attacked by her contender in the profession. Laxmi was all of fifteen when a youth she had refused to be in a romantic relationship with hurled acid at her in Delhi’s bustling Khan Market area. This is one of the ways that men treat women.

Men’s trepidation of being treated the same is not unjustified. Women’s phobia of being killed by men is as easily vindicated.

Men do this to women as a strategy for establishing their dominance on women. With an acid attack, a great physical injury is served to an often unsuspecting casualty, who must go through excruciating pain, weakness, exhaustion, and disfigurement. But this is not all. The acid attack victim must also rally all her resources to pay for expensive rounds of surgeries, postoperative care, and learn to adjust to their new external shape. This very effort is an unfair and superhuman ordeal for a woman who has already suffered acid burns and has possibly drained her savings to get primary care. With the single act of having thrown acid at the women, the male perpetrator succeeds in crippling her in manifold ways, in a paradigm of dominance and the assertion of power.

Dominance and subjugation- these things men are afraid of.

Written by Malini Bhattacharya

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