On the 19th of November, our newspaper announced that a man had been arrested for the murder of Marianne Vaastra. She was raped and killed in the Friese countryside in 1999 as she bicycled home after a night of festivity for koninginnedag. I saw her picture in the paper and thought, wait a minute – 1999 – and now it is 2012. Thirteen years later, an arrest has been made for the murder of this girl. Who is she?
She is, just like most girls in the Netherlands, no royal. What then makes her so important for the police to be at her case for 13 years?
Thoughts of a typical Indian you might say. Grown up in the part of the world where you have the tendency to think, if one isn’t big, important or rich, then the case should be closed long ago. Or…there is no case at all.
It is quite a co-incidence that a few days after seeing this report, I’m sitting in Pathe de Munt in the centre of Amsterdam looking at a documentary that’s here for IDFA from India. Gulabi Gang is made by the acclaimed Indian documentary maker, Nishtha Jain. Throughout the film, I find myself wiping my wet eyes. In that film, I see that women are murdered and what happens afterwards.
Marianne Vaastra and the women in Gulabi Gang share a couple of things in common – they are women who live(d) in the quiet, peaceful country-side and did nothing what so ever to deserve to be so brutally killed. What they don’t share in common is this: it’s not routine to attack, rape and kill women bicycling alone in the Netherlands. Nishtha Jain’s film begins with a title that tells us that in some of the villages in North India, it’s quite the done thing to ‘finish women off’. Burning them alive and then claiming they died from injuries related to their cooking fires seems to be the first choice of method. Even if they are found charred to death with little left of them and thatched roof above their heads seems completely whole and un-burnt soon after their death by ‘accidental’ fire.
There’s another important difference: in the case of Marianne Vaastra, her family and especially her father, and all the people of her village have not rested these last thirteen years. For them finding the murderer was of utmost importance. It was finally the DNA testing of men of the surrounding villages, on a voluntary basis, that led the police to pick up the prime suspect, now in jail. The ministry of justice in the Netherlands has left no stone unturned and spent an enormous amount of resources in these thirteen years to catch the culprit.
In the documentary, the occupants of the village that one of the murdered women inhabited are furious when Gulabi gang, an organization for and by women helps the mother of the murdered woman to register a police case. There was no police case until then because, as one of the characters suggests, the father and brother of the murdered woman have been paid by her husband. He’s the prime suspect in the murder. This is his second wife to have died a gruesome death. The first died of poisoning. As for the men in her family, they come across as pathetic figures to be pitied. So deeply internalized is the problematic, that I cannot even bring myself to feel the slightest anger against them.
As the villager’s anger rises for the unrest caused to them and the family of the good man, recently widowed for the second time, I think, I could have been born there – never had enough to eat because men should be fed first in this place of scarcity, worked instead of studied or played, married at eleven, burnt to death at sixteen with a three month old baby in my womb. A life lived. She may as well have been a block of wood or stone – completely dispensable. An object of use to be discarded at will in the most cruel way by people who get away with murder.
Luckily, the likes of Marianne’s father help us to believe that a woman’s life matters as much as any. And that finding the murderer and talking to him to try to understand what led him to do what he did are worth spending thirteen years of one’s life for. Because that is what he says he would like to do – have a conversation with the murderer of his daughter.
To add to the anguish I was already feeling while watching the film was the interview towards the end with a woman who was an active member of the organization Gulabi gang. She had marched, agitated and invested her very limited resources in standing up for the oppression of women for several years. But when her brother stabs her sister to death because the latter married without family consent, she supports their brother. Family honour, she says is important to her. Since her sister let them down, her brother, the murderer is right in doing what he has done. She leaves Gulabi gang because she doesn’t get support for this view by the women who spearhead the organization.
Confronted by reality like this, what can one can do but wipe one’s tears as one leaves the cinema and the lives of women far from one, not only in distance but in worlds?
A couple of day later, an email arrives in my inbox. It’s an invitation. ‘One billion rising’ – an action group being launched on the 28th of November in Mumbai is going to be screening this film and holding a discussion with the director Nishtha Jain.
Look here: http://onebillionrising.org/