Honour, Shame And Revenge: It’s Not Just The Rapists We Must Fight To End ‘Rape Culture’

Posted on September 9, 2014 in Gender-Based Violence, Society, Taboos

By Deepthi Unnikrishnan:

The unprecedented public outcry after the ‘Nirbhaya’ case instigated a much needed revision of outdated rape laws and several amendments in the Indian Penal Code. That being said, being content with punishments means staying content with relieving the symptoms, and leaving the root cause intact. If the punishments were enough, it wouldn’t be difficult to curb crimes. Rape is a symptom of what lies beneath the minute details that make up the cultural codes and behavioural patterns that prescribe an ideal ‘female model’ and a ‘male model’. At this point, our culture continues as the one that treats rape as only ‘her’ problem, with significant repercussions to the community.


As officials put it, there has been an increase in the number of rapes being reported willingly. In the background, a phrase had caught on–‘rape culture’. There was a furore, questioning the audacity to sum up the entire culture in a single negative phrase. Phrase or no phrase, the situation demands an interrogation of the subtle and the not-so-subtle aspects of the cultural constructs that continue to forgive and forget rape. Punishments have relevance, but only a supplementary relevance, along with the usurping of certain behavioural patterns and attitudes that permit violence against women, sexual or otherwise.

The Construct of Honour, Shame, Revenge

About a month back, a 14 year girl was ordered to be raped by the village headman as a fitting revenge for an alleged misbehaviour by her brother to another woman. Not that long ago, in West Bengal, a 20 year old woman was gang raped, as the village did not approve of her relationship with a man from another community. I picked these instances from the plethora of sexual crimes in our society, because of the obvious constructs of ‘honour’, ‘revenge’ and ‘shame’ in them.

The patriarchal construct of ‘honour’ for the female is tied to her body, her sexuality and virginity. By ‘shaming’ her, the family’s honour is irrevocably lost as she signifies the family’s ‘honour’. And what happens to the rapist? He scored some points on the honour scale as he carried out the revenge. Is the man’s honour is the capacity for ‘revenge’?

Such heinous crimes are condemned nationwide, and decried on television discussions. These do mark the public outrage well. There is also a subtle response that emerges in these discussions. It is the tendency to distance ‘us’ from ‘those’ who are ‘remote‘, “the crimes happened in a remote village…in a tribal village”. It is internalised that such crimes happen in uncivilised corners. The fact is that the very same ideology of honour is normative across all social strata, masquerading under phrases like ‘lamp of the family’ and ‘light of the house’, which are used to describe a daughter or a daughter-in-law. Such notions prevail across the country, and the rapes that happened in those villages are an extension of the same attitudes. The urban areas, or the so called ‘civilised’ areas may not have a headman ordering rape, but the mind-set that fosters rape thrives there as well.

Seeing Through the Eyes of the Perpetrator

In Bangalore city, many incidents of sexual assaults in schools were reported after the abuse of a 6 year girl came to light very recently. Ironically, in an event organised to prevent such crimes, the secretary of a school addressed the public on imposing ‘appropriate’ dress code for girls as a preventive measure. Well-wishers utter ‘well-meaning’ advice to women to dress decently, not to invite unwanted attention, etc. They are asked to be calm, composed and of course, fair and lovely. It is normal to hear many spontaneous comments in the lines of, “girls should…”, “if she dresses ‘provocatively’…then, after all isn’t he a boy?” Girls are taught to avoid attracting sexual attention and keep a certain distance from the boys. Interestingly, boys of the household are left out of such discussions. They are not taught the need to respect the private and physical/psychological spaces of individuals.

The Feminine and Masculine Mystiques

A very distinct pattern of the masculine mystique and the feminine mystique is created right from childhood. Gender dynamics invariably creep into family and parenting. As a part of bringing up and making the boys independent, aggression and use of force are tolerated. It is considered okay for a boy to be violent. You hear people saying this when bolstering a boy “..now, don’t you cry like a girl. Aren’t you a brave boy?” Words encouraging the expected behavioural patterns are uttered spontaneously. It seems like the biological self has to be reinforced by conventional norms. Boys exert their manhood by describing their sexual experiences with their girlfriends, describing what went on as a private experience, as an ego boost for their manhood before friends. Manhood is violent, sexual, and men don’t cry. It is the age old trope of the hunter and the doe.

Rape remains a scourge since we, as a nation, have accepted “boys will be boys” for a long time now. It is a phrase playfully used to chide a boy who broke something, or used by prominent politicians for asking lesser punishment for sexual crimes. It seems as if the male sexuality is beyond their very selves. “Men will be men” is an attempt at rationalising the crime, a fallacy of patriarchy. The pseudo rationale belittles the violence and endorses such actions.

A rethinking of normative behavioural pattern will expose the vacuous notions of ‘dishonouring’ women through sexual assaults. Resisting those hollow behavioural norms and refuting them can potentially nurture alternate perspectives and dismantle the feminine and the masculine mystiques. Rapists are responsible for rape, not the women!