By Rohini Banerjee:
“Don’t want to think of what it must feel like to be IN an abusive relationship, and wake up almost every day to a ‘Marital rape is OK’ story,” observes Twitter user Nandita Saikia—a thought that is relevant and disturbing especially in the light of Woman and Child Minister Maneka Gandhi’s recent statement, in which she asserted that marital rape cannot be a crime in India. Her reasons for saying something as horrifying as this, which she laid down in yesterday’s Rajya Sabha session, were thus:
“It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament etc.”
Let’s break down that statement, shall we? What she’s essentially saying is that yes, there are problems—people don’t have access to education, are conditioned into harmful beliefs in the name of religion, exploited due to their financial situations in this country and hence often don’t understand consent and continue to perpetuate patriarchal norms such as ‘the wife is in the husband’s control’. But instead of actually dealing with these problems and trying to amend them, she herself begins to perpetuate such woefully regressive ideology by tacitly accepting this cultural evil.
Consent functions regardless of time, place, situation, “context”. It is the right to say no to sex, even to someone who you consider a romantic partner or spouse. No spouse can have an exclusive right over someone’s body. It is no wife’s “duty” to engage in sexual acts when they feel physically or emotionally uncomfortable, or repelled from engaging in them. Non-consensual sex and/or rape is decidedly not okay in any situation and should not be condoned, especially by a parliamentary body.
That being said, it is true that poverty, illiteracy, religious orthodoxy and so on hinders many sections of Indian society from even knowing the meaning of consent. There are women who suffer physical, sexual, emotional abuse at the hands of their partners and are afraid to speak out against it because society has conditioned them to believe that it is the man’s ‘right’ to do so.
Further, they are afraid to end the relationship due to stigma against divorced women, the fear of being financially crippled, and in general, a fear of their spouse’s wrath. The disturbing ideas of hypermasculinity and the pressure to wield power over women are drilled so thoroughly in men, that they find it difficult to even fathom that women can have independent wills, independent sexualities that are not associated with their every whim and pleasure.
What Gandhi should be doing is challenging such harmful conditioning, and create a comprehensive framework which would provide education about how consent works at grassroots level. Further, she should be putting in place measures to protect the women who face intimate partner violence, and not add to their trauma.
Her statement ultimately validates the status quo—that men have the supreme power to dominate women’s bodies and women’s sexualities. One expects the Woman and Child Development Ministry, of all ministries, to challenge these harmful social norms, and to help create gender sensitivity. But no, Gandhi totally fails in doing so. This stance ultimately alienates women further from the law, negates the experiences of those who have survived violence in the past or are still facing violence within abusive relationships—just because marriage is considered a ‘sanctified institution’.
How sacred is an institution which chooses to be blind to the pain and trauma of so many women, and even men, across the country? As Saikia’s tweet reminds us—imagine being in the shoes of an assault survivor, or someone in an abusive marriage or relationship at the moment, waking up in the morning and reading in the newspaper that the State refuses to see the violence committed against them as a crime.