Why ‘Indian Culture’ Cannot Be An Excuse To Not Criminalise Marital Rape

Atrocities against women have been rising tremendously in India in the past few years. Harassment, molestation and rapes are being reported on a daily basis. News is flooded with such reports. With a lack of strict rules and prompt response mechanism, many people with criminal records still roam freely. However there is one particular offence, that is grossly overlooked, free from any prosecution by law; the issue of ‘marital rape’.

Marital rape is when a man has sex with his wife without her consent or forces his wife to have sex with him. Just as domestic violence is punishable by law, so should be domestic sexual abuse. Rape is rape, it’s no different whether done by husband or a stranger. By the end of the 20th century, most of the developed nations had criminalized marital rape, but India still hasn’t.

When the question of criminalizing marital rape was raised in the Parliament, the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, repeated the government’s stand. She said, “the concept of marital rape as understood internationally cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level(s) of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs (and the) mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament.”

The excuse of poverty and an array of outdated social and religious customs have always been used to stall legal reforms in India. Is poverty or lack of education a justification for a husband to sexually abuse his wife? Sati too was once an acceptable and prevalent cultural practice in India. But, domestic violence is a criminal offence now. Does marriage justify or empower a husband, does it give him a right over his wife?

The opposition to criminalize marital rape is based on the argument that it would ruin the “sanctity of marriage”. Over the decades, marriage in India has been used as a sexual contract that gives men implicit consent for sex. It is used as an ownership right over a woman’s body, her sexuality and her reproductive functioning. Calling sex after marriage a “wifely duty” has to stop. Any form of sexual intercourse has to be based on mutual consent and pleasure, not forced.

The fact that our society is vastly shrouded in superstitions and myths, makes it even more important to establish proper rules to ensure the safety of women. Every year hospitals across the country are admitting married women, who have been repeatedly abused. However, these cases go unreported as marital rape, as per the Indian Penal Code, is not an offence.

Our society openly condemns premarital sex, and treats it as a great offence. This has led many men getting married just for the sake of social sanction to have sex. This puts a great number of women in grave danger, as they are then abused without any legal recourse available for them.

In India, marital rape is not recognised as criminal under law. The Indian culture is such that men believe they have a right over their wife’s body after marriage.

Saying that such a rule would be a threat to marriage is equivalent to saying that sex is the only factor that holds a marriage together. It undermines the love and care in this relationship and advertises marriage as a mere means to have a physical relationship with a woman, without being socially stigmatized. Or, is it because the practice of abuse is so rampant in our country, that the men are afraid to criminalize it?

Even as political parties and ministers boast about India’s growing GDP and its likelihood of becoming a superpower, vast sections of our population still live in the dark ages. Majority of the society is still swayed by religious superstitions and outdated, and in some cases, even inhuman practices such as witch hunting and human “sacrifices”. In such a situation it is imperative for the law to step in and ensure that the voice of the oppressed are heard out loud.

The refusal to criminalize marital rape, is public acceptance that sexual advances and abuse against a women, as long as blanketed by marriage, will be accepted by the society and government, with the perpetrators being scot-free. If women are to gain control of their lives, then they should have the right to say “no” to their husbands without being socially rejected for standing up to protect themselves.

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