Trigger Warning: Rape, Domestic Violence, Marital Rape
Yet another rape has garnered nationwide attention. Once again, igniting debates on women’s safety and security in India. A 19-year old Dalit woman was allegedly gang-raped by four men in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh. Dissecting the details of the case or appropriating blame is not the purpose of this article.
The outrage on the streets, galvanised by caste groups and student organisations, has restarted the paradigm of protests common in the aftermath of brutal rapes. It raises the spectre of the infamous 2012 ‘Nirbhaya’ case- unrest on the streets, sympathetic lip service by lawmakers and celebrities, monetary compensation to the family, stringent legal action against the rapists, squabbling news anchors, and hand wringing by concerned citizens on social media.
What then? Can women and young girls now breathe a sigh of relief? Can we venture into public spaces after hours without fearing for our lives? Has the menace of leering men waiting for an opportune moment to strike, should any woman step beyond the realms of appropriate behaviour been dealt with?
Of course not.
I have been a member of varied social groups both online and in real life, where the topic of women’s safety and security is discussed with furious enthusiasm at best and tepid apathy at worst. As per the latest report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there has been an increase of 7.8 per cent in crimes reported against women in 2019, compared to the previous year.
This uptick is based on a total of a little over four lakh reported cases, a fraction of actual crimes in a country of 1.3 billion. Analysing reports and lamenting the inaction of the state has done nothing to curb the burgeoning catastrophe.
Talking to a couple of elderly ladies in my family has been an eye-opener. Some time back, the topic of women’s safety cropped up in one of our evening discussions. While one of them found the subject distasteful, not ideal as tea-time talk, the other unleashed a tirade against the victimised women themselves.
“What are you saying?” I blurted out, shocked at the blatant insensitivity.
“Well, what do we know about this woman? Maybe she did something or had issues with the man. It’s not our concern.”
I reined in a reflex response and waited for her to go on.
“These days, women think they can do anything. You cannot compete with men; you don’t have to. Women should know their place.”
This nugget of life advice came from an educated, mobile phone wielding, urban middle-class woman. Women should know their place. Those who don’t will face the consequences I completed in my head.
Her views are hardly a reflection of consensus. When such misogynistic stereotypes are reinforced and sermonised in households, we remain trapped in echo chambers that facilitate discrimination.
The epidemic of rapes in India, those reported or quietly suppressed, stems from a skewed social setup that treats women as extensions of men in the pecking order. Mere props without an independent identity; faceless nobodies to be used and exploited to settle scores or shown their rightful place.
However, imposing blame on society is the easy way out. Society, after all, is a microcosm of individual sensibilities.
In her book, ‘Why Men Rape’, Tara Kaushal underscores the glaring fissures evident in our very homes. While interviewing men convicted of crimes against women, she presents their views on expected female behaviour. Irrespective of class or caste, the defining scales of segregation in India, those men often blamed their victims for the crimes.
At times, assault is relegated to an act seeped in uncontrollable love and passion. The feelings for the woman were so pervasive that the man could do little but take her against her will to satiate his desire. It’s biology; men are programmed that way, etc.
Once married, the wife is duty-bound to serve the husband, and her missteps in wedlock are punished for keeping her in check. According to the NCRB 2019 report, almost a third of cases registered under IPC for crimes against women were under ‘Cruelty by Husband or His Relatives’. Since marital rape in India is unrecognised in legal parlance, such issues are seldom dealt with seriously. Usually, ‘ghar ka mamla’ (family matter) is beyond the scope of law and order.
Another customary norm is to regard women as properties of men, discounting their identities. Without perceived individual rights or freedoms, they become entities devoid of equal status. They are often violated to settle caste rivalries and herald shame, undermining the family’s social standing.
The victim then is not a fellow human being, but a prized possession to level scores for the man’s misdoings. That, family honour is tied to the chastity of women is a common refrain in most homes throughout the nation.
Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code deals with offences pertaining to ‘outraging the modesty of a woman’. All acts short of forced penetrative intercourse are covered under this section.
The Supreme Court in 2007 clarified the definition of ‘a woman’s modesty’, in essence, as ‘her sex’. The value of a woman’s modesty thus is interlinked with sexuality. But the arduous task of proving any outrage to said modesty rests with the woman.
As our epics teach, women are entrusted with proving their purity and undergoing ‘Agni Pareeksha’ when their overlords dictate.
Far worse than such ambassadors of cultural hegemony is the third class of insidious predators – men in positions of power who misuse authority since work provides a conducive environment for peer exploitation and blackmail. The #MeToo movement of 2018 unmasked a few upstanding gentlemen, sending heads rolling. But once the initial shock value receded, the women who spoke up were systemically marginalised, their motives questioned, and selective outrage from political groups discredited them.
In the context of the alleged rape and torture in Hathras, caste difference has been cited as a potential trigger. Unfortunately, such discussions of triggers resonating in public fora are impediments to realising the real issues of gender inequity. A woman’s clothing, her caste, her religion, her skin colour, her choice of words, the tone of her voice, her opinion, or her independence will are all triggers that can set off the next man inconvenienced by her antics.
Candlelight marches, calls for death to rapists, vengeful police encounters or any dissuading punishments are not long-term solutions. A stringent law and order apparatus may threaten painful repercussions for those indulging in assault crimes, but the rot is rooted within ourselves.
The system, the judiciary, and every law enforcement personnel raised in a culture that repudiates half the population cannot administer justice. Even as I write this, another woman has been raped in UP, two rapes have been reported in Rajasthan, and many more voiceless victims have stifled their screams. As agents of change, citizens are responsible for ushering in a transformation.
Collective change for a better tomorrow begins at home. Stop labelling women ‘devis’, comparing them to virtuous mythological figures like Sita, Draupadi, Lakshmi, or Parvati, and denouncing their existence as normal humans. Stop sequestering them in burqas and ghoonghats (veils) against their will. Stop equating their suppression and submission to superlative cultural ethos.
Raise daughters equal to your sons. Please give them a fair full meal, because they must grow up as healthy as boys. Educate them and equip them with tools to flourish as adults. Teach your sons to respect them. Stop being custodians of their choices. Consider their opinions because they have a well-rounded mind just like the next male, capable of decision-making.
Let them manage finances because they can think beyond household chores. Let them drive cars; they may be good, they may be lousy, but that is a risk with drivers, irrespective of gender. Let them choose a life partner. Let them set up a business. Let them manage their lives. Let them break away from the shackles of religious iconography. Let them be.