The rape question in Indian society

Sexual violence Many social theorists view rape not only as an ugly crime but as a symptom of an unhealthy society

The rape question in Indian society

New Delhi, Dec 16, 2012: In the fog-soaked neon-lit Delhi streets, a police van came across a young couple lying naked just near the pavement.

Naked and dishevelled, the boy incoherently mumbled in fear and chill that the heavily bleeding unconscious girl beside him had been gang-raped inside a bus.

Ulhasnagar (Thane near Mumbai), Dec 17: A 40-year-old woman accompanied by her husband and son was groped and molested in a busy bazaar street by two persons. On being confronted, the molesters thrashed the woman's husband and son.
Chandel (Manipur), Dec 18: A Manipuri actress while hosting an event, was molested and assaulted allegedly by a Naga militant, in front of security forces.

Kasargod (Kerala), Dec 24: Four men whisked off an orphan girl and gang-raped her in a vehicle before dumping her at Kumble Railway Station. An autorickshaw driver, on pretext of providing help, took her to an isolated place and along with his friends ravaged her. Police found the unconscious girl lying on a road and admitted her to a hospital.

These cases from the four points of Indian sub-continent are bound by an intangible thread woven in unconscious collective memories of a misogynist past.

The case lists of sexual assaults-verbal, physical and visual-on the ‘Second Sex’ that just
adds to statistics, filling tomes and tomes in the court of law, rarely touches or even scratches the veneer hiding the brutal and hideous face of societal structures that covertly want women to remain subjugated and men to be rulers.

To reduce any social phenomenon to one cause is erroneous; it is always the inter-play of various factors, including social histories and traditions described in epics or scriptures of the past that shapes a social perspective.

Western literary classics like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey treat women as objects and so do several Indian epics.

Mythology as prelude

Without going into the debate of interpolations, a reading of 'Mahabharata’ makes it amply clear how men in the great epic, ‘molested and raped women,’ under a beautiful pretext. Take a look at these episodes:

*  Bhishma treating Amba, Ambika and Ambalika as commodities shifting them here and there as per his convenience and desire.
*  Ambika and Ambalika give their bodies to Vyas but not their hearts. They can’t go beyond the social commands of higher authority. But Ambalika, during the second visit of Vyas, sends her maid in her place.
n  Kunti has three sons out of wedlock to prove Pandu’s virility; is it forced or consented? *he has no right to raise the question because asking the same will be against the social system.

These episodes vividly show that the acts were seeped in unwillingness/non-consented
sexual union (which may be called rape by definition of Indian laws).

Suppression, sacrifice, obedience and kindness are the lessons drilled into the psyche of womenfolk in India. The sanctification and inviolability of marriages and ideals of perfect chastity of women etc., are all written in Vedas/ Upanishads and the constitution of the country.

However, the hidden laws, customary laws (particularly in North-East India), Panchayati laws (Khaps of Haryana and Punjab) are the laws that operate and influence daily lives of people in different parts of the country. These subterranean practices cannot be done away easily as visualised by the national policy and lawmakers.

In Islamic laws, marriage is a contract; it is nothing short of buying and selling a commodity. Men are the buyers and women are the commodities.

Thus, the recent reports of gang rape in Delhi or gang-rape of two Mizo girls or molestation of Manipuri film actress by NSCN (IM) cadre in Manipur are clear manifestations of the century old social histories, customary laws of the country and an economic system that dehumanises human body for marketing purposes.

Act(s) of rape and molestation, be it Delhi or Chandel (Manipur,) cannot be looked at in isolation; nor do these chilling acts have anything to do with Sheila Dixit (good/bad) governance or Ibobi’s (lack of) governance.

They are living legacies of our patriarchal and masculinity-adulatory social texts and customary laws juxtaposed with mass media hammering the same anti-woman norms through bombardment of visuals treating every part of female anatomy as a tantalising product.

This treatment of women as commodity is precisely what disturbs the thinking section of people (mostly women) as this is one of the key causes that has made the modern times for females no different from ancient times.

Death sentence, castration, life imprisonment and other similar demands being made by women protestors at this stage are nothing but knee-jerk reactions of an outraged female populace that has always been at the receiving end since time immemorial.

Those wanting to convert the country into a police or military state forget that the numbers of rapes and molestation committed by armed forces in Kashmir, North East and tribal areas might chill their bones and numb their minds.

Amendments to laws and judicial systems may be of very little benefit to the victims. Rather they serve as adrenaline to the culprits as the punishment and penalty meted out to the guilty are disproportionate to the crime committed.

The atrocity on woman is not just confined to rape or molestation in isolation; instances of harassment at workplace, home, academic institutions are indicators that even the most urbane areas are seeped in values which are discriminatory and exploitative in nature.

Family as a unit

The need of the hour is not draconian laws but a rethinking process starting from the family as a unit itself. Setting an agenda of this kind would definitely go a long way in reforming/restructuring our male chauvinistic and misogynist social institutions.

To say that rape is a crime against women is to state the obvious; a stark fact that has been known all along. Again to say that sexual assault is the most violent act of masculine authority over female body is to re-state what has been stated all along.

What has not been stated but needs to be said is the encouragement (read sanction) of male (read society) treatment of woman as ‘sexual object’, ‘commodity’ by our social system. Covert or otherwise.

(The writer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at Imphal College, Manipur University.)

As the December 16 gang-rape of a 23-year-old paramedical student in the country’s capital finds tragic closure in her painful death after nearly two weeks of struggle, Sunday Spotlight seeks answers for this symptom of a deeper malaise in society. 

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