One more woman died last month because she dared to say ‘no’ to a man who was not used to handling rejection. In Haryana, a 20-year-old student was shot and killed outside her college by a man whose overtures for ‘friendship’ had been rejected by the girl. The chilling incident was caught on CCTV camera. This comes close on the heels of another incident where a woman in Andhra Pradesh was burnt alive by a man for breaking up her relationship with him. In yet another incident, a young actor was brutally stabbed by a man on a busy Mumbai street, allegedly for refusing to accept his marriage proposal.
Three horrifying episodes -- all in one month – reported from different parts of the country. Many more have likely gone unreported and unrecorded. These are not merely isolated instances of crimes against women -- they are about a sense of sexual entitlement, a culture of toxic masculinity, nurtured, protected and normalised by patriarchal belief systems that allow men to think it is their right to silence and annihilate women who dare to refuse their ‘love’.
From being sexually assaulted, doused with acid, to being set on fire, ‘rejection violence’ -- where women face the consequences for saying ‘no’ to men -- has become a revoltingly familiar phenomenon in India. We have time and again expressed our outrage against such violence, sought to bring in stricter legislations and rallied for better support mechanisms for survivors of such violence. Yet, women continue to be subjected to violence with impunity for asserting their right to say ‘no’.
It is a form of dehumanisation of women -- a refusal to consider women as equal human beings with the right to make their own choices. Women’s rejection is viewed not only as an insult to the male ego but as an indefensible attack on the very essence of being a ‘real man’. The notions of 'control' and ‘domination’ are integral to such constructions of masculinity while women are expected to be docile, pliant and submissive. Any transgressions from these unsaid/unwritten but deep-rooted norms warrant violence -- lessons must be taught, manhood reclaimed.
While we may condemn such violence, we still continue to make excuses for entitled interactions that might be considered less extreme but are still harmful. The scene from a popular Bollywood film comes to mind where one of the three male protagonists had gone to ‘meet’ a girl on his mother’s insistence with the intention of ‘rejecting’ the girl but gets rejected instead. Much laughter ensues from his friends. Harmless banter? Both on screen and in real life, the notion of being rejected by a girl is rooted in gendered power hierarchies. Some get over it and move on, others are encouraged by social conditioning to weaponise rejection and seek retribution.
As reported by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in 2018, 228 incidents of acid attacks were recorded across the country against 240 victims. However, despite being recognised as a specific crime under the Indian Penal Code by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013, whereby a person convicted for acid attack can be sentenced to imprisonment for 10 years or life, a majority of the acid attack cases (94.3%) are still pending in courts. This creates not only a sense of despair and dejection for the survivors, but also abets a culture of impunity with which such crimes against women are carried out.
Further, rejection violence is not limited to street harassment or attacks carried out in public places alone but are widely prevalent in intimate relationships within private spaces. In a study conducted in 2011, the International Centre for Research on Women documented that one in five Indian men admitted to having forced sexual relations with their wives. The National Family Health Survey (2015-2016) records that the most common form of reported sexual violence faced by ever-married women between the ages of 15 and 49 years was the use of physical force by the husband for sexual intercourse against the will of his wife.
India is one of 36 countries in the world (including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan) where it is legal for a husband to rape his wife. Forcing sexual intercourse on a woman against her will – the inability to accept her right to say ‘no’ -- when legitimised by legal systems, not only reinforces and sanctions a violent and toxic masculinity where women are mere ‘property’ of men, but actively encourages it. The often-cited argument for refusing to criminalise marital rape is that it will destabilise the sanctity of marriage. Does not rape itself destabilise the sanctity of marriage?
It is quite ironic that while we are increasingly invested in ‘saving’ women from falling in love with the ‘wrong’ man (read ‘Love Jihad’), we are quite accepting of a culture that allows men to express their ‘love’ in violent ways. It is high time that we channelised our ‘collective conscience’ and energies away from treating women as mere pawns in male-dominated social institutions, controlling and dictating their agency and choices. Instead, we must focus on educating our current and future generations not to define their self-worth by artificial and unrealistic standards of masculinity and femininity. Strengthening our legal/judicial processes is imperative, but at the same time we must recognise, call out and challenge everyday sexism and misogyny in public as well as private spaces that sustain and encourage regressive gender norms thereby legitimising violence.
(The writer teaches at the Jindal Global Law School, O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat)