One month on, public outrage at the gang rape and barbaric brutalisation of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi, causing her death, refuses to die down. Among the factors driving it are the recent crassly misogynist comments on it, and the deplorable deception of the Delhi government, which moved her against sound judgement to Singapore, and stealthily flew home her dead body and had it secretly cremated.
The episode has produced three main reactions. The first is to demand more stringent punishment for rape, such as hanging or chemical castration. The second seeks to protect women paternalistically by forcing them to dress ‘soberly’, running special buses, installing more CCTV cameras, banning cell phone use, and bizarrely in Puducherry (Pondicherry), making them wear overcoats. The third, and crassest, reaction comes from officials, politicians – especially of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Jamaat-e-Islami, but also the Congress and Samajwadi Party – and so-called spiritual leaders like Asaram Bapu.
This reaction blames the victim by accusing her of having crossed ‘red-lines’ such as not going out at night, or says the victim wouldn’t have been raped had she chanted sacred mantras or entreated the assailants to treat her like their sister (Bapu). RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat contends that rapes are alien to rural, traditional ‘Bharat’ and only occur in westernised, urban ‘India’, and that marriage is a ‘contract’ under which the wife is an obedient servant. This implicitly justifies domestic violence.
The third reaction is rooted in the same patriarchal prejudices that generate a culture of violence against women, of which rape is a part. Rape has nothing to do with sex or sexual attraction – or else, 10-month or four-year-olds, as well as 23-year-old and 82-year-old women wouldn’t be raped regardless of their looks, attire or relationship with the aggressor. It’s absurd to think that mantras or appeals to a brotherly relationship can prevent rape, and that the student who lost her life to aggravated assault invited rape: “a mistake isn’t committed by only one side” (Bapu).
Bhagwat’s Bharat-India contrast, based on a glorified notion of traditional society, is manifestly wrong. Analysis shows that 75 percent of all rape convictions in India between 1983 and 2009 were from rural India. Rape, especially of Dalit women, is a major instrument of caste oppression in village India. The third reaction obnoxiously rationalises rape. But the other two responses also fail to address the issue. Rape is about male power, aggression, violence and domination, and a desire to humiliate a woman by violating her bodily integrity.
Rape is an assertion of masculinity in a patriarchal society in which women are assigned a subordinate or inferior position. Masculinity is associated with traditionally ‘male’ traits such as boldness, manliness, bravery, muscularity, gallantry, machismo, stout-heartedness, robustness, being resolute, etc. As South Asian feminist-activist Kamla Bhasin says, “a woman is what a man is not...if men are expected to dominate and control, women must be submissive; if men are supposed to order, women have to take orders; if men are allowed to be hot-tempered, women have to be patient; and so on...if men dominate but women refuse to submit, ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’ will be disturbed.” This is Bhagwat’s marriage as ‘contract’ – an unequal peace, under which women are inferior.
Unlike sex, masculinity is not a biological characteristic of men; nor is its opposite, femininity, genetically inherited by women. Both are social-cultural traits. As feminist theorist Ann Oakley puts it, “to be a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, is as much a function of dress, gesture, occupation, social network and personality as it is of possessing a particular set of genitals.”
Most societies are patriarchal. Therefore, gender violence is universal. South Asian society is particularly patriarchal, and denies women agency and any identity other than that of a wife, mother, daughter or sister. All other women, as former Indian president Zail Singh said, are “bhog ki cheez” (objects of enjoyment). India privileges males to the extent of mass killing of female foetuses. Over the past century, 35 million women have gone missing – eliminated before birth. Discrimination against women is pervasive from cradle to grave. Girls will get less food, medical attention and access to education than boys. Most will never experience adolescence or discover their inner urges and true personalities. From girls, they suddenly become wives and mothers – and chattel slaves with no right to their own bodies.
Rape is severely under-reported in India because of the stigma attached to it, thanks to the privileging of virginity and chastity. Rape is India’s fastest-growing crime. Its reported incidence increased 873 percent between 1971 and 2011, compared to 250 percent for murder since 1953. A major reason is that more and more women are getting educated and have jobs. Girls routinely top school-leaving examinations and compete with boys in professional courses. Women’s participation in India’s workforce has risen rapidly to 25 percent. This increase, and the independent identity and greater confidence acquired by women, threaten masculinity and draw an insecurity-based violent reaction. Rape is one manifestation of this.
Gang rape is especially disgusting because it involves public acts and a ‘sharing of the spoils’ by rowdy, brutish, hyper-masculine men intent on causing limitless injury and humiliation to a woman. It’s an abiding shame that gang rapes are growing rapidly in India. Rape in India isn’t an individual issue, but a social and political pathology – a part of pervasive gender violence. A woman is molested every 12 minutes, burnt for dowry every hour, and raped every 21 minutes. The demand for draconian penalties for rape lies in the belief that these would deter it. This is a call for revenge, not justice. The rowdy mobs that roamed Indian cities demanding revenge, with slogans like “You Rape, We Chop”, reproduced the same violence as the crime itself.
Punishing rape, even gang rape, with death will not deter the crime, whose roots lie in male aggression and patriarchal violence. Apart from the numerous persuasive arguments that have been made against capital punishment – including its failure to deter, and its cruel, degrading nature – the death penalty for rape will only lead to more murders. Another knee-jerk reaction demands chemical castration of rapists. This is Taliban-style ‘justice’. But there are practical difficulties in injecting drugs that suppress the production of testosterone, which governs sexual functions including erection. Chemical castration is recommended in prostate cancer, but has serious side-effects, is easily reversible and needs monthly injections, and hence reliable follow-up.
But controlling men’s sexual urge through castration isn’t the answer: rape isn’t about sex, but about power and domination. Besides, no punishment in a civilised society can be cruel or inhuman: deploying modern science for castration is no better than Saudi Arabia’s use of sophisticated aseptic surgical techniques to chop off thieves’ hands.
As the Indian Supreme Court has said, India doesn’t need a radically new rape law – speedier implementation is enough. However, we must criminalise marital rape, as 100 countries have done, and ban the abominable two-finger vaginal test by a doctor to determine if a rape victim is habituated to sexual intercourse. This is irrelevant to the crime. We must also secure a higher rate of convictions in rape than the existing 26 percent. But that calls for better policing and painstaking collection of evidence – as well as deep reflection on the kind of society we are.
The various proposals made for protecting women through segregation, dress codes, CCTVs, etc involve branding and blaming them, while denying their independent identity. What we need is not less, but more, and healthy interaction between men and women, and boys and girls, so they can relate to each other with respect and affection and without aggression and violence. That’s the way to get rid of the scourge of masculinity and rape.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org