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Women need respect and rights, not just protection

In a semi feudal and genderised society like ours, sexuality remains central everywhere; and rape looks like an indigenous, not an exceptional phenomena.

analysis Updated: May 17, 2017 19:05 IST
Indians are fast developing callouses on the subject of rampant sexual violence against women.
Indians are fast developing callouses on the subject of rampant sexual violence against women. (Hindustan Times)

Just days after Jyoti Singh’s killers were sentenced to death by the Supreme Court, on May 11, a similar case of gang rape and murder was reported from Rohtak in Haryana. Within the same week, another 10-year-old from the same area was found repeatedly raped by her stepfather and is now five months pregnant. On May 14 (ironically on Mothers’ Day), a young girl from Sikkim living in a hostel in Delhi, was forced late night into a car and gang raped by several men and on the very same day another young girl who was kidnapped while going to her school to collect her certificates,was rescued from a farm house in Meerut where she was being held forcibly and gang raped repeatedly.

What is happening here, you ask. To what do we owe this spate in sexual crimes against women and even little girls some as young as two months old ? Why, despite the strengthening of our archaic rape laws , did it take the Supreme Court of India almost five years to confirm the death sentence for the rapists and killers of Jyoti Singh, of whom one being a minor then, is still in a remand home?

One needs to understand here how fundamental sexuality is to the basic concept of gender in Indian society. And in a semi feudal and genderised society like ours, sexuality remains central everywhere (from homes, schools and cinema screens to Parliament) to define males and females. Under this rubric, submissiveness and non assertion are female qualities while domineering and forceful behaviour is deemed proof of male power. Add to this the fact that nearly three quarters of our population is below 40 years of age, and even to a dimwit, rape begins to look like an indigenous, not an exceptional phenomena.

The relative silence over the Rohtak gang rape and murder of a young Dalit girl allegedly by a rejected suitor, surprises one after the dramatic scenes and nationwide protests that followed the Jyoti Singh case and finally led to amendments in our rape laws. The news of this equally horrific gang rape is already relegated to inside pages as the media agitates over the debacle of the AAP and the disappearance of a sofa set brought in for the UP Chief Minister.

This is proof, if any is needed, that Indians are fast developing callouses on the subject of rampant sexual violence against women. Predictably the Haryana police having constituted a special investigative team is ‘looking into the matter’, the NCW has sent a two member team to meet the victim’s family and the Haryana government has announced a fat compensation for the victim’s family, but it is obvious that despite all the publicity over stringent new anti rape laws and “kadi se kadi saza” pronouncements from the System, not much has changed on the ground for women . The power pack in civil society, the legislature, the judiciary and the executive (mostly men), still represents to women a system squarely based on gendered definitions of rape from a pre-democratic India where women’s consent and silent support for every thing from personal laws to bigamy to marital rape was routinely obtained through threats of sexual terror and physical and social abasement. So our legislators and religious heads (often one and the same) still counsel women to touch their rapists’ feet and ask them to look upon her as a sister, or opine that if the society took to farming, and /or women did not go out after dark, or use mobiles or wore short dresses or have boy friends, rapes would stop.

“Women continue to be raped daily”, writes Justice Leila Seth, one of India’s finest judicial minds and member of the celebrated Verma commission that rewrote India’s rape laws, but adds that the normal approach, remains protectionist. Protectionism says women need protection as matter of right as a citizen, but because they are weaker and more subordinate than men. Despite the major legal amendments the Verma committee report helped usher in, even today this protectionist mindset among most members of the executive, the judiciary and the public continues to reinforce and validate a sexualised hierarchy in which eroticised dominance (as in Bahubali) defines masculinity and submission eroticised (as in Baji Rao Mastani) defines feminity. The State created largely from the male point of view combines coercion with authority. It counsels and supports moral policing women and khap panchayats that say whenever they step out of their homes, girls must be accompanied by a male chaperone. True, the law does not give men the right to kidnap and rape women or throw acid on their faces if they say ‘no’, but the Rohtak case shows this does not deter male predators seriously.

Some other details reveal the kind of world Indian men and women really inhabit socially and politically. Despite the recommendation of the Verma committee, the legislature chose to leave marital rape out of the list as a punishable crime. And more recently when the courts took up the triple talaq matter,the related issues of halala and polygamy had been neatly excised. It is obvious to women that at this point the State will not contradict the socially constructed and legally validated terms of men’s entitlement and access to women, never mind how they affect the lives of millions of Indian women.

Real equality of sexes under the law can only be realised first by accepting that gender inequality is a shrewd socio-political construct of a society which determines that most victims of sexual crimes will be women and men the perpetrators . By first defining and then stigmatising the woman victim as an inferior (often loathsome) weakling, it pre-determines that female victims’ distress instead of appealing to his conscience, will arouse the perps even more . Most recently this mindset has begun to surface in the shape of graphic molestation threats from trolls . Many women victims of these feel they are set on them by political parties they have been criticising because they seem directed particularly against women journalists and liberal feminists. Be that as it may, one thing is certain. The trolls deem sexual assault as just punishment for females who according to them are acting above their station.

For all the above reasons our new rape law still deems sexual and forceful violation of a woman not a crime if the perp can successfully prove that he had not forced the woman (usually an adult girl friend or a sex worker) but had ‘obtained’ her consent prior to the act . And when the victim appeals against this, in small town male dominant thanas, hospitals and court rooms, most victims of forcible rapes are forced to realize all over again how actual consent or non consent, (far less actual desire) remain almost totally irrelevant in the eyes of the examining authorities. Say what they will, the adjudicated line between rape and intercourse still commonly centres on someone else’s assessment of the victim’s ‘will’. If you are such a good girl/woman, why did you agree to go to a pub with his friends? is a common question, leeringly asked.

Equality, it is obvious, requires genuine change and a new relation between life and law for Indian women before they can safely seek recourse and redressal in the new anti rape laws. Justice Leila Seth, in one of her last books (Talking of Justice) has quoted another equally perceptive and compassionate female judge, Justice Claire L’Heureux Dube’ of Canada :

“Equality is simply not about equal treatment...a mathematical equation waiting to be solved. It is about human dignity and a full membership in society. It is about promoting an equal sense of self-worth.”

Mrinal Pande is former chairperson, Prasar Bharti and a senior journalist.

The views expressed are personal