As a proud feminist who doesn’t flinch when quizzed about her gender politics, I have never understood why so many women are sometimes defensive about their isms. Multiple ifs and buts from women themselves have contorted feminism into some sort of F-word.
My own response is to embrace the label with pride. I accept it means different things to different women; but its essence is easy to define. What’s not to agree with in asking for equality at work and home, safe public spaces, reproductive rights, protection against sexual violence and the freedom to just be? But, as someone who has always responded with alacrity and assent quickly saying “Yes I am” to that probing and slightly hostile question “Are you a feminist?”, this week I find myself deeply uncomfortable with a raging public debate, all in the name of gender.
Mythriya Gowda, a Kannada actress, has alleged that she was secretly married to Union railway minister Sadananda Gowda’s son Karthik — a ceremony she says was witnessed by his driver — while he sought to get engaged to another woman. She says their sexual relationship was predicated on the promise of marriage. Let’s assume this is all true. It may make for a tawdry scandal, but what in the world is it doing at the front-end of our news bulletins on TV? What’s made the case sensational is that the actress has accused Gowda’s son of rape and cheating. The police have shown unusual efficiency in filing a case and the Congress has jumped all over it.
The political dimension of the debate is of no interest to me. Let the BJP and the Congress squabble till the cows come home. What concerns me is the real danger of trivialising sexual violence. Unless there are details that are still to emerge which will show that the accused used actual coercion to elicit sex, accusing a man who didn’t marry you as promised or who married you and then left you for another woman may be many things, but it is not rape. And to treat it as a case of rape is to undermine the real battles that survivors of sexual assault have to wage.
What’s begun to worry me as a feminist is that the tough new rape law (I was among the many women who championed its cause in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape) is still not of help to the millions of women who really need it and is open to gross misuse by the women who don’t. This doesn’t mean that I don’t stand by the law; I absolutely do.
But in this particular case what is truly bizarre is the desire of the woman to remain married to the man she says raped her. Speaking to the media, Mythriya said, “I want the family to take me as their daughter-in-law. I will be a very good daughter to them.” In other words, all will be forgiven and forgotten, rape included, if the relationship continues. Is this feminism or blackmail?
I don’t know Karthik Gowda or his father. Their fates — political or otherwise — are inconsequential. Maybe the son is a liar in his personal life; maybe he did promise marriage and then changed his mind; maybe he even got married and then made a surreptitious exit. But, do we really want the State to police people’s personal choices and steer our relationships? Do we call Dharmendra a terrible man because he chose to marry Hema Malini while he was still married to someone else? More to the point, do we want to punish him for it whether we approve or not? Do we not accept the unconventional choice made by Kuchipudi dancer Raja Reddy, who has two wives, who are sisters, even if we may never choose the same for ourselves? Does DMK chief Karunanidhi not have wide political, social and electoral acceptability, despite his three wives?
Let us not conflate debates around personal morality — something that is constantly changing with evolving social mores — with issues of sexual violence. In 2007, Supreme Court judge Arijit Pasayat ruled that consensual sex with the promise to marry will not constitute rape unless it could be proved that the woman’s consent was obtained through coercion or threats. Moreover, the weakest link in the Gowda case is the woman’s desire to remain married to an alleged rapist.
I watched the sordid drama of this story unfold on TV with a nurse who tends to my ageing uncle at home. She had just finished telling me about her alcoholic husband, who regularly thrashed her and spat on her, and who had on more than one occasion stripped down to the skin to try and force himself on her daughter-in-law. The nurse, who has just adopted her grand-daughter as her own daughter — the son refused to keep another girl child at home — told me that even this eight-year-old child was not safe around him. She had finally mustered up the courage to go the police and court but both strangely encouraged her to stay with the man and just accept his violence.
It is to get justice for such women that we must be careful never to be frivolous when we debate rape. Mythriya Gowda may have been “ditched” by her lover/husband. That is not the same as claiming she was sexually abused. In a country where our MPs have refused to recognise the reality of marital rape, women will be doing other women a serious disservice if they summon the police into the bedroom every time an adult, consenting relationship collapses. Rape is the most abhorrent of all crimes, because there can be no rationalisation for it ever. It is incumbent upon us to never undermine the seriousness of its horror.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal