Our political leaders think that our social arrangements and institutions, no matter how brutal, are more important than the welfare of their citizens. And, notwithstanding their public protestations, they certainly believe that the lives of women are not worth as much as those of men. How else does one explain the endorsement by a parliamentary standing committee of the government’s decision to not treat marital rape as a sexual offence? It is important to understand the different contexts that contribute to views such as those expressed by the parliamentary committee. The kernel of the argument against treating marital rape as crime lies in the perspective that if wives were to accuse their husbands of sexual crimes, it would lead to social chaos since it would undermine the fundamental units of social cohesion, marriage and family.
The history of legal reform in India is a history of fear-mongering, where social cohesion is invoked as the grounds for keeping things as they are. Laws that pertain to redressal for historically marginalised groups — particularly women — have faced the greatest opposition. Whether inheritance, dowry, or domestic violence, it is men who have had the ear of the State, each time arguing that any change in the status quo would lead to violence against Indian civilisation itself. In effect, the defence of ‘Indian civilisation’ and values is frequently a defence of male privilege. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to women’s issues, men of all backgrounds — the powerful and marginalised — tend to think along the same lines. However, just as unsurprisingly, laws that mandate women’s right to property in equal measure to men and those that recognise domestic violence as a punishable offence have not had the effect of throwing Indian society into disarray. Social disarray is not connected to attempts to address injustice, rather, it festers in contexts where injustice remains unaddressed.
The argument for ‘timeless’ civilisational values that have stood the test of time unfolds at different levels and is reiterated in different ways. Our cinema and television thrive on the idea that there are fundamental Indian values that must be preserved and the family is the cornerstone of cinematic depictions of what is truly Indian. Ironically, screen emphasis on ‘family values’ have only grown in the light of cultural and social globalisation. That is to say, globalisation itself may not lead to a change in older ways of thinking. Rather, perceptions of threats to established ways of thinking — and established power positions — often bring about a resurgence of ideas that defend the status quo. Our cinema and television screens are full of smart-phone wielding characters who are just as devoted to Karva-Chauth.
A culture is the lived experiences of all who inhabit it, but both the parliamentary committee and our film makers insist on offering us a version preferred by a privileged few. The lived experience of culture tells us that different sections of society have different experiences of cultural norms and enjoy different levels of benefits and freedoms. But, too frequently, ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ are used as terms imbued with unquestionably positive values. It is, as if, to be part of Indian culture is an automatic source of happiness for all who live within it. That clearly isn’t the case and the true significance of being civilised is to have the ability to question the meaning of civilisation. It is in this sense that we must interrogate why we consider social organisations such as the family sacrosanct. Why is it that we continue to believe that we must put up with the most oppressive forms of social practice simply because they are part of our heritage? This only makes sense if we believe — as many organisations that have made submissions to the parliamentary committee do — that undiluted heritage is more important than human dignity and social justice. And that India culture ought not to accommodate the rights of all genders.
Another aspect of the current deliberations should also be remembered: that regarding ‘gender neutrality’ in cases of sexual assault. The exclusion of marital rape from the purview of criminal law and inclusion of ‘gender neutrality’ are both instances of misreading of cultural and social practices and attempts to appease a male constituency. Women can suffer rape within marriage and women raping men is mostly a frivolous diversion. No civilisation is truly civilised unless it is able to overcome the fear of becoming something other than what it is.
Sanjay Srivastava is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University
The views expressed by the author are personal