This we know: On September 9, a 16-year-old Dalit schoolgirl in Dabra village, Hisar was kidnapped, raped and photographed allegedly by a group of upper caste Jat boys.
This we know: The girl complains to her father. The photographs are circulated in the village. The father tries to lodge a complaint, fails, and kills himself nine days after his daughter was raped.
This we know: It takes media outrage, street processions and the threat of job suspensions by the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes before the Haryana police arrest nine of the 12 accused (one is the nephew of the INLD district chief and three are said to have links to the Congress). But even before interrogation can begin, comes news of a copycat rape: another Dalit woman, also gangraped, also filmed, also in Haryana, only this time in Jind district.
The silence in Hisar has an echo in Jind. At the time of writing, the National Commission for Women is yet to rouse itself. Leave alone a visit to Hisar, it has not even bothered with a statement laced with the mandatory clichés of outrage, shock etc.
But more than predictable statements, perhaps the time has come to change the rhetoric of rape. Rape, like murder, is a terrible, heinous crime. But that is just what it is, a crime. Take away the attendant accessories of ‘honour’, ‘humiliation’ and ‘fate worse than death’ and you take away the sting; the motivation behind the continuing rape of vulnerable women.
When Dalit women are targeted for rape by upper caste men, the message is clear: Terrorise an entire community. When the rape of a woman is tied in with a man’s honour (because she is his property), then the motive is not sexual desire — in rape it almost never is — but a desire to subdue those who you believe are beneath you. “There is a lot of tension in villages where Dalits are moving ahead in terms of education and employment,” says Asha Kowtal of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch. “You have to see the rape of this girl in the context of caste tensions in the state.”
In a culture where a woman’s honour is tied to notions of her sexual ‘purity’, rape as a weapon will continue to be used to punish her or her brothers, her father, her husband, her community. It is this culture that leads to women agreeing to marrying their rapists or committing suicide after being cast out by their families. It is this culture that led the father of the 16-year-old in Hisar to kill himself. It is this culture that leads young men with a sense of entitlement to believe they can rape and they can photograph but they will not be caught because the women they rape will be too ‘ashamed’ to complain.
These are attitudes that find resonance in the police. A sting operation by Tehelka earlier this year interviewed one officer who said no self-respecting woman would report a rape out of a sense of shame. Those who did were extortionists, he said.
The media’s subtext in reporting sexual assault is not above reproach. Even the most well-intentioned reports swing between voyeurism and syrupy sentimentality. There is an inordinate focus on urban rapes, while those in the hinterland get a cursory paragraph — if at all. Guidelines that rape survivors should not be named subscribe to the notion of stigma. A woman raped is a woman shamed, hence her identity must be protected. Photographs of course are out of the question. But accompanying visuals of helpless women huddled in fear perpetuate the stereotype of how we as a society believe survivors of rape should behave. Even the nomenclature is misplaced: a person who is raped is not a victim. She is a survivor.
Women who have been raped want justice more than sympathy. They want their rapists to be shamed, not have to bear the burden of stigma on themselves. They want rape to be treated as it is: an awful crime. A crime minus the added sting of honour.
- Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.