There must be zero tolerance for marital rape from all quarters | opinion$Comment | Hindustan Times
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There must be zero tolerance for marital rape from all quarters

India debated divorce and inheritance rights for women during the Hindu Code bill with the same arguments used against marital rape now -- attack on religion, against our culture. This is shameful.

opinion Updated: Sep 01, 2017 13:24 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Under Indian laws, sexual intercourse by a man with his wife aged 15 years or above is not rape even if it is without her consent – a grave transgression of a woman’s rights, activists say
Under Indian laws, sexual intercourse by a man with his wife aged 15 years or above is not rape even if it is without her consent – a grave transgression of a woman’s rights, activists say(Arvind Yadav / Hindustan Times)

Violating culture. Threatening the family. Against the order of nature. Threatening our religion.

Several arguments have been deployed in India’s 70 years of independence to deny its citizens civil rights but all are stitched together by a common strand: A lazy reliance on regressive community standards as the convenient status-quo crutch.

The latest episode in the depressing saga was acted out on Tuesday before Delhi high court’s acting chief justice Gita Mittal, in the form of the government’s submission on criminalising marital rape. Under Indian laws, sexual intercourse by a man with his wife aged 15 years or above is not rape even if it is without her consent – a grave transgression of a woman’s rights, activists say.

The central government’s “concerns” in the case could be summarised under four heads: One, that criminalising rape within marriages will deal a body blow to the institution of marriage. Two, it will throw open the floodgates of misuse and send hundreds of men behind bars. Three, that the resolution of marital rape complaints would be tricky with no “lasting evidence”. And lastly, four, that such changes in law need to be accompanied by social shifts, without which there’s no meaning in “blindly aping” the west in a poor country.

Of course, none of these arguments are new. Umpteen governments and conservative groups have made similar arguments to dismiss the demand for strong anti-dowry laws, to decriminalise homosexuality, fortify sexual harassment statutes, and if we go back into history, outlawing polygamy and ensuring inheritance for women.

In each of these cases – and in the recently announced right to privacy verdict – it was argued that India wasn’t ready for reform, that it’s crumbling society was too poor and impoverished to entertain thoughts of emancipation, individual rights and progress beyond what a paternalistic government decided for them.

But such argumentation ignores some of the founding tenets of our nation.

One, that a democratically elected government cannot be obsessing about the preservation of an institution at the cost of an individual’s civil rights. Marriage has been the site of egregious violations that has been gradually reformed through the centuries – from the banning of sati to legalising widow remarriage to inheritance, divorce – to make it a more equitable institution. Marriage is a social vehicle and must transform and the government cannot be the agent to hold back women in exploitative relationships. If marriage as we know it stands on a bedrock of sexual assault and women losing autonomy over their bodies and sexuality, then it is better that we let that institution lapse.

Two, that the bogie of misuse cannot be the founding basis for any progressive legislation. For decades, the same argument has been used to hold back domestic violence law, anti-rape law and anti-sexual harassment statutes. Curiously, the low levels of conviction in such cases never tells these opponents that it still remains incredibly difficult for women to prove such charges, or that the number of false cases have never been statistically high. Or, that the countries where marital rape is criminalized – most of Europe, Australia, and even Nepal – haven’t turned into post-apocalypse zones where men are only found behind bars.

Three, that there is a public value to such a law that extends far beyond the courts. The merit of an anti-marital rape law lies in raising consciousness about a crime that is not spoken of, that women often only acknowledge in moments of extreme distress, to their peers, in private, for fear of rebuke, infamy, abuse or worse – a crime that is considered normal behavior by men “who will be men”. In a world where the threat of divorce is often far graver than death and husbands hold disproportionate power in relationships, letting men know that sexual abuse won’t be condoned by the state is a powerful statement.

Arguments against expanding rights for women are not new. India erupted in the 50s over the proposed Hindu code bill. What’s of concern is that the shade of argumentation has changed little – giving inheritance rights to women is a grave threat to Hinduism, banning polygamy is an attack on the institution of marriage, and that the state should get out of the bedroom. The government didn’t give in to the opposition then, and India’s first law minister BR Ambedkar staked his career on the bill. It is a shame that our country appears to have progressed littel in the seven decades since. One only hopes that the current government learns from its predecessors and acknowledges that women have the right to decide over their bodies. The time for this debate is past.

The author tweets @dhrubo127

The views expressed are personal