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Dark, silent night

The Indian family hides terrible secrets. Unless we reveal them in the cold light of day, India’s misogyny will never end. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Jan 02, 2013 23:17 IST

As 2013 begins, a great anger is evident across the land, born from the unspeakable horror of the gang rape that has led us to speak up.

We speak of many things: the ordinariness of the 23-year-old everygirl; her determination; the chord she struck with aspirational, emerging India. We speak not just of the blander word ‘rape’, but an iron rod that was forced into her body, wrenching out her intestines.

Many targets of India’s rage and anguish are legitimate. Some are dubious. The important thing is that we speak now of things we did not before.

We speak — with dubious justification — of hanging or castrating rapists. We speak of the absurdity of demanding change from our elected representatives when every party has backed candidates involved with rapes and ignored legislation against sexual harassment and attack. We speak of the urgent need for police reforms, stalled since the Dharmaveera Commission first proposed them 32 years ago. We speak of the sexualisation of Bollywood and — misdirected — campaigns against public figures, such as Punjabi rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh.

What we do not speak of is the issue that is at the crux of our dysfunction — the Indian family’s moral decline. Deep hypocrisies lie under this family’s mask; terrible secrets hide behind its culture of religiosity and community spirit. Self-loathing, shame and the fear of being blamed and forever stigmatised prevent millions of girls from speaking out against the sexual abuse they face from predators among friends and family. This is India’s real war against women, its dark, silent night, which perpetuates private atrocities and primes men for their public outrages.

As this column has pointed out before, National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2011 tells us that 94.2% of all rapists are known to the victim, meaning they are friends, family or neighbours. That trend continues. In 2012, only 25 of Delhi’s 662 reported rapes were inflicted by strangers, according to police data quoted by The Indian Express. Of 45,600 alleged rapists currently facing trial across India, more than 80% were known to the victim, Express reports.
That men try to force themselves on the most vulnerable is evident if you slice the Delhi data: Nearly 60% of females raped were between two and 18 years old.

The Indian male is granted primacy since birth (sorry, make that before birth, given that more than 1,000 girls are aborted every day). He rarely cooks or cleans, believes a woman’s place is in the kitchen and that he is entitled to beat or otherwise abuse her. It is no surprise then that 57% of Indian teenage boys between 15 and 19 — and 53% of girls — believe it is alright for a man to beat his wife, according to the Unicef’s ‘Global Report Card on Adolescents 2012’.

It follows that boys brought up in a culture of impunity and male entitlement, when it comes to having their way with women, are emboldened to practice their perversions in public.

The Indian family’s loss of moral moorings is only rarely discussed. I refer you to a 2010 court judgement I have quoted from before. After the trial of a mother — herself a child bride — who strangled her daughter in a Delhi hospital, Justices Pradeep Nandrajog and Suresh Kair said, “The moral regression of the people of India, ie Bharat, has not been crippled by the (sic) penal laws.”

Those laws do not operate in families where women are so oppressed that they themselves turn oppressors. The vast majority of Indian women are brought up in subservience, and they in turn ensure their daughters remain subservient and aware of their secondary role in life. When their own men turn sexual predators, many mothers tend to ignore or somehow justify such predation. Religious leaders perpetuate attitudes to women and even justify sexual violence, using as spiritual backing everything from the Ramayana to the Koran. Popular culture would rather not talk about it.

So, we shifted uneasily in our seats when a character in Monsoon Wedding darkens the 2001 film’s otherwise effervescent mood by revealing an uncle’s sexual predation. As with real life, eventually the band strikes up and the issue dissolves into the uneasy silence of night. One of the most detailed, depressing real-life accounts of familial rape is available in Sonia Faleiro’s book, Beautiful Thing, where the main character is shushed by her mother whenever she refers to being habitually raped by her father. Consequently, very few accounts of sexual abuse within families become public. The data make clear that this — not the government’s apathies — is the overwhelming cause of rapes. Although the figures are massively under-reported, it is easy to find gruesome accounts of rapes by family and friends tucked away in the corners of newspapers. The most poignant came last week when a minor sexually attacked by a Delhi bus conductor revealed to police that she had run away from home because her 19-year-old brother had raped her.

The justice system offers little or no protection. Indian law allows marital rape. Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code says: “Sexual intercourse by man with his own wife, the wife not being under 15 years of age, is not rape.” The law could not be more ridiculous when the legal age for marriage is 18 — and yet we do not speak about it.

In time, public rage will dissipate (by the end of this week, I predict). The passions aroused may make us more sensitive and hasten some trials. But unless the Indian family realises its moral decline and shines a light on its silent night, India itself will never change.

Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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