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It’s like imagining a world without time

As long as Indian society puts an onus on male dominance, we will constantly be at war with ourselves, writes Parvati Sharma.

india Updated: May 13, 2013 00:06 IST

Soon after the December 16 gang rape, Tehelka carried a cover story titled ‘Rape. And How Men See It.’ Predictably, a whole lot think getting raped is the woman’s fault. In the litany of ‘causes’ — revealing clothes, drinking, going out after dark — one caught my attention.

“In the olden days,” said Vijay Prasad Shetty, 57-year-old president of the Udipi Bar Association (no less), “our elders had a rule. A grown-up daughter would not be allowed in the same room as her father or her brother. We have drifted away from there. That’s why these things are happening”.

Her own father or brother.

There’s been much written lately about how we must shift the blame for sexual assault from victim to perpetrator. Yes, we must. But the fact is, across time and cultures, men (and women) have declared and admitted, explicitly and implicitly, that a man’s sexual arousal and wrath will brook no argument. Shetty (who I hope has no daughters) is only one tinny voice in a resounding wave of admonishment: if you don’t want to be raped, don’t be near a man; because who knows what’ll set him off.

But why? Why do men — not all men, but almost only men — commit sexual assault? Against anybody: women, children, other men. What possible satisfaction can they derive from it? I can’t imagine the answer. It’s like trying to imagine a world without time, or a sixth dimension.

Women feel desire, don’t they? Women get drunk and angry, experience dramatic socio-cultural changes. So why don’t women go around groping or abducting boys who make the mistake of leaving their shirts half unbuttoned?

The controversial answer is testosterone. Read Andrew Sullivan’s The He Hormone (The New York Times), where he relates how his body and mind responded to biweekly shots of testosterone. Among other things, he gained muscle-weight and lost his temper more spectacularly than he’d ever done before.

Sullivan cites Matt Ridley, a British scientist who argues that if male foetuses were injected with female hormones, “war, rape, boxing, car racing, pornography and hamburgers and beer would soon be distant memories. A feminist paradise would have arrived.”

(‘Feminist’ paradise, really? Do only feminists think boxing and beer are prices well worth paying for no war and rape?)

But anyway: the testosterone argument is both problematic and marginal. What about the more commonplace answer: patriarchy. Rape happens because we breed ‘rape cultures’.

What does that mean, though? If patriarchy enjoins the duty to protect and allows the right to rape, it seems patriarchy is as broad spectrum as an antibiotic and as unpredictable as cancer. The father and brother must protect the girl; they might also rape her.

Where’s a girl to run? And, more crucially, what are these men supposed to do? Because it seems patriarchy can be benign or virulent, but it is always hinged on an idea of male ‘strength’ — a strength that we have invoked, for centuries, through one ultimate test. War.

If a man — not every man, but any man — may potentially be a soldier, then every man grows up (in a way that every girl does not) knowing he may have to kill. One day, out of nowhere, he may be standing before another man and he will have to shoot him or slash his throat or plunge a knife into his gut.

There will be blood, and he may want to vomit. But there it is: he is a soldier, and we have cloaked him in gallantry and glory, we have taken away his empathy, and we have agreed to forget that what he does — what he is forced to do — is horrifying.

One of the things he’s forced to do is rape. (Is it coincidence that the best-known case of female sexual assault in recent years involves women soldiers in Abu Ghraib?) In fact, Gloria Steinem has argued that “many males cannot function sexually at all when faced with the pain and subjugation of another human. That’s why so many gang rapes — including those under pressure in war zones — do not involve sex at all but the use of guns and objects to penetrate female bodies.”

Add that to the litany. Don’t be around a man. He may not be able to be aroused, but he’ll still (have to) rape you.

Shall I dare suggest we disband our world’s armies? Oh, but look at those hawks fly. How can we, they thunder. Without an army, our country is like a woman unprotected on the streets.

Parvati Sharma is the Delhi-based author of The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love.

The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: May 12, 2013 23:40 IST