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Thu24Apr2014

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Why the to-do over this particular rape?

What makes rape an exceptional form of violence against women which has the potential to elicit such outrage that other kinds of violence, sexual or otherwise, don’t, asks Oishik Sircar

The Times of India joins the media spectacle that’s surrounding the Delhi rape case

Rape, Rape, Rape, Rape/
Rape Hai Wonderful, Kar Sak Te Ho… It’s totally cool/
Rape, Rape, Rape, Rape/
Rape Hai Must in Every Season/
Karo Rape For Every Reason/
Jiyo Ge Tum Fit And Fine/
Agar Karoge Rape till 99/
Rape, Rape, Rape, Rape/
Wonderful Rape…

I couldn’t help but give a perverse twist to the lovely Amul Milk advertisement jingle from many years back on reading the hilarious and diarrheic comments on social media about the recent brutal gang ‘rape’ of a woman on a Delhi bus, and of course because of how farcical our outrage has become, responding with vastly disproportionate vigour every time, all too often, when something like this happens. Sitting far away in a comfortable armchair in Melbourne I was spared the circus that I’m sure our 24/7 media channels are carrying out: they must still be ‘breaking’ news about everything that’s been happening since the incident took place. Rape has been turned into a spectacle for delicious consumption on primetime television and for all time on Facebook (unfortunately, I don’t live tweet).

The initial comments were from several Delhi-wallahs defending their beloved city from being, yet again, labelled ‘the rape capital’ of India. Gradually this defence turned into a faceoff between Delhi and Bombay-wallahs, the latter saying that Bombay is far safer for women. Whatever happened to our memories of the Marine Drive rape in 2005 by police constable Sunil More and earlier this year the rape and murder of Pallavi Purkayastha? Pity, the Kolkata-wallahs, after the kind of sexual violence its women experienced in public spaces in the past year (notably the Park Street case), couldn’t join this ‘my city best’ debate. Those in Dantewada or Kupwara couldn’t even think of joining the debate – not only because they might not have had access to Facebook, but also because if they joined in, Delhi would have lost the competition hands down. How could they let that happen to India’s capital city?

Then came those expressing their outrage at the incident. What should be done to the perpetrators: castrate them, hang them, stone them to death, said an overwhelming collective of very angry voices from across the country. These were primarily men, and those who would randomly send me ‘Glassdoor’ invitations every day! The beauties of retribution were on gallant masculinist display. Several men among this lot, were concerned about how their own species could violate “the sanctity of women”. When these hysterical responses of outrage were becoming too ‘filmy’, arrived the voices of liberal rationality: the ones who questioned the city’s law and order situation, demanded accountability from the police, faster prosecution, reform in laws and the like. Some of them even expressed their love for Delhi and why it is because of this love that they would stay in the city and work towards changing it.

Then there were the radical rationals: who called for protest marches at India Gate and ITO, wanted to gherao the chief minister’s and police commissioner’s houses, and said that the death penalty will not work in curbing rape, and that we need to learn from history that it is not retribution, but the surety of prosecution that will allow the law to play any meaningful role in deterring sex crimes. The feminists in this category pointed at why law reform might not be the only way to stop rape. Some from the radical-rational breed who are not in Delhi (but share a love for the city having lived there earlier) cheerfully asked on Facebook the day after: “How was the protest?” Didn’t get an immediate answer, and asked again with heightened anxiety: “How was it?” Which sounded uncannily like “How was the party? Damn, I missed it!”

In the cacophony of such charmingly varied responses (a testimony to India’s diversity?), there were also the critical-dissident types. It seems they made a purposeful late entry into the virtual universe of free ideas that Facebook is – because they were seriously assessing what was going on before making a comment that might sound like drivel. So the critical-dissidents said: why so much hoo-haa about this rape? Simply because it happened in the capital city? In a public bus? Because the woman was of a certain class? Where were these voices of outrage when Soni Sori or Manorama Devi was raped? Since the rapists were upper-caste there’s a need to interrogate brahminical patriarchy, said another. The feminists among the critical-dissidents raised questions about why there would never be anything even close to an outrage when violence against women of all kinds happened at the hands of family members, within the revered institution of marriage; after all, despite several years of activism for rape law reform marital rape still remains exempt from criminalisation. The communists were concerned that the consequences of this incident would unfairly target poor migrant workers in the city. Recent Delhi Police advertisements across the city have already singled out “cooks, drivers, maids, watchmen, nannies” as suspect populations who can be potential criminals.

Lest I sound frivolous (I am after all concerned about my reputation, albeit overrated, as someone who takes things like this seriously), let me contribute my two bits to the encyclopaedic amount of writing on this incident that is already happening in newspapers, websites, blogs and of course social media. My immediate response to the incident when I read about it was not outrage, but bewilderment. No doubt, the Delhi incident was horrific and a cruel reminder that sexual violence continues to be the most frequently used tool in the hands of men for dominating women and maintaining gender hierarchy anywhere in the world. Even if this sounds pathetically universalist and didactic, it’s true. There are statistics, statistics and more statistics to prove this beyond an iota of a doubt – and every year they are getting added to the figures brought out by the National Crime Records Bureau. But why rape? Why now? Just because of this incident? What prompted this spectacular media and ‘civil society’ response? Was this the collective outrage of all the rapes that have happened in different parts of India through the year? Was this the year-end violence against women protest gala? What increases this particular incident’s outrage quotient? I am no one to diminish the importance of the angry responses – in fact, if I were in Delhi, I would’ve possibly been part of one of the protests.

But what continues to bewilder me is what makes rape an exceptional form of violence against women which has the potential to elicit such outrage that other kinds of violence, sexual or otherwise, don’t? And why is it that even after all the postmodern feminist evolutions that we have passed through, penetration of that thing between a woman’s legs (by the way, it’s called the vagina) by the penis (and it’s not a weapon biologically meant for raping) continues to be ranked as the most egregious of all forms of sexual violence?

The law (until the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2012 comes into force) does not put other forms of objects penetrating the vagina, or the penetration of other orifices on the body, at par with rape. This is also why forced anal penetration of men (or hijras) will never be considered rape legally, or attract outrage of this scale. Societally and legally rape does not exist inside marriage (and this will continue to be the case even after the amendments come through), and outside it rape exists under the exceptional circumstance of peno-vaginal penetration only. And it is peno-vaginal penetration outside the hallowed borders of marriage that is a matter of concern for the law as well as society (family, community, and nation). The law is interested in protecting the institution of marriage from outside contamination (by criminalising adultery) and internal disruption (by exempting marital rape), and society is interested in protecting the virginity of unmarried women by calling any sexual transaction rape if it upsets the structures of class, caste and patriarchy. The issues of force and choice of the woman (and the man) in question become inconsequential if these objectives are being met.   

But the undisputed position of superiority that rape holds in the hierarchy of sexual violence against women has another story to tell. Part of this story is about the use of the very term ‘rape’ and the other part is about the reduction of women to the status of reproductive property. The demand for re-naming rape and a range of other penetrative sexual offences against women under the umbrella category of ‘sexual assault’ (as it is in the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2012) began with the recognition of the fact that the term ‘rape’ connotes a meaning that is so much more than mere sexual violence. The etymology of the term can be traced to the Latin verb rapere: to seize, take by force, or to plunder. And the subject of a plunder is always property. Thus, the state through its rape law reduced women to the status of men’s property (as their wives, daughters or keeps) and protected it for them from plunder or insemination by other men. It’s not a surprise that marital rape continues to be an exception under Indian criminal law since the law is not able to fathom how the owner can plunder his own property. Rape is made to exist in the legal and social consciousness because that is the only way patriarchy can have total control over women’s reproductive sexuality. Which is exactly why one of the most common forms of retribution directed at lesbian women or sex workers is rape; and for the same reason rape is also used during armed conflicts or communal pogroms – either against the women to shame a community or against the men to make them feel emasculated.  

The understanding of property also extends to constructing women as the property of communities and the nation. So when Neelofar and Aasiya Jaan were raped and murdered by the CRPF jawans in Shopian; or when police officer Ankit Garg watched as junior police personnel stripped Soni Sori naked, administered electric shocks, assaulted her, and then inserted stones into her vagina and anus; or when Manorama Devi was abducted by para-military forces and then raped and found dead with a bullet through her vagina; or when a pregnant Bilkis Bano was gangraped by a Hindutva mob in Gujarat; or when Tapasi Mallik was raped and burnt alive in Singur – none of them were considered the nation’s property (or full and equal citizens – to make a liberal argument) and worthy of the nation’s outrage. For every case of rape that has happened in big cities over this year – Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Bombay – irrespective of the identity of the woman who was raped, it was the husbands, brothers, lovers, families, castes, religions, corporations, institutions of the women who were their property, that prompted the outrage. It was the fear that ‘our’ women use the same roads, the same public transport, go to the same colleges and offices, drink in the same bars, and party in the same discos, and that they need to be protected. And that’s what we end up demanding at protests – protection for women who we consider to be ‘our’ property. Our expression of anger is actually a cover for the fear that ‘our’ women are under threat. That threat is not just about the fact that ‘our’ women will be beaten, or sexually harassed – but specifically that they will get raped. Some stranger’s penis will forcibly enter her vagina, invade her sanctified body, impregnate her outside of marriage, contaminate her purity. Sexual harassment or domestic violence can be bad, but the fear of rape is a direct threat to ‘our’ property being trespassed and its re/productive promise being compromised. And that is why we protest and demand protection. We want ‘our’ property in women to be protected. We turn their bodies into empty vessels that are a repository for ‘our’ money, ‘our’ honour and ‘our’ right over their reproductive labour and produce. The importance of protecting your own property is a lesson that we learn and teach with enthusiasm and aplomb – be it money, art or women.

A woman’s body, especially her vagina, is no sacred temple. Rape does not turn her into a zinda laash. Rape is violence and needs to be condemned for that reason and not for any romanticised understanding of izzat and aabroo. But we seldom strip rape of its exceptionalism, of its eroticism and most importantly of its intimate connection with retaining control over material property and the re/productive property that we turn women’s bodies into. We’ve turned the Delhi rape into an extraordinary event, whereas in reality it isn’t. What should outrage us is that rape has become comfortably routine. Our answer to that is not to treat it exceptionally, but to understand it as part of a perverse, insidious, scary continuum of misogyny that we have enthusiastically fed and bred in our own backyards. Doing this is so much more difficult than trendy statements that demand bloodthirsty retribution.

Even before I could feel any outrage at what happened in Delhi, I was having a very difficult time figuring out what my critical, post-ideological comment on Facebook should be. A comment that will have the right people ‘liking’ it, and will provoke a string of engaged comments. Everything had been said, and whatever I had to say would sound like cheap repetitions, lacking any creativity. After all, what I write on Facebook determines everything about my beliefs, commitment, actions, politics, affiliations, and is a voyeuristic window into who I am ‘friends’ with, and the organic coffee shops and organised protests that I attend. I felt utterly inadequate for not being able to come up with a comment. My privatised feeling of outrage will never be enough until I broadcast it on Facebook. And it was then that the Amul Milk jingle parody came to mind – and it was pretty apt as a quirky and timely Facebook post with some guaranteed ‘likes’ to buoy my distant bleeding heart and make me feel that I am part of a shared national outrage. But as luck would have it, I had a deadline for this column and decided to use it here instead. Because by the time the next rape happens, and the time for my next column comes, we would have possibly exhausted all our creative energy and selective memory to protest like this, and I’ll have to try hard to come up with what to write. And just in case the rape happens in villages and towns that do not occupy the imaginary map of elite India, we’ll be discussing more important things on Facebook, like celebrating Modi’s win in Gujarat, or even the weather. By the way, it’s summer in Australia.

Oishik Sircar is an academic presently based in Melbourne. Thanks to Debolina Dutta for the provocation to write this.

Infochange News & Features, December 2012