By Virginia Saldanha
The revelation that 110,333 cases of rape were registered in the country from 2014 to 2016, and 338,954 cases of crime against women were registered in 2016, by federal Minister Kiren Rijiju, does not come as a surprise. In fact, we should remember that these statistics are based only on reported cases and not on total incidents of rape and violence to women actually taking place.
The threat of rape and violence is a reality that Indian women live with. The threat becomes acuter in direct proportion to a woman’s social status and/or vulnerability, a poor Dalit girl/woman being the most vulnerable. Age has not been a bar for vulnerability to rape. Babies of a few months to an old woman in her 90s have been victims of rape in India.
Rape is forced sexual intercourse. Indian law amended in 2013 describes rape as penile and non-penile penetration of a woman’s orifices. So, it is clear that rape is not about anyone enjoying sex. Rape is not about sex! It is about power. Unless we address the issue of power, we will not be able to protect women/girls from rape.
Rape takes place when the perpetrator is sure of his power to force his victim to yield to him. Most rapists generally and literally ‘get away’ with their crime, because of their power to silence the victim.
The socialization of boys ensures that they grow up with a highly developed attitude of entitlement. On the other hand, women are socialized to believe that they belong to a man and that they have to be protected by a man. Masculinity for a man means being macho by displaying his male prowess. While femininity requires that women be passive and yielding.
The protection myth confuses victims of rape, especially children when the rapist is a “trusted” person. They go through great trauma to process that experience, often blaming themselves because in their minds a person supposed to protect them cannot be guilty of doing them harm. This confusion is compounded when the person occupies a significant position in the family or society like a close relative, a teacher, a religious person, or someone from a circle of close family friends.
Silencing a victim is both overt and covert. For children who do not understand the act of sexual intercourse done to them by someone whom they respect and love cannot be easily processed. They are overcome with great fear that they have done something that is wrong. A threat effectively silences even the most precocious child.
Women are silenced because they believe that they carry the responsibility for the honour of both the family and community. To report a rape crime requires a lot of courage on the part of a victim especially if the rapist is a family member, a known person or a religious person. Most often she will not be believed or even be accused of trying to defame the person she accuses. Men even resort to the age-old accusation “she tempted me”.
Religious leaders occupy a position of power and respect in India. Changing the mindsets of men especially in regard to the issue of sexual abuse of women by religious leaders is a challenge that women need to take very seriously.
The caste hierarchy is another power structure that impacts inter-caste gender relations. Upper caste men feel they are entitled to rape lower caste women. Honour killings of young people whose love transcends caste boundaries are common in some regions of India.
Young disempowered men living in urban areas, who are usually school dropouts and under/unemployed, use rape as a way to compensate for their disempowerment by showing macho power when they can find a vulnerable woman. They set out to find an opportunity to “have fun” and rape when they find a vulnerable target.
Masculinity is a metaphor for a sense of entitlement and power in contrast to a soft and passive femininity. As a constant claim to power, masculinity is always in a state of crisis as the need persistently arises to maintain its power by performance. The spiraling incidents of rape and other forms of male violence can be seen as expressions of such masculine power.
It is no wonder today that a man like Godse who claimed he killed Gandhi for “emasculating the nation with his womanly politics,” is a hero of the Hindutva forces that have a free hand under the current political dispensation. They are making violence look ‘normal’, by using rape and mob lynching as punishment for being anti-national (read anti-BJP) and anti-Hindu.
We need to raise awareness of how masculinity impacts male consciousness in order to reverse this spiral of violence and construct alternative and humane ways of being men and women in the world today. Through critiquing the present forms of violent masculine expressions, a new kind of masculinity should emerge enabling men to express their maleness in more humane ways rather than through aggression and violence.
The discourse on rape has to shift from the victim to the rapist. The rapist has to be made accountable for the violence he inflicts on a girl/woman. Victims have to be helped to become survivors. As a survivor, she has to be able to transcend the traumatic experience of rape to be able to live her life where the experience does not control her but enables her to use it as a step to bring about a transformation of social attitudes.
Men need to change the way they view women. They have to learn to respect the autonomy of women and accept them as an equal. Only when this happens can we hope to have a healthy society where women can live free from the fear of sexual assault.