Welcome (Back) to India’s Rape Culture
Serving up some chai to go with that misogyny
Trigger Warning: non-graphic discussion on sexual violence, victim blaming, rape.
It’s difficult to figure out where to begin writing an article that effectively encompasses the most recent and horrific gang-rapes that occurred in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh this September, and link it back to an inherent rape culture without feeling like you’re screaming expletives into the void.
On September 14, 2020 in the Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh, a young woman was allegedly gang-raped by four men, and battled for her life for two weeks before succumbing to her injuries on September 29. Her body reached her hometown in the early hours that morning, where policemen chose to cremate her without the consent or presence of her family.
According to Hindu customs, last rites can only be performed after sunrise. The district’s Joint Magistrate stated they did the cremation to “maintain law and order” as the area would later “be jammed with activists and people of different political parties”.
Furthermore, it is impossible to separate the crime from caste — a Dalit woman assaulted by four Kshatriya (subcaste: Thakur) men. The Indian caste system is a class structure determined by birth, and also a marker of an individual’s physical “purity” or “ pollution” level, though we aren’t getting too much into that aspect here.
But the authorities say that the woman wasn’t raped, and died because of trauma from her neck injury.
So how do we define sexual assault?
This senior police officer’s statement isn’t true. He says that the “report clearly says that sperm was not found in the samples … so she has not been raped.”
But is this a good criteria to define it?
First, such a definition doesn’t take in account rapes on men by women. Second, the sample was taken days after the incident, and experts say sperm would no longer be present (or the perpetrators used condoms). Third, the victim herself said she was raped. How can you outright deny something in the face of such stark evidence?
Under India’s 2013 Criminal Amendment Act, penetration of penis-in-vagina as in conventional intercourse isn’t necessary to constitute rape, and neither is the presence of semen. Insertion of any object into the anus, vagina or urethra (of women) also constitutes rape. In the Indian Penal Code (Section 375), it’s clear that the absence of physical injuries is immaterial to deciding consent, and aggravated rape charges are between 10 years to a life term + a fine.
All things considered, there is clearly a problem with how sexual assaults and rapes are treated in the country, especially immediate assumptions that are made regarding the allegations. As a woman who interviewed 100 convicted rapists says:
“Everyone’s out to make it look like there’s something inherently wrong with [rapists]. But they are a part of our own society. They are not aliens who’ve been brought in from another world.”
What is rape culture?
Coined by American feminists in the 1970s, rape culture is a sociological phenomena where rape, male sexual aggression, and violence against women is normalised and pervasive because of society’s attitudes towards it. This includes seeing violence as sexy (Netflix’s 365 Days, anyone?), and where a woman’s “no” actually means a coy “yes”.
Victim blaming is all too common, but isn’t always obvious.
It takes many forms.
It’s when a mother doesn’t immediately tell the police her daughter is bleeding vaginally, because she’s afraid it’ll destroy her dignity. It’s when police refuse to file a report immediately because “she’s just being dramatic” or “why was she out at that hour at night”. It’s when doctors don’t treat a rape case as a priority, or include inconsequential information about the victim’s hymen in their forensic report. It’s when a community’s residents say things like:
- “Taali ek haath se nahi bajti hai.” (You can’t clap with one hand)
- “Girls should be married by 16 so they don’t need to go elsewhere for their sexual needs; then rapes won’t occur.”
- “Once a girl is 14–15 [years of age], you can’t call it rape [after that].”
- “When girls wear jeans and pants, boys get attracted to them.”
Everything can be blamed for rape. Except the rapists themselves.
One of the reasons for this is the concept of honour.
A family’s honour, in essence, lies in the woman’s vagina (and her body by extension). It’s basically a cheat code to control women. If a boy gets up to mischief, he gets scolded. When a girl does, it brings disrepute on the entire family. It’s never really about women. It’s about the power men get out of ruining the “honour” of the family, or caste, or town— which lies in a woman’s body.
This normalisation of rape into a “culture” means using women’s bodies as battlegrounds to establish male dominance.
Sounds a little extreme, doesn’t it?
But this is a phenomena that’s occurred throughout the world, and in almost every time period. The most definitive examples come from times of war: South Sudan’s civil war in 2014, Congo’s First and Second war, the Vietnam war, “rape camps” during the Bosnian war, Boko Haram and ISIS’s sale of women as sex slaves in Iraq, Syria, and Nigeria, and thousands of more cases.
There is no morality or virtue in war, and rape during wartime is as old as war itself. It is more effective than death; you die a little everyday when you appear in society “like someone who is cursed”.
Sexual assault on Dalit women is common practice as a way to undermine the “manhood of the caste”. It’s seen as a failure of lower caste men to control the sexuality of their women (Rege, 1998).
The supposedly intimate nature of sex (and sexual assault) means these cases go undocumented, conveniently sanitised from our history books, glossed over - and womens’ lifelong trauma is reduced to statistics people can shrug over and say “well, what can you do?”
Like in the Hathras gang-rape case, Indian politicians play the blame game instead. The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, in a series of tweets said that the Prime Minister urged the “strictest action” and a special investigative team has been formed to take on the case.
But a quick look into his previous comments on women can show us how sincere he plans on being with his efforts. With a history of anti-Muslim sentiment and a penchant for extrajudicial solutions to crimes, Adityanath has said that “women should always be protected … a woman doesn’t need independence, but needs to be protected and channelised” to make her more powerful and give birth to great men.
This objectification of women isn’t a recent development.
In most genres of representation, women are visible, but as objects of admiration, attention, or worship. The 15th-19th century European tradition of nude paintings — the nude woman was an object for the privileged gaze of aristocratic and wealthy male patrons and his friends. Women had become objects to be possessed and exchanged in social relations of competition and competition between men (Uberoi, 1990).
Echoes of the brutal 2012 Delhi gang-rape case.
Eight years ago, India was in a similar situation with the Delhi “Nirbhaya” gang-rape case — following which the woman passed away due to extensive sustained injuries.
The 2013 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act introduced reforms to Indian laws on rape soon after, such as:
- Expanding the definition of rape,
- Making punishments on rape crimes more strict, and
- Improving the standard of consent — lack of physical resistance is no longer considered consent.
Although it looks like these laws have been of no help in bringing down crime against women since then, it might be best to ask: whether women are being re-victimised during the judicial process. And if the higher number of crimes reported means more women are able to come forward and anticipate genuine redressal.
However, as India faces what is called a continuous “rape epidemic”, action against suspects (or the victims in the form of “honour killings”) is more often by vigilantes or police officers acting extrajudicially in killings that are widely praised, but highlight the justice system’s inability to deal with pervasive sexual violence.
This vicious cycle of gruesome rapes followed by retaliatory violence when victims and their families speak out has become a painful reality in India.
Amid farmers’ protests against the recent Farm Bills, multiple rape cases arising in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, and a struggling economy, India has a lot on its plate.
But it’s important to remember that victim blaming and sexual assault are not only an “India issue” or even an “Asian issue”.
It’s everywhere. In Egypt, whose Interior Ministry has a record of 20,000 rapes a year. In the USA, where colleges have a massively hushed-up history of sexual assault — from Duke University, to Stanford, to the case of Audrie and Daisy. In the Tulsa or Rosewood massacres, where alleged rapes of white women was enough to incite racial violence.
We can fight, and protest, and sign as many “in anger and in rage” petitions, but nothing will solve this except educating our men and the women who justify their actions— not just the ones around us or who follow us on social media (don’t be a slacktivist!), but at the grassroot level. In school, at home, at work — every time a man decides a woman’s voice is not worth listening to.
Extrajudicial killings and death sentences couldn’t prevent future crimes. Killing these four young men now will not prevent future crimes. It will not end caste-based oppression. It will not end racial oppression. None of these things will undo the actions of a state that tries to erase a woman’s body and her experiences because it’s politically convenient to do so.
As poet-activist Meena Kandaswamy writes:
In Hathras, cops barricade a raped woman’s home,
hijack her corpse, set it afire on a murderous night,
deaf to her mother’s howling pain. In a land where
Dalits cannot rule, they cannot rage, or even mourn.
This has happened before, this will happen again.
All this, and this article has not even started discussing individuals identifying outside the gender binary, or India’s recognised third gender (transgender).
This is not a comfortable read, or even comfortable to write. But true growth never came from sticking to our comfort zones, did it.
1. Legal provisions related to Rape. Vikaspedia. (Retrieved on October 4 2020 from: https://vikaspedia.in/social-welfare/social-awareness/legal-awareness/legal-provisions-related-to-rape)
2. Sachdev, V. (2019). How Did the Law Change After Nirbhaya’s Case?. The Quint. (Retrieved from: https://www.thequint.com/videos/nirbhaya-case-changes-to-criminal-law)
3. Kumar, A., Suresh, N. (2020). ‘Help us get justice, please’: Dalit girl assaulted in UP’s Hathras succumbs. NewsLaundry. (Retrieved from: https://www.newslaundry.com/2020/09/29/help-us-get-justice-please-dalit-girl-assaulted-in-ups-hathras-succumbs)
4. Rege, S. (1998). Dalit Women Talk Differently: A Critique of ‘Difference’ and Towards a Dalit Feminist Standpoint Position. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 33, №44.
5. Uberoi, P. (1990). Feminine Identity and National Ethos in Indian Calendar Art. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 25, №17.