That’s rape. For those who dunno.

So it’s a lovely lazy Saturday evening and I chance upon the Lead India show (funnily I never realised it was a televised program, though I’ve seen the exquisite ad, and am aware of India’s obsession with TV). It appears that the modus operandi is that contestants are given a subject, upon which they speak extempore for a certain amount of time, after which they take audience questions and are awarded points by the judges. The only woman among the finalists is, predictably, asked whether rape should be made punishable by hanging. Her response, containing an impressive array of statistics on current law, was essentially that yes, it should.

A year ago I would have delightedly nodded my vehement assent. Now, however, I have changed my mind a bit. First off, I’m not too happy with the way that question is asked. I feel like it forces the issue down to “Is killing a person worse than violating someone sexually?” which completely distracts from the very brutal reality of rape itself, taking it off to some metaphysical debate on assigning value to intangible things*. Secondly, since the entire movement of the lawmaking and enforcing process has been away from exhibition [remember the goode olde dayes of heads on spikes and going to see a nice hanging for some entertainment?] and towards concealment, it would seem to be a regression. This actually ties into my first objection, since it draws away from the real issue of sexual violation and focuses more on the ethics of the taking of life. The whole point of secluded prisons and life sentences was the result of someone, somewhere asking, “Wait a minute, he killed a man so he’s bad/evil/wrong. So when you kill him, doesn’t that make you bad/evil/wrong too?”** Thirdly, while the death penalty definitely is a deterrent to committing a crime, that is tied into the ability to convict said suspect of the crime (which is no small issue in India where cases take about 3 years to reach trial), and can be abused by people willing to try. The stakes are simply too high.

My biggest objection to the question is that it assumes that some grandiose reform can alter the deeper and terrifying insidious problems in society, especially Indian society, that subvert all the legal structures one tries to put in place. Well, the legal structures can DEFINITELY use some work; to the best of my knowledge the maximum sentence for rape is 10 years in India, no matter how much of a repeat offender one is, the sentence for custody rape, gang rape, rape of a minor is 5 years according to the lady in the show today, and some time ago, if the accused in a case could find two witnesses (i.e. fairly established men) to testify that the woman in question is of a ‘bad character’, the charges would be dropped. But the biggest problem with rape in India, according to me, is not so much the legal blind-eye or facilitation as the social ethos where the first reactions is “Look at how she was dressed, she was asking for it!” This of course makes it prohibitively difficult to prove rape has even taken place, since the stigma that attaches to being a victim means that most rapes are never reported, and when they are it’s usually too late for forensics.

One of the most unnerving aspects of Indian society is the way it is kinda neatly tipped to favour men. I’m a big follower of the dress-to-suit-the-shadiest-place-you-could-find-yourself-in path myself: even if I’m driving myself to an exclusive club in a corner of town, just because of the faint possibility that I might need to get out, or open a window while at a standstill, I will NOT dress like I would to go clubbing in the US. And I do not see this as a violation of some fundamental right. Yes it is extremely annoying to be ogled, and that’s definitely why I don’t wear some sorts of clothes, but I still wander all over without a dupatta. And here’s the rub (no pun intended): it doesn’t matter WHAT you wear, on a DTC bus, you will be groped. Sometimes it’s so crowded I think the guy is just randomly grabbing and hoping he gets a girl. And if you make a fuss, it’s fairly unlikely that someone will come to your aid.

So what, one might ask, is my thesis? Do I hold that Indian men are some sort of specially evil perverted breed, and non-Indian men are shining knights? No. Definitely not. I get ogled PLENTY in NY. But over there, I like it. This is mainly because the guy who’s checking me out, whistling or yelling “Hello gorgeous!” does not think that noticing something about me that makes him a little *ahem* happy entitles him to the right to co-opt me into his preferred way of dealing with said happiness. I certainly have had many lecherous thoughts about many men I have glimpsed in public places, but this does not mean that I have the right to fondle. Them or myself in public. One does not have to turn to stone and never notice an attractive person – it is merely that noticing them does not give one the right to partake of them.

Socially, the reaction to an account of harassment or eve-teasing is an admonition to dress more demurely, not attract attention, and so on. Marital rape and date rape are barely acknowledged, since the very presence of a rishta (relationship, the Hindi word is better) whisks the woman away into the man-centric world where he calls the shots. Agreeing to enter into interaction with him on a romantic/sexual field implies constant and immutable consent. A delightful illustration of this is the hostel rules at my institute: men were not allowed to enter the women’s hostel after 11pm, enforced by a patrol by a stout lady with a stout stick, and women were not allowed to enter the men’s hostel after 11, not enforced at all. In fact, considering the overcrowding of the women’s hostel, most girls who were seeing someone who lived in the men’s hostel practically spent most of their time in the men’s hostel. The logic underlying this is simply that the institution undertakes to protect the women as long as they stay in their enclosure, once they cross over into male territory they’re on their own.

Which is pretty much how Indian society sees the interaction of the sexes. As long as women stay within the confines of socially-approved clothing, movement patterns, hairstyles, behaviour, volume, etc. it is a violation of social mores to harass them. Once they stray outside this assigned space they are inviting the attentions of the men who are kept out by the rules, and thus society cannot really intervene; or, at the very least, the male reactions are justifiable.

This is what needs to change. We need to make people understand that no means no, that, as adults, having an impulse does not mean acting on it. But, as long as Bollywood portrays harassment as blockbuster-hit courtship songs and rituals, as long as cops can harass people for holding hands in public, citing it as indecent behaviour***, as long as it is OK for someone to hassle a woman secure in the knowledge that he will never be held to account, all the legal reform in the world will not make India a safe place for women.

*Rape and death are both very real, tangible things, once taken down the personal level. It is very tangible to have lost a provider in a household, or to be overcome by terror at the approach of any man, or be viewed as contaminated for an act you did not even consent to.

**For a more…articulated version of this, see Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish

***Apparently, in Bangalore, a couple was arrested and ill-treated for some such thing, and it turned out they were married. Which apparently made the incident all the more shocking. In Hyderabad, a guy was fined for kissing his girlfriend, and he insisted that the cop write out the ticket to say so, and proceeded to fax it to the papers the next day. For more stories on the bad position India’s women are in, go here and here, though you’ll have to scroll to the fourth bit.

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