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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 38, September 13, 2014

The Sociology of Human Rape

Saturday 13 September 2014

by Imtiaz Ahmad Ansari

The recent brutal gang-rape and subsequent murder of two Dalit girls in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, has again put the nation in a shameful situation. It has put a question-mark on the very civility about which we, as Indians, have always boasted. Many have started comparing the Badaun gang-rape with the December 2012 Delhi gang-rape. However, these are not the only brutal assaults on women. The phenomenon of rape is going unabated in every part of India, be it rural or urban. Rape has become an increasingly worrying phenomenon. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), latest data shows that from 1971 to 2012, the incidence of rape has increased from 2487 to 24,923, showing an increase of about 902.1 per cent. This is much higher than the reported incidence of other heinous crimes like murder, kidnapping, riots etc.

Why does rape happen? There is a huge body of literature which documents the reasons for rape to happen. For some, biological forces are responsible for rape. To put it simply, rape is a byproduct of men’s adaptation for fulfilling casual, non-committal sex. Then there is the control theory. Rape is a means to control the female body by the dominant male population. But theories do not address the gravity of rape. We all know that having sex without the consent is wrong but many men do not perceive it as really bad. And that is why misogynist statements from many qaurters keep pouring in from time to time. The recent one was by the Samajawadi Party supremo, Mulayam Singh Yadav, when he said ‘boys are boys, they will make mistakes’.

But this is not the first time that someone has blamed women for sexual assaults. From Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat, who thinks the spirit of “Bharat” rather than “India” doesn’t produce a culture of rape, to the Anjuman Muslims Panchayat in Rajasthan, which believes that girls should not use mobile phones outside their homes and should not dance at weddings; from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who thinks that rapes happen because men and women interact freely, to Haryana Congress leader Dharamvir Goyal, who believes that majority of the girls want to have sex intentionally but they don’t realise that they will be gang-raped; from Harayan khap panchayat, which believes that consumption of chowmein leads to hormonal imbalances that evoke an urge to indulge in such acts, to Jamaat-e-Islami Hind General Secretary Nusrat Ali, who thinks co-education should be abolished and every educational institution should prescribe a dignified dress code for girls. Such insensitive statements only negate the severity of the crime which haunts a woman for her entire life.

Furthermore, it is the woman who is held reaponsible for rape and not the rapist. If this is the standard line of action of our law-makers then India can be described as a classic case of a country with “rape culture”. Rape culture is an environment in which rape is a normalised and routinised behaviour. It is reflected through the use of misogynist language. In societies with a rape culture, women’s rights and safety are disregarded and they are forced to live in an environment of perpetual fear.

Blaming the women for the crime committed against them reflects the regressive and patriarchal nature of our existence. Rape is endemic in nature. It is found in every society. Furthermore, it is not limited to any particulat race, caste, class or religion. It can happen in conditions of relative economic prosperity, within the confines of home, in situations of political empowerment as well. In South Asian societies in particular, the clutches of culture and religion add to the perversity of the situation. In such societies, women occupy a lower position in comparison with men. The institution of patriarchy largely shapes the position of women in these societies. In such a system, where women are considered inferior to men, violence against women is natural to emerge. However, it does not mean that other sociaties do not have their experiences of gender violence. Wherever unequal power relations exist between men and women, violence agianst women will survive. Forms of violence may change but not the phenomenon.

During the last two decades, no doubt, higher incidence of rape cases may be because of the increased rate of reporting such crimes. But what has happened during these last two decades also is that women have come more aggressively in the public domain. They have moved into institutions of higher learning, occupied promi-nent positions in public and private sectors, challenging the roles and responsibilities which earlier used to be the prerogative of men alone. The women’s world is believed to be confined within the four walls of the home. When they stepped out of this world, it did not go down well with their male counterparts. They are perceived as a potential threat to the latter’s world. Many of the rape cases are a direct result of this male-dominated control mechanism.

The principle of gender equality is enshrined in our Constitution. Article 15 (i) of the Constitution says that “the state should not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. In addition, there are many anti-rape laws in the country. But law is one thing and its inculcation and application is another thing. The legal provisions to punish the rapists are often rendered ineffective because of the conservative attitude towards sex and family honour. The victim is often reluctant to report the case because of the stigma attached to rape. Even if they muster the courage to report rapes, the conviction rates are very low. In fact, India is witnessing increasing rates of rape case and declining conviction rates. Conviction rates in rape cases have dropped from 44.3 per cent in 1973 to 24.2 per cent in 2012. Low conviction rates indicate a failure of our legal system. Due to the abysmally low conviction rates, there is no fear among the perpetrators. However, the law in itself cannot stop rapes. But certainly a clear and non-partisan application of legal measures can act as a deterrant.

It is just not possible to dissect each and every rape case in this country where a rape might be going on the moment I am writing this article. But neither do we know about nor are interested in them until and unless they become Badaun or Delhi. This culture of rape will survive, and may even spread its fangs in this country, if multi-pronged measures are not adopted. Unequal gender relations and belief in the sexual entitlements of men are rooted in our social and cultural fabric. It is the culturally ingrained belief that men have unquestionable rights over women. Until and unless men shed their commanding nature to see women as objects who need to be regulated, the culture of rape will continue. Every human being, whether man or woman, is entitled to equal respect and dignity. No dress code, putting an end to mobile phone use, living in ‘Bharat’ or any religious ruling is going to make society rape-free. If we are really interested in putting an end to this heinous crime, the culture of rape should be replaced by the culture of love and respect towards women. And the best place to start this transformation is our own homes.

The author is a Project Fellow, Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be contacted at

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