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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 6, January 26, 2013 - Republic Day Special

Rape and Punishment: Conservatives Exposed

Tuesday 5 February 2013


The rape of Nirbhaya (as the 23-year-old victim has been named by The Times of India) on the night of December 16 rightly raised grave concern about the safety of women in modern democratic India today. Thousands of women and men, especially women, came out on the streets of Delhi, Mumbai and several other cities to condemn the heinous crime against women and demanded change in law to make the punishment harsher than what it is.

I fully sympathise with the concern of these women and men and agree with them that all possible steps should be taken to prevent such heinous crimes against women involving rape and murder. As it is, women are victims of the lust of men and on top of it some conservative Hindus and Muslims blame them (the victims) only for what has happened to them. We need to discuss this at length.

First of all, I would like to emphasise that it is a multi-layered phenomenon and needs a multi-layered solution. May I even say it requires deconstruction and reconstruction of social values and human character as one of the important steps towards solution of the gender question? Harsher punishment, no matter how harsh, is not going to solve the problem. After the Nirbhaya case and despite such protests and hue and cry, every day tens of cases of rape and brutal murder are being reported in newspapers as if, for these rapists, nothing untoward has happened at all.

Let us see who are the rapists and who are the victims. We can divide them into three categories: 1) the rapists are rich and powerful and the victims either middle class or poor Dalit or minority women; 2) the rapist is poor and victim too is poor; and 3) they both belong to the middle class or upper class. In addition to this, close relatives, including father, uncle or step-father, are also among the perpetrators.

In case the rapist is powerful and the victim poor, the rapist is bound to escape. They can buy most of the well-known lawyers, police and even a section of judges. Many of our politicos, including MLAs and MPs, have been accused of being perpetrators of this crime. Who can touch them? The poor and powerless are more likely to be punished and if death sentence is accepted as punishment as is being demanded by some, it is these poor who will go to the gallows.

Let me tell you, death sentence is not going to solve the problem at all. Death punishment has been there for centuries for murder and yet murders keep on increasing by the day. It will only give more power to the police to harass the poor and helpless people or make more money through bribery. And who will police the police? Hundreds of helpless women are raped in custody. Also rape by Army officers in areas like Kashmir, Manipur and several other places is no less a common phenomenon. No police or Army officer has ever been punished for custodial rape.

Also, Dalit and tribal women have been raped in this country and are being raped everyday by upper-caste landlords and yet there is no concern ever expressed, let alone huge demons-trations as in the case of the Delhi rape of Nirbhaya. In the Delhi case the victim happens to be a middle class woman and the perpetrators belong to the lower middle class. Just replace the perpetrators with an MP or MLA and imagine what would have happened. The media would have kept silent, dismissed the news in a few lines in a corner and few women activists would have demonstrated—they would not have numbered a few dozen.

Also, hundreds of women, especially belonging to the minorities, have been raped in communal riots. In the 1992-93 Mumbai riots a mother and her daughter were raped together by a riotous mob near National Park, Borivli and in January 1993 during the Surat riots a number of Muslim women were together raped on the roadside and we did not hear a whimper of protest. In Gujarat 2002 hundreds of women were raped and in cases like Kausarbi and Bilquis Bano, they were pregnant (and in Kausarbi’s case the foetus was taken out after ripping the abdomen and thrown into fire). Except an international women’s group nobody even bothered to find out what happened. And when a Member of Parliament tried to raise this question, of all the people George Fernandes, a socialist and Minister of Defence in the NDA Government, retorted: ‘What is new in this? Women have always been raped in this country.’

Unless we radically deconstruct our feudal patriarchal values, we can achieve little in eradicating this crime. In a patriarchal society women are mere objects of lust on the one hand, and a machine for begetting children and cooking for husbands on the other. No less a person than Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, calls women as mere house servants on contract and one can break the contract at any time. Can there be a more shocking attitude towards women than this? He even forgets that in Hindu tradition marriage is solemnised by taking oath before agni (fire which is sacred). Thus marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman, not of a servant and a master.

Another member of the BJP suggested that Ramayana prescribes the right conduct for women and that they should not cross the Lakshman Rekha. Asaram Bapu said that Nirbhaya should have chanted mantra and called her rapists brothers and they would have spared her. In Ahmedabad when Bilquis Bano was about to be raped by her neighbour whom she always called uncle she told him: ‘You are my uncle.’ The uncle thereupon said. ‘Not today’ and he raped her. So much for Asaram Bapu’s formula.

The Jamat-e-Islami has come out with the solution that women should dress decently and co-education should be stopped for eradicating rape. As if rape is promoted by co-education. The Jamat has resorted to the 19th century discourse when co-education was to be introduced and was being discussed. Mohan Bhagwat also said that rapes are committed only in India (meaning modern cities) and not in Bharat (that is, the villages)

Unfortunately for Mohan Bhagwat, Dalit women have no dignity or rights or sense of izzat. They can be raped with impunity by the upper-caste men as they have been raped for centuries in rural areas and so also the tribal women. They are there only to satisfy the upper caste men’s lust. It is generally these women who migrate to the urban areas now and are raped there too.

FROM the above it will be seen that it is the victims who are to be blamed by conservatives of all religions and not men who cannot control their lust. Unfortunately not a single person from amongst the conservatives has blamed men for rape. It is women who must be controlled and what can ‘helpless’ men do if women dress provocatively and invite them for rape? Until yesterday if a woman came out of her house even in dignified dress she was provocative enough and hence she was strictly controlled. Anyway who will decide which dress is provocative enough? For conservative Hindus, woman must draw her sari over her head (make a ghungat) and for Muslims, she must cover her face with hijab with only two eyes seen. Thus who will decide what is provocative and what is ‘dignified’?

In fact, as pointed out above, a number of steps need to be taken to control rape instead of blaming women and restricting their dress or movements. The root of the problem is sexual lust and that needs to be controlled strictly in several ways. We must deconstruct the patriarchal value system and reconstruct the universal value system which accords dignity to both the sexes and considers woman or the female gender as a fully dignified individual, no less. She is not an outlet for man’s lust or a mere housewife and child producing machine. She must be treated with dignity and honour performing all her human functions like man (including her biological functions) and enjoying equal status with man.

This reconstruction of the value system has to start with the family and school textbooks. Today both the family and school textbooks are thoroughly patriarchal and feudal in nature. Both institutions have to be overhauled and universal values have to be infused in them. Unfortunately our education system is entirely career-oriented rather than character-oriented. Also our patriarchal values put boys at an advantage even in the matter of career. Apart from a change in law what is needed is a thorough overhaul of our textbooks in matters of gender sensitivity. We must change our textbooks to make them emphasise gender equality. Similarly family values should also change in equal measure and respect for womanhood and woman as a source of life has to be emphasised. A husband should be projected not as an authority or a family head but as an equal partner.

Similarly our police has to be made gender sensitive and the law enforcing agencies as a whole should be sensitised to gender equality. And my experience shows that in matters of
de-communalisation, it does make a big difference. Also, it is high time we change our language too as it is infested with male-gender superiority. She should not be projected as ‘fair-sex’. This creates a psychology of its own. The whole advertising industry is based on woman’s sexuality. This is more urgent than restricting her dress. The entire media is silent on this as it benefits immensely from sexual exploitation of the woman in the advertising industry by showing a woman half-naked and also as an object of sexual lust.

Thus making the sentence harsher may or may not help (but fast-tracking rape cases will doubtless help), yet the overhaul of our value system will certainly help. Call it social or attitudinal engineering, this is urgently needed. Also all women, irrespective of caste and class, are worthy of respect since we have committed our own sins that are visiting us. Let us not tolerate any rape of Dalit, tribal or minority women and we can have a rape-free and riot-free society.

Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, who runs the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), Mumbai, is the patron of the All India Secular Forum set up in 2002 when the Gujarat pogrom in particular and the communal forces in general were threatening the secular fabric of society; the Forum had rejected the Communal Violence Bill drafted by the Ministry of Home Affairs as it gave the police draconian powers to handle communal disturbances without any accountability, and organised a campaign for an alternative legislation. He won along with Swami Agnivesh the Right to Livelihood Award in 2004 in recognition of his steadfast commitment to promote the values of coexistence and tolerance.

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