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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 28, June 29, 2013

Sexual Assaults and Feminist Sensibilities

Monday 1 July 2013, by Gilbert Sebastian



Krishna Majumdar’s response (Mainstream, April 27, 2013) to my piece (“Patriarchy and the Rise in Sexual Assaults in India: An Explanation”, Mainstream, March 16, 2013) calls for certain clarifications as she has, at places, grossly misrepresented my views and has missed out the main thrust of my arguments. Moreover, her arguments reveal an orientation which is somewhat commonplace in the mainstream feminist movements in India, namely, its implicit privileged caste bias and a false sense of women’s honour that it upholds. Ms Majumdar has not been kind enough to mention our central argument which was clearly summarised following an introductory paragraph, right at the begin-ning of the piece: While not condoning “the largely unrecorded savage violence” under the “home-bred semi-feudal caste-based patri-archy”, “the ascending trend of imperialist patriarchy which commodifies women could, primarily, be responsible for the massive rise in rape cases”. The violent masculinities of imperialist patriarchy and caste-based semi-feudal patriarchy have a meeting ground, we had argued. Nor does she mention the conclusion in favour of the “socialist path to women’s rights”.

Privileged Caste Bias

We tend to agree with Ms Majumdar on the plausible reasons for the mass protests against the ghastly rape incident in Delhi. However, she has been most vehement in expressing her indignation at our mere mention of the caste dimension of the mass protests against the gruesome incident of gangrape in Delhi in December 2012. She uses the terms, “trivialising” and “disgusting” and says: “It requires a man to think and say this.” However, several critical commentators, both women and men alike, such as, Arundhati Roy, Anand Teltumbde and Suzanne Moore had already pointed this out earlier as were cited in our article. We were only mentioning it as a reluctant hypothesis on the interlinkage of caste/class on the one hand with sexual violence and mass protests against it on the other. By no means did we mean to say that the protests were “upper castes rallying together in support of their own”. To quote from the piece: “While no person with a minimal sense of justice can condone the gory sexual assault as it happened in Delhi on December 16, we cannot but hypothesise that it is the relatively new trend of violent sexual assaults against the female members of the privileged castes/classes by the ‘criminal poor’ that provokes public outrage in a society where the hegemony of the privileged castes/classes is deep-rooted.” Ms Majumdar missed out the class dimension that I had mentioned. However, establishing the caste dimension of mass protests against rape was, by no means, the central thrust of our arguments. In the first place, it was for us to seize the opportunity provided by the mass protests, as we had mentioned in our opening sentence of the article.

Nevertheless, was it not a historical fact that it was considered permissible for the men of privileged castes to have sexual relations with women of underprivileged castes whereas the honour of privileged caste women was fiercely guarded from men of the oppressed Avarna and Sudra castes? These corresponded to the notions of anulom and vilom sexual relations in the traditional caste norms. One could have hardly imagined mass protests against sexual outrages in the anulom direction except by the victim’s own kith and kin. It would also be worth recalling that only under colonial modernity did we have a commonly applicable legal system that provided for uniform punishment for crimes to various castes. Ms Majumdar says women are “a caste by themselves”. If, indeed, it were true, India would have been, pleasantly, a very different country. Feminist indifference to violence against women of underprivileged castes has been a fact of life in India. Despite her assurance that that no woman can be unmoved by a violent sexual assault on a woman of any caste or class, the fact of the consistent pattern of silences of the mainstream feminist movements stare at our faces in many such cases involving underprivileged castes, religious minorities, frontier peoples …. This, in turn, is a reminder of the heterogeneity and inter-sectional character of social oppressions on women. One could only recall that two Dalit girls were raped and murdered at Chidambaram and Vaanur in Tamil Nadu even as the mass protests against the Delhi gangrape had been going on and yet they hardly evoked a whimper of protest.

The Notion of Women’s Honour

Related to an implicit privileged caste bias is a false notion of women’s honour. Ms Majumdar speaks of “Draupadi’s trauma and humiliation”. It may be recalled that it was not only Duhshasana who ill-treated Draupadi by dragging her by the hair, in an unsuccessful bid to disrobe her in public upon the command of Duryodhana. First of all, she was victimised by Yudhishthira (Dharmaputra), her husband, who considered her a property to be gambled upon. But Draupadi herself was no innocent victim. She invoked patriarchal justice through her hard vow that she would tie up her hair only after it was drenched with the blood from Duhshasana’s chest. Her dishonour was avenged by Bheem through the patriarchal punishment meted out to him, which was quite disproportionate to the crime he committed.

“… Duhshasana was neither low caste nor underprivileged (for we are told it is this category of people who are punished disproportionately)….,” says Ms Majumdar. Here, the streak of insensitivity towards people of oppressed castes is clear, coming as it does from someone quite conscious of women’s rights. It was quite consciously that we have not used the hegemonic terms, ‘lower castes’ or ‘upper castes’. Bheem’s patriarchal justice is in keeping with the ‘protection’ accorded to women of privileged castes under caste-based feudal/semi-feudal patriarchy. And if this is the notion of honour that advocates of women’s rights want to uphold, there is a serious problem from the angle of social justice. One might compare the plight of Draupadi to that of the women of underprivileged castes, especially Dalits: How many times have we come across news of Dalit women having been paraded naked in rural India and subjected to murderous rapes? Ms Majumdar tends to disown a feminism that emphasises on pseudo-liberation, as she does in her concluding sentence. However, she does not tend to disown the pseudo-protection accorded to Draupadi by caste-based, feudal or semi-feudal patriarchy. At times, this kind of protectionism is visible even in otherwise laudable court judgements: The position that ‘unwanted attention’ (left undefined) can be considered sexual harassment is a case in point. Such provisions hardly promote healthy gender relations since it would be difficult to sift wanted attention from unwanted attention.

Ms Majumdar has quoted Germaine Greer out of context which, in turn, leads to a caricature of her radical policy prescriptions. A context of ‘petty rape’ Greer gives is of inebriated teenagers collapsing together in bed and not being able to figure out what transpired when they wake up. It is no longer an unfamiliar phenomenon in urban India today. To be fair to Greer, the radically innovative suggestion from her is “to abolish the crime of rape altogether, and instead expand the law of assault to include sexual assault in varying degrees”.1 The proposal emerges from an understanding that rape itself has been historically defined by patriarchy. Other women scholar activists have also raised similar concerns. Rightly does Kavita Krishnan argue that rape, often, gives rise to moral outrage in society but other forms of equally or more serious violence against women do not evoke as much moral disgust and condemnation: Domestic violence continues to enjoy social sanction, as does sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, torture by in-laws, dowry harassment and killings, violence against women making self-choice marriages and so on. “Rape is widely understood as illegitimate sex. Not as sex against the will of another, but… as a soiling or spoilage of a woman’s worth as an asset to be enjoyed by her legitimate sexual partner.”2 One psychological test prescribed to understand how rape has been patriarchally defined is that every woman should ask self-reflexively whether she would prefer the fate of Surpanakha (getting her nose cut off) to being raped. Cutting off one’s nose attracts a smaller punishment in criminal law as compared to rape which is considered a crime second only to murder, as Greer says. Citing Greer’s proposal is, by no means, to trivialise the issue of sexual assaults like molestation. But a social consensus needs to be evolved in our country how punishment for sexual assaults can be made proportional to the gravity of the crime, quite unlike the patriarchal justice meted out to Duhshasana.

I do agree with Ms Majumdar that one can hardly discount the many contributions of women’s rights activists and feminist scholars to making our world a more tolerable place to live in. Yet, elitism, privileged caste bias and a false sense of women’s honour have been some of the chauvinistic trends within mainstream feminist movements in India. On the other hand, movements such as the anti-liquor movement in Andhra Pradesh and the women’s movement against State atrocities in Manipur have been of a different genre. Dwelling at length on chauvinistic trends in the feminist movement has, however, not been the focus of our original piece. Suffice it to say that feminism being a professionalised field of knowledge should not deter commoners from their efforts at enhancing the rights of women who constitute half of humanity.

Securing Equality and Dignity

Many women’s rights activists would agree with us that rather than invoking the harshest of punishments for those who are unlucky enough to be convicted of sexual offences, it is more important to make efforts to enhance the conviction rates. Notably, the conviction rate for rape under section 376 of the Indian Penal Code is already low at 26.4 per cent in 2011.3 Enhancing conviction rates should not be a Herculean task since over 93 per cent of the accused in rape cases are persons known to the victims.4 In the light of this figure, one could say that the rising incidence of rapes in present-day India is a reflection of the failure of the protective regime of caste-based semi-feudal patriarchy owing to the ascendance of imperialist patriarchy.

Rather than harping on a sense of patriarchally defined women’s honour, tackling the vulnerabilities of women and sexual minorities in terms of the basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter could go a long way towards securing a dignified human life for all. Indeed, these are basic demands that militate against the predatory growth of neoliberalism, the pseudo-liberation of imperialist patriarchy and the pseudo-protection of caste-based semi-feudal patriarchy. Living in an epoch of resistance to neoliberalism, it would also be important for us to keep alive the memories of socialism in the 20th century wherein reproductive work through ‘the three Cs - Cooking, Cleaning and Caring’ were socialised whereby conditions were created for the equal participation of women in social production.

Gilbert Sebastian (Post-doctoral Researcher)
Centre for Development Studies,
Thiruvananthapuram 695011
(Mobile +91-8281176775


1. Germaine Greer, 2006: “Rape”, The Independent, April 2,

2. Kavita Krishnan, 2012: ‘Some Reflections on Sexual Violence and the Struggles Against It’, April 26,

3. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 2011: Crime in India 2011 Statistics, Table 4.11 - Percentage Of IPC Cases Disposed By Courts During 2011 and Table 4.12 - Conviction Rate Of IPC Crimes During 2011, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi. Notably, the conviction rate for custodial rape in 2011 is zero.

4. NCRB 2011: Tables 5.2 - Incidence of Crime Committed Against Women and Table 5.4 - Offenders’ Relation and Proximity to Rape Victims 2011, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi.

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