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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 48, November 16, 2013

Serial Rape within Marriage: Why India’s Feminists Skirt the Issues

Tuesday 19 November 2013



by Shruti

The first anniversary of the “Nirbhaya” tragedy will soon be upon us. Doubtless there will be much self-congratulatory backward glancing to cherry-pick the “achievements” of the past year. There is a “stronger” law now against sexual predators. Rapists, whose victims die, may now go to the gallows. Acid attack victims could hope for better justice. And so on. But the toast to these arguable gains would need to be calibrated with a small reality check —hanging a rapist does not necessarily constitute a big advancement for the Indian feminist struggle. Nor was this “victory” achieved through patient advocacy and activism. The post-Nirbhaya legislations, the assurance of a federal fund to assist the State Police forces to combat sexual crimes and the enrichment of the discourse on gender rights that we have seen through 2013 were actually clinched by raw street power. The rulers of the country were forced to work with extraordinary political will to end the administrative wont which for years had led to a serious imbalance in the rapist-victim equation.

Looking inwards, a serious feminist cannot avoid feeling a huge disappointment. We have failed to broaden the definition of rape as an assertion of a woman’s right to say “No”. Even now, society is willing to accept that a rape has happened only if the victim is a total stranger to the aggressor and the act of penetration has been accompanied by brutal force. What about rape when it happens within the marital space? Country after country in the twentyfirst century is discarding the medieval hangover that a woman’s body is ultimately her husband’s. But in India, even a whisper about marital rape is considered a grave social threat. This, however, is totally at variance with the real expectation. The empowerment of women through education and their rapid climb up the ladder of economic self-assertion is yet to be matched by rights over their own bodies. Indian women resent this and an increasing number of them are willing to come out in the open with revelations of the dysphoria that is really the marital bed.

But when will our telegenic, rent-a-quote feminists understand that the culture of rape denial will never go away through aspectual treatment of the phenomenon of rape?

The Silent Scream 

In the 1980s, a documentary film, The Silent Scream, created the first big crack in the post-feminist’s consensus on abortion. The film showed in graphic detail what agony a human foetus faces when being aborted. It turned the tables on the sexual revolution and gave the anti-abortionists a new identity—they began to call themselves “pro-life”. The film effectively ended the extended celebration over the Roe vs Wade judgment (1973) which gave abortion its first legal justification. And the debate over the origin of life—at conception or birth?—still splits up the West.

We need something like that for rape denial in general and marital rape in particular. In the popular imagination, any woman who fits the pedestrian perception of a “slut” cannot possibly be raped. Marital rape is laughed away as “Honey I have a headache”. But for the young, twentyfirst century woman these are serious issues which feminists of this country fail to grapple with. Films have a great role in ending the culture of denial.

Rape denial has been the subject of a small body of cinematic work in over the past three decades. In The Accused (1988), which was based on a real life incident, the then up-and-coming Jodie Foster gave a memorable performance of a gangrape victim struggling to establish her case that a woman’s right to refuse penetrative sex is absolute and should not be confused with the coquettishness that marked her behaviour with her violators in the minutes preceding the assault. Foster, who played a working class woman gangraped after a few drinks and frank expression of sexuality, won her first Oscar and the world of feminism gained a symbol exemplifying the classical argument that has divided the celebrants of the post-1960s sexual revolution, namely, does or does not a woman have the cake and eat it too? In different societies it translates in different ways. In the post-modern West, the sub-text asserts the inviolable right of even the topless sunbather to preserve her attractive rack for the partner of choice. In the India of 2013, meanwhile, we are still arguing whether the “Park Street victim” or the “Guwahati girl” or the “Mangalore pub girls” qualify for automatic Whore of Babylon status just because they’d crossed a certain lakshmanrekha.

Marital rape, surprisingly, has figured in Indian cinema for quite a long time, albeit in the context of marital politics. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) had a scene where the young Milkha Singh is shaken awake at night by the muffled sobs of his sister (played by Divya Dutta) being sexually used by her husband behind a hessian partition in the refugee camp. The shock writ large on the face of the pubescent Milkha contrasts heavily with the boisterous mirth generated in the adult menfolk over the silhouetted imagery of the rightful “taking” of the woman.

This conveys the director’s subtle message (in a year marked by protestations over gender crimes) that men are not necessarily gene-coded to presume women as chattel. He invites the child in every man to revolt at the age-old tradition. The responses as gleaned from internet sites and blogs confirm that some men are indeed challenging the consensus that a woman, once married, loses the right to say “No”. In one social network site (“Feministindia” on Face-book), quite a few followers who are male by their names are found to express disgust when one of them recounts how sections of the male audience in a PVR theatre showing the film burst into spontaneous laughter seeing the woman in her humiliation.

Director Mehra is actually not the first to address this abhorrent concept that women in wedlock are their husbands’ sexual playthings. Nor is he even the first male film-maker to do so. In the Malayalam epochal film Parinayam (The Wedding, 1994), based on a novel by Gyanpeeth award-winning litterateur M.T. Vasudevan Nair, there is a horrifying wedding night scene told through the experience of the bride (played by Mohini) as her septuagenarian groom grunts and groans over her but eventually fails to perform. That the bride is just “meat” for the groom and she resents it and the whole scene sends the more sensitive among the audience into a nauseous fit. The reaction of Kerala’s vibrant film critics’ community to the scene was tremendous and director Hariharan, along with Nair, were feted as “male feminists”.

Aparna Sen’s Paroma (1985) shook up the patrician order by her treatment of female sexuality in an extramarital affair. Her take on marital rape was wrapped up in the message of entrapment which includes men as much as women. Just as wives are conditioned by society to lie back and await their husbands’ ejaculation, so too are husbands gene-coded to treat the marital bedroom as a sanctorum for ritual sex. Rakhee, who played a housewife attracted to another man, distractedly stares at the ceiling as her husband (played by Dipankar Dey) performs his part of the duty. He himself is attracted to another woman—his secretary— and his arrogance is revealed when he hisses “whore” once the woman spurns his overture. He uses the same epithet in one of the unfor-gettable, last scenes of the film against his wife when he learns of her secret tryst. This singular expression of chauvinistic frustration over female defiance revealed the director’s keen insight into the web of deceit that manifests in the male sexual outreach.

In Chandra Prakash Dwivedi’s Pinjar (2003), marital rape was an instrument of both sexual vendetta and communal hatred amid deterio-rating Hindu-Muslim relations in partition-eve Punjab. In this Amrita Pritam story, Puro (Urmila Matondkar) is abducted by Rashid (Manoj Bajpai) in classical return of complement for Puro’s great uncle’s rape of Rashid’s great aunt. In this case the director was perhaps aware that the act of sex would not have looked as consensual as it did in Paroma and Parinayam—it would more have resembled the typical Bollywood rape scene—and so avoided repre-senting it altogether. Puro’s conceiving of Rashid’s child after a forced wedding is the symbol of many possibilities. Puro’s eventual “discovery” of a softer side to her enslaver “husband” is reflective of a mindset that still pervades—look at the reports of rape victims succumbing to khap pressure to marry their rapists. That such trivialisation of marital rape should happen in the twentyfirst century rather than consolidate the serious tendrils extended in earlier decades is indeed a surprise. In a sense the makers of Pinjar were guided more by extra-artistic considerations (one of them perhaps being the need to promote communal amity in post-Godhra India—for which it was lauded by the government with the “Best Film on National Integration”) than launch searching questions on why innocent women should figure as pawns on their menfolks’ deadly chessboards.

In Real Life

If poets don’t dream and artists fail to chisel hope is there any hope for progress? Indian jurisprudence, often a pathetic extension of the patrician society’s ugly face, offers no hope to women trapped in unhappy marriages. The expectation spaceship floats therefore towards a black hole caused by the death of feminism at its most needed hour.

 Cut from reel to real life and the picture, insofar as marital rape is concerned, is getting grimmer. In the aftermath of the Nirbhaya tragedy, the Justice J.N. Verma Committee was appointed to propose amendments to existing legislations on rape. This truly progressive former Chief Justice of India attacked the spurious consensus that has existed for so long on marital rape when he recommended an end to the distinction in the Indian Penal Code’s treatment of rape within and without marriage. Though the IPC has always viewed non-consensual sexual intercourse as objectionable, the global trend towards expansion of the definition of rape eluded India. Justice Verma was quite unequivocal that “marriage should not be considered as an irrevocable consent to sexual acts....with regard to an inquiry whether the complainant consent to the sexual activity the relationship between the victim and the accused should not be relevant.”

 How serious was Indian feminism’s opposition to the hasty passing of the Ordinance, followed up by an Act, by the polity? Not very much, actually. There is a reason for this. By the fourth or fifth month following Nirbhaya, a certain fatigue had set into the rights movement over rape reaction. It was left to newspaper commentators and TV celebrities to express dissent. The problem with most spokespersons for women’s causes is the lucre of government recognition which is dangled before them more pronouncedly than it was in earlier decades. A position on the National or any of the State Women’s Commissions comes these days with prospects of bungalows and cars. To win these all it takes is harmonising your feminism with the expectations of the political elite. And since the ruffling of feathers on gender is remote to any political party’s agenda, marital rape remains a reality nobody dares touch with a bargepole. It’s something between a social polariser and a political minefield.

When, during the debate on the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 2013, a BJP parliamen-tarian rose in the Lok Sabha to say “it will shake the institution of marriage if marital rape is recognised as rape”, he was actually admitting guilt. The rulers of India are aware that they are sinning through inaction. But thanks to our vibrant media and cultural products, the incidence of sex-propelled domestic abuse is no longer seen as storm in a tea cup. Studies indicate that between 10 and 14 per cent of married women admit to being raped by their husbands: the incidence of marital rape soar to between a third and half of all battered women. Sexual assault by one’s spouse accounts for approxi-mately 25 per cent of the rapes committed. Also, two in three married women experience physical or sexual violence.

In middle to upper class India it is in more ways than one the result of transparent male insecurity over the phenomenon of women’s economic independence and her pursuit of her own trajectory of happiness. In the lower rungs of the income ladder, marital rape is accom-panied increasingly by extreme brutality of the kind seen in violence porn.

If “Nirbhaya” has to be paid true tribute, let us see our feminists address the next frontier. Even getting martial sex recognised as a phenomenon would take years of struggle. But then, tragedies can also be godsends. Who knows —there may occur a tragedy soon to throw up, like the 23-year-old paramedic on the night of December 16, 2012, a powerful symbol of rally for India’s humiliated wives?

The author is a writer and has written a book, Battered Existence (published by Author House, UK).

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