Why Salman Khan can joke about rape and get away with it
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Let’s be clear: Nobody knows what a raped woman feels like except for a raped woman. So when actor Salman Khan lets slip in the course of a press interaction at Mehboob Studio, Mumbai that filming the wrestling shots for his film Sultan was ‘like the most difficult thing… When I used to walk out of that ring, it used to be actually like a raped woman walking out’, he has absolutely no idea of what he’s talking about. To compare a difficult shot—for which he is being paid handsomely—with a violent crime like rape is idiotic, insensitive and completely out of place. Let me just say, I will never know what Salman Khan feels like after making yet another moronic statement.
Yet, as social media broils in outrage and TV channels milk the TRPs, I am struck by a couple of things. The first is the immediate, reflexive reaction of the nearly 50 journalists present. According to The Indian Express, in an audio file of the interaction, the journalists present can ‘be heard erupting into a slight chatter and laughter’. Khan, realizing that he had made a faux pas, added: “I don’t think I should have.”
The journalists’ chatter and laughter is reflective of the larger reaction on social media where #SalmanMisquoted began trending (though to be fair, there was equally an opposite reaction of disgust). The actor was most emphatically not misquoted. That he retracted is another matter. Yet, the sad and unfortunate truth is that socially we seem to be conditioned to react to misogyny by brushing it away, as if ‘jokes’ about rape are par for the course. As if a leading actor is entitled to make a ‘silly mistake’. And didn’t he retract? Aren’t we making too much about a stray observation?
We aren’t. Everyday sexism is deeply embedded in mainstream Indian society. Despite the protests of December 2012 following the brutal gang-rape and murder of a medical student and despite a new criminal law and definition of rape, we see it at work all the time. The fact that it often comes from leaders, political or otherwise, only sends a signal that comments and jokes about rape are acceptable.
So, Tapas Pal, an elected MP of the Trinamool Congress, a party headed by a woman, can threaten political rivals with rape as retribution—on camera and get away with barely a rap on the knuckles. So Suman Dutta, a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) can say ‘only girls who have shame can be molested’. So Madhya Pradesh home minister Babulal Gaur can say rape ‘is sometimes right and sometimes wrong’. So Janata Dal (United) head Sharad Yadav prefaces a debate on the Insurance Bill in Parliament by referencing the bodies and dancing skills of the women of the south. So, on it goes.
These horrendous statements cut across party lines and continue with impunity because we allow them to, because at a press conference in Mumbai, journalists will laugh away a crass comment by a reigning Bollywood star, because his fans will jump to his defence saying he has been ‘misquoted’. In a very real sense, a refusal to condemn these statements strongly and loudly enough makes us accomplices to a rising crime graph against women. It emboldens sexism to continue. It belittles the real victims and survivors of rape and sexual crime. And, let’s face it, it gives India a bad reputation as an unsafe country for women.
At a time when women and girls throughout the country struggle to fulfil their aspirations, when Indian women return home from badminton and squash tournaments with medals, and when India has just got its first women fighter pilots, what can you say about everyday misogyny, except that it sadly and unfortunately continues, despite these real achievements?
The National Commission of Women now wants Salman Khan to apologise within seven days. His father Salim Khan has once more stepped into the breach by apologizing on behalf of his 50-year-old son with the unnecessary caveat: ‘the intention was not wrong’ and ‘lets (sic) not run our shops on this mistake’. It’s the sort of sloppy apology that heaps further insult and makes the misogyny even more egregious. Mistake? Shops? Oh right, we’re only talking about a silly thing like rape.
Salman Khan is not just an actor. He was recently appointed a goodwill ambassador for the Indian Olympic Association after his December 2015 acquittal in a 2002 hit-and-run case that killed one person and injured four others. To those who believe he’s being hung out to dry, I can only say that it’s time to call a halt to misogyny. Yes, Khan’s statement on rape is not the first but isn’t it time to at least hope that it will be the last?