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Home / Opinion / Maneka Gandhi tells us marital rape isn’t rape after all

The good news is that now when someone calls you “darling" or “honey" against your will, you can not only tell them to put a lid on it, you can also put a handcuff on it. Because that is punishable with one’s year imprisonment under Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). It seems that calling a woman by a name other than her own against her will falls under harassment and is grounds for arrest.

The bad news is that when you come home after a hard day of not being called “darling" by your petrified colleagues, and your husband comes home, and then forces you to have sex with him against your will—you can’t do diddly-squat about it. Yes, it’s rape—that’s what most of us who aren’t Maneka Gandhi or part of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) or NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government call non-consensual sex. Yet, in the eyes of the law and the ministry, the “concept" of marital rape simply doesn’t exist. Basically, you imagined it.

So let’s get this straight, someone calling me “honey" or “darling" which can be irritating and annoying at worst, can be put in jail for a year. But the person I married, my husband, forcing me to have sex with him against my will, cannot be touched by the law? Forget imprisonment for what is rape, he won’t even be slapped with a fine. To me, that’s more than slightly imbalanced justice.

You see in India, our ministers seem to buy into the theory that our Pati is our Parmeshwar. So when he wants hot chapatis, he gets hot chapatis. And when he wants sex, he gets sex. It’s his birthright. You, being a woman, don’t have a choice. Why should you? It’s just your body after all. Which now that you’re married is owned by your husband.

This is not what I think. Exception 2 in Section 375 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) “sanctions sexual intercourse, even if forced, between a married couple, if the wife is over 15 years of age". Not only does it therefore condone statutory rape, it also doesn’t recognize the very existence or possibility of rape in a marriage.

Last week, Maneka Gandhi, minister for child and women development, in a written reply in Parliament to a question on whether the government is planning on criminalizing rape, said: “It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty". Mark the words “concept of marital rape".

This is verbatim what minister of state for home affairs Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary had said in a reply to Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MP Kanimozhi in April 2015 in response to her question whether the government would bring in an amending bill to remove the exception of marital rape from the definition of rape. Chaudhary, in his written reply, had said that while the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women had recommended that India criminalize marital rape, India’s Law Commission hadn’t done so. “It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors—e.g. level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of society to treat marriage as a sacrament, etc". Ergo, the government would not make any amendment.

Maneka Gandhi wasn’t always the defender of marital rape. In an interview in June 2015, Gandhi had said, “My opinion is that violence against women shouldn’t be limited to violence by strangers. Very often, a marital rape is not always about a man’s need for sex; it is about his need for power. In such case, it should be treated with seriousness".

Clearly, she’s had a change of heart. And she couldn’t even coin a new answer.

Gandhi’s response to not criminalizing marital rape is from the Dark Ages. It basically says that a woman has no free will once she is married. That she is indeed her husband’s chattel. He is free to do whatever he chooses with her—especially sexually. Also, the age cut-off of 15 years is beyond ridiculous. First, it’s illegal for women to be married before the age of 18, according to the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act. Second, most girls at the age of 15 wouldn’t know the difference between consent and coercion before it’s too late.

The Justice Verma Committee report of 2013 on sexual violence laws had also said that the exemption for marital rape “stems from a long outdated notion of marriage which regarded wives as no more than the property of their husbands" and had recommended removing the marital rape exception. But what did Justice Verma know after all? And he didn’t need to curry favour with the voters.

Stating that the “concept of rape" doesn’t exist in marriage is tantamount to saying that women get pregnant by praying to God or that the responsibility for a couple not having a child lies solely in the infertile ovaries of a woman. Because how could a man not be potent and virile?

Also, I cannot accept that Gandhi actually believes that marital rape is committed only by “poor" people. Maybe marital rape is so ingrained and accepted as part and parcel of the circles our politicians socialize in, that they don’t understand why it’s a problem. What’s even worse is that she feels that marriages have a “custom of rape" inherent to them, which is why married women need to suck it up and get with the programme.

Her statement is the worst propagation of a stereotype and of telling a woman that not only is she a second-class citizen, she is also a second-class gender in India. It’s like watching a rerun of Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi in which Amitabh Bachchan has sex with an unconscious and freezing Meenakshi Sheshadri to keep her warm. Forget calling it rape, Sheshadri then falls in love with him. Because why should you not want to romance the man who raped you?

We think such rubbish is limited to cinema and puerile TV serials, but to give an Ekta Kapoor and David Dhawan and their ilk their due, at least none of them have ever justified marital rape as far as I know. For that, we can turn to our ministers and lawmakers.

What can one say when a female member of Parliament (MP) intellectualizes and justifies this upholding of patriarchy and violence against women? Nothing. There is little hope for our gender when both the law and politics is so strongly weighed against women’s rights. It might sound puerile, but Gandhi and the government she belongs to are basically telling us that since marital rape is inevitable, married women should lie back and enjoy it. After all, what’s a little rape between man and wife? What’s important is that marriage in India is sacred. Let’s remind ourselves to be good adarsh bharatiya naris and not forget that.

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