Opinion | The multiple layers of prejudice that shape our response to rape4 min read . Updated: 11 Dec 2019, 11:18 PM IST
A society that seeks revenge instead of justice tends to express an outrage that’s profoundly amoral
Let us go to that toll plaza on that dark evening, where the 26-year-old veterinary doctor finds that her scooter has a punctured tyre. Four young men approach her, offering help. She is uncomfortable, and makes a call.
The number she calls is not that of the police. Such is the credibility of officers in uniform. She calls her sister. She tells her to keep talking, as Snigdha Poonam writes in her account in The Hindustan Times. But the call gets cut off. The sister calls back, but the phone is switched off.
The sister contacts the police, who tell her that the place where her sister has gone missing is not in their jurisdiction. Reconstructing the timeline, we now know how precious moments were lost. Then, an officer offers a gratuitous conjecture—maybe she eloped with someone.
We now know what happened. The veterinary doctor was raped, murdered, mutilated, and her body was burned. Four men were arrested soon, taken into custody, and there was a mass upsurge seeking revenge, not justice. A week later, the four men were taken in the middle of the night to the scene of the crime to “recreate" the incident. The men, who were presumably restrained or shackled, managed to free themselves, attempted to snatch guns from the police, and in the shoot-out that followed, the four were killed. Curiously, the officer involved has had similar experiences in the past, where he had gone with suspects to recreate the crime and, uncannily, the suspect attempted to flee and, remarkably, the officer managed to kill them.
The nation is grateful. Politicians, sportswomen and movie stars cheer the same police who the veterinary doctor could not trust, the same police who sent the doctor’s sister to another police station while the crime was being committed, the same police that speculated on the doctor’s romantic entanglement. Overnight, they have become heroic. They have been carried on people’s shoulders, sweets have got distributed, and the mass—or the mob—feels vindicated. Honour has been restored. But whose honour is it, anyway?
There are layers of patriarchal preconceptions and prejudices that have shaped the Indian response to rape. As a few brave rape survivors have said, society reinforces the idea that a woman’s worth is to be judged only by her “honour" and that honour is preserved only if she is not attacked sexually. It is the sexual act that makes rape a heinous crime. Humiliation, insults, harassment, bullying, violence, beating, assault—those are not worthy of outrage. The “besmirched" honour belongs to the family, not the woman—her agency is conveniently disregarded. It is sharam—of which Salman Rushdie astutely pointed out in his eponymous novel, “shame is a wholly inadequate translation" because its opposite is “shamelessness". The woman who steps across the line is shameless; she has asked for whatever happens to her—so goes that reasoning.
Yet, it is selective shame, for the same mob that is cheering the extrajudicial killings in Hyderabad is not calling for similar retribution over the cases in Kathua or Unnao. Why? Might the identity of victims have something to do with it? Besides, not every rape is rape under Indian law. A rape is not a rape when a man has sex with his wife without her consent because as her husband, he has conjugal rights. If she is not married to the man, the crime is considered vile because of its sexual nature and not because of the violence or assertion of power. Prurience dictates our thinking, not a sense of justice.
So, she is forced to stay indoors. Dangers lurk outside, on our streets, our shop floors, in hotel lifts, at toll plazas, and bus stops. So women are constantly told what to wear, what to eat, whether or not to have a mobile phone, whether to go out to work, by what time they must come home, and with whom—thus circumscribing their autonomy and denying them privacy. Rather than restraining and disciplining men, we want women to cover up, talk softly, dress modestly, avoid going out at night, and even avoid going out to work. Predators often include men who women have known—managers, colleagues, friends, cousins, lovers and, of course, husbands.
Women know that if they complain, few will believe them. If they go to the police, well, there is Hyderabad. Little wonder that so few speak up. As my friend and former colleague (and Mint Lounge’s founding editor) Priya Ramani asked in her outstanding keynote address at the Goa Arts and Literature Festival last week: “How many women do you think spoke up as part of #MeToo? Thousands? Hundreds? Actually, it was 159, of whom 124 were willing to be named and 35 were anonymous. They called out 90 people. We need to have a conversation about consent."
However, conversations require a willingness to listen. Society wants to shout. It wants revenge, and so it expresses outrage. That outrage is profoundly amoral. The mob cheering the Hyderabad police reveals hypocrisy, vanity, self-righteousness, and class and male privilege. It has nothing to do with women, their autonomy, agency, freedom, safety, or rights. Changing male behaviour is a civilizational and generational challenge. To meet it, we must teach little boys the idea of equality, and men the meaning of consent.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi