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India: A civilisation of rapists?

by Lakshmi Chaudhry  Mar 26, 2013 16:52 IST

#Rape   #ThatsJustWrong  

The shocking and tragic Delhi gang rape has borne many a fruit, a few sweet, others bitter, and some just plain strange. Unprecedented street protests challenging sexual violence against women. A long-overdue national debate over gender roles and rights. A flawed anti-rape bill. And reams and reams of media coverage, including innumerable op-eds, reported stories, and in-depth features.

In recent days, the news coverage has taken a new and disturbing turn. Three separate stories in reputed publications over the past few days have put forward, to varying degrees, a similar thesis: Indians are culturally predisposed to rape. In some cases, the logic is specious; in others, the reporting flawed, but the subtext is the same: There is something about India -- its men, culture, history -- that makes rape a signature national trait.

It's our cultural DNA

In a Business Standard op-ed titled 'Consent vs Civilisation', Devangshu Datta argues that our "twinned obsession with rape and incest leads quite naturally to multitudes of Indians being raped by their relatives." His thesis is, in part, an attempt to explain why "mom," "Indian aunty" and "rape" feature in the top ten search words on porn sites for India. As cultural evidence for his case, he offers the following: "street abuse [that] focuses on the sex lives of female relatives."; regional traditions that permit inter-familial marriages (uncle-niece or between cousins); rape as a recurring motif in mythology and movies.

A large number of men came out protesting the spate of rapes in India. AFP.

A large number of men came out protesting the spate of rapes in India. AFP.

Most of these are fairly easy to debunk. Mother- and sister- curses are common to most cultures across the world, and which share the assumption that the best way to impugn a man's honour is to insinuate sexual contact with his female relatives.

As for incestuous relationships, 'kissing cousins' have long been common in the West (and account for a great number of royal progeny), while the Bible is chock-a-block with "inappropriate" relationships: Abraham married his half-sister, Lot had sex with his daughters etc. One Tamil tradition involving maternal uncles does not an incestuous culture make. And as for those porn stats, 'mom' rates number 9 on Tennessee's list, one notch above India.

On the matter of mythology, Datta himself concedes that "Greek, Roman and Norse classics are also full of graphic rapes", but avers, "The difference is that India has proudly maintained an unbroken cultural tradition in its fascination with rape. It has always been a popular motif in Indian cinema. Rape is depicted far more often onscreen than consensual sex... YouTube is chock-a-block with compilations of 'Bollywood hot rapes,' 'Tamil aunty rape' and the like."

This is the strongest and most persuasive piece of evidence Datta presents, but he confuses the egg for the chicken. In a society where "good" women could never be shown as desiring sex, and censorship rules were stricter on matters of sex than violence, the Great Indian Rape Scene emerged as the default titillation ingredient for male moviemakers. That generations of men have been weaned on this toxic fantasy of desire has created an Indian iteration of the rape fetish -- but one, as Datta acknowledges, that we share with Turkey which has evolved from a mingling of European and Middle Eastern cultures.

It's Hindu law

In a reported piece -- first accompanied by the incendiary headline "Why India allows men to rape their wives" (later changed to a tamer 'Why India still allows marital rape') -- India Real Time's Preetika Rana points to the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act as the prime culprit:

Some legal experts believe the government is reluctant to criminalise marital rape because it would require them to tweak laws based on religious practices, including the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, which says a wife is duty-bound to have sex with her husband. Denying sex, according to traditional Hindu beliefs, goes against the duties of an ideal wife…

There is no denying that Indian personal laws -- be it Hindu or Muslim -- are retrograde and gendered, or the politics of religious pandering. But there is nothing uniquely Hindu about the demand that a woman's body belongs to her husband. In Western canon, rape was long defined as the violation of the property rights of a male:

Michelle J. Anderson, dean of the City University of New York School of Law and a leading scholar on rape law, added that marriage was “a transfer of property from father to husband and if someone deflowered the virgin, that removed the property rights of the father. Rape was about stealing his property.”… Until recent decades, marital rape was not considered a crime. In fact, rape was defined as forcing sexual intercourse on a person other than the wife of the accused.

Husbands were exempt from rape charges until the 1990s in Europe, and marital rape continues to remain an issue in even gender-equal societies like Norway, which, as the New York Times notes, is "still one of 127 countries in the world — including 12 members of the European Union — that do not explicitly criminalise rape within marriage."

The criminalising of marital rape in most nations has indeed entailed, as Datta puts it, "cutting ourselves adrift from our cultural moorings," or rather a universal tradition of patriarchy that treats women's bodies as male property, be it in France, USA or India.
It's the Indian male

Where Rana and Datta fear to tread, The Observer's Gethin Chamberlain rushes in with unabashed enthusiasm. Armed with a large and representative sample of 6 (yes, you read that number right) Goan males, he lets us in on the big dirty secret: all Indian men think women deserve to be raped! The men dutifully serve up a variety of "alarming" and "frightening" quotes designed to scare the average female reader.

"When the girls look sexy and the boys can't control themselves, they are going to rape. It happens," says a young man. "Rape is a big, big problem. It starts with the woman. They drive the man fucking crazy," declares another in this rhetorical orgy of misogyny, allowing Chamberlain to grandly conclude that his little "discussion" reveals "the deep moral conservatism of some young Indian males, coupled with confusion about gender roles in a society where economic modernisation is outstripping social attitudes."

Of course, the key word here is "some," a niggling detail the article bats aside so:

This collection of young men is a small, random sample, and plenty of Indians would find their views abhorrent. Foreigners thinking of visiting India – particularly young women – will find these views not only repulsive, but dangerous. Though this is a small sample, it is telling that they speak so openly, and it is clearly the case that other young Indian men would express similar thoughts – even if large numbers of their compatriots would find them shocking.

It isn't, in fact, "clear" at all as to how six guys in a Goan bar can be used to extrapolate the thoughts of other Indian men. More accurately, these quintessentially "Indian" views -- that women's bodies are there for the taking -- are shared by many men, irrespective of nationality, including those football players in Steubenville.

"The Steubenville rapists claim that, when they drove a passed-out girl from party to party, slinging her into and out-of cars like a deflated sex-dolly and sticking their fingers inside her, they didn't know they were doing anything wrong," writes Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, also noting, "The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated. What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures?"

What type of culture indeed!

Just because rape is a problem in almost every part of the world ought not to be reason to ignore it in our backyard -- i.e. let's not console ourselves by claiming, "Americans are no better." But let's not lose sight of our shared history of patriarchy that lies beneath its various cultural iterations. Rape is not a civilisational trait, peculiar to Indian or any other culture. No society has a monopoly on misogyny.