By Oviya Govindan, Sushmita V Gopalan
Sexual violence has become an everyday, lived reality that Indian women have to contend with. Feminists and social scientists are pointing to a number of systemic and structural factors that allow for a ‘rape culture’ to prevail. Elsewhere on The New York Times, Lavanya Sankaran tells us that the most important gap in our understanding of this situation is the link between strong family structures and the propensity to rape.
Amidst dismal tales of women’s oppression at the hands of men, increased reporting of gruesome rapes and murder and a casting of men as evil incarnate, Sankaran finds it necessary that we ‘bear witness to an alternate male reality that also pervades India on a daily basis.’ This is certainly a worthy intention and a cause that seems to resonate with many readers’ views that not all men are evil. While that is no doubt the case, the author makes a less-than-convincing argument to support it.
While the men that Sankaran describe do sound wonderful, so many of us have been lucky to have these men in our lives, what really warrants scrutiny is a society that makes polite, well-mannered men who engage and participate in domestic tasks noteworthy exceptions.
In fact while appearing on the surface to be speaking up for the “good Indian men” that do exist, Sankaran’s article could not be more unkind to the male species. She seems to see sexual violence as something that men are naturally given to, that good men, men who benefit from the civilizing forces of the family structure succeed in refraining from. Bereft of these influences, the beast that lies dormant within all men is unleashed. In Sankaran’s words, a man who isn’t “nested in family and community” could become “a man unmoored, lost, adrift and, potentially, a danger to himself and to his world”.
If you had any illusions that Sankaran’s article was vindicating the good nature of men, we suggest you drop them immediately. Such arguments are really saying: men are ticking time bombs whose sexual virility is constantly on the verge of explosion. Unless we put them into safe categories of brother or father or husband, they are a threat to society.
Even a superficial reading of the piece reveals the glaring classist prejudices inherent in the argument. Her arguments point to a problematic assumption found in narratives of the Delhi rape case: that it is poor men who have been structurally denied access to income and resources, men who have concurrently been divorced from family ties (read: “denied access to regular female companionship”) who rape women. This is a dangerous argument that conflates the conditions of poverty with a predisposition to sexual violence.
What emerges from Sankaran’s piece is a highly problematic dichotomy, echoing the now infamous Bharat-India distinction - educated, urban, middle-class, well-mannered family men versus exhausted, poor, drunk, feral men who are unable to make sense of young city women with an unfamiliar freedom and independence. So, hint to Indian policemen: If you want to catch potential rapists, look no further than the slum dwellers, pavement dwellers and informal workers.
In making these arguments Sankaran seems to be missing a crucial point that sexual violence is not in the DNA of any man - poor or rich, single or happily ensconced in the glow of domesticity. Rampant sexual violence is better explained by the result of centuries of socio-cultural structures that constantly reinforce a sense of male entitlement over women’s bodies. It inheres in the reactions of men and women whose first response to an incident of rape is “But why was she dressed like that?” It rests in the reactions of the police who demand “Why were you out on the streets so late at night?” Indian society cutting across its many class, caste and religious divides seems to share this social sanction that ‘men will be men’, rightfully so, and that women’s bodies and behavior ought to be regulated to avoid any trouble.
It is this same shared social common sense that enjoins men to be the protectors of women- in their capacities of brother, husband, son, father and the like. If you didn’t realise it already, the subtext is: women are not independent individuals who exist in their own right. They are positioned as sexual objects to which all men are entitled to. It is therefore the men alone who can through their ‘duty’ towards women protect them from other men. No, Ms. Sankaran. This is not at its worst a benign “concern that becomes judgmental and stifling; and a proud or oversensitive emotional landscape”. This extends to the notion that only possession by one man is reason enough to prevent another man from claiming a woman that a woman can expect to be safe only when she toes the confines of the jurisdiction of her male protector.
It is precisely this construction of men’s duty to ‘protect’ women that prompts well meaning brothers, fathers, uncles et al to lay down elaborate rules of behavior, attire, feelings and desires ‘allowed’ for women. It is these rules which when ‘broken’, this lakshman rekha, which when crossed, sanctions the occurrence of rape and the innumerable instances of sexual harassment, in the minds of the rapists and the eyes of society.
Predatory men of the streets are therefore pitted against the family men for whom Sankaran insists, “…commitment is a joy, a duty and a deep moral anchor.” Such declarations are at their most benign, judgemental and moralistic. An unmarried young man, for whom commitment is no source of joy, who enjoys and engages in casual, but consensual sex with multiple women is most definitely no more a potential rapist than any other man!
Sankaran’s article constantly reinforces a traditional, heteronormative, positively archaic notion of the family and the community. Far too many incidents over the past decade have shown us that a romanticized celebration of community, that viewing the domestic family unit embedded in a closely knit community as the source of all that is good and positive as opposed to evil “outside” or “western” influences is highly misinformed. Households and communities are not sanitized entities free of normative conceptions of gender roles. With the National Crime Records Bureau’s statistics showing that over 90% of reported rapes is perpetrated by men who are known to the victim, this notion of family being a safe haven breaks down. If communities were truly guardians of virtues that do not solely derive their legitimacy from perpetuating a convenient status-quo, we would never have heard of the names of Divya and Ilavarasan.
Female conduct continues to be constantly scrutinized for flaws that invite sexual violence. Sankaran contradicts herself when she remarks upon recent debates regarding the imposition of dress codes on female university students “as though the trappings of civilization are need to hold at bay the anarchy of sexual violence”. This is precisely what she advocates, except that her choice of civilizing force is domesticity and not a dress code.
Sushmita V Gopalan, is a Graduate student of Economics at Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. She runs allthingsdrama.com and tweets @SushGopalan
Oviya Govindan is a Graduate student of Development Studies at Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras.Currently researching Indian modernity, economic geography, political economy of land and is on the lookout for jobs.