We imagined, in due earnestness, that the law had had the last word. The feminist movement, championed first, after all, by the suffragettes demanding just representation in law appeared content; cases of sexual violence continued, but we rested secure in knowing that there was, at the very least, a law in place. That a law condemning violations of consent committed with malicious intention existed tethered feminist justice to the democratic state, and in turn, made the democratic state more democracy-like.
But there are no last words in law. Soon after the supposedly last word, we discovered that the progressive law had many transgressions, that its jurisprudent baritone had many silences. As the LGBTQ+ movement aptly discovered, there were spaces—and bedrooms—which the law refused to enter, rendering the sexual union unnatural, even animalistic, and so the question of consent stillborn. The inertial liberal feminist movement too, in Nivedita Menon's words, recovered its subversion, exhibiting the thunderous ability to challenge and transcend the nitty-gritties of law. Like the LGBTQ+ movement, it discovered that a critical space that the law refused to lord over was the family, where even rape could be legitimised in the name of matrimony. The law, in fact, was locked in a bull-in-china-shop relationship with the family, if at all it were to enter. Was the criminalisation of non-consent only for those outside marriage an assertion of sexual governance, where only those who faltered in loving and marrying along acceptable lines were punished — either by the law or by the sovereignty of the khap? The consensus became an impassé.
The recent cases of sexual violence concerning Mahmood Farooqui, Aziz Ansari, and Shamir Reuben illustrate that this impassé from law has become a contestation within and of law itself. Mahmood Farooqui, a man of letters prominent for his revival of Dasgangoi, the dying Urdu art of storytelling, was convicted in August, 2016, on the charge of raping a friend from the United States; she alleged that although some of their sexual interaction was consensual, Farooqui had taken the liberty to advance further into oral sex without asking for consent or acknowledging her resistance to his untoward advances. On 25 September, 2017, the Delhi High Court held that what the lady had uttered was a 'feeble' no, which Farooqui could have merely ignored because he would expect more forceful expression from a Western, modern, educated woman, thus acquitting him of all charges immediately.
A similar ‘controversy’ struck another man of the arts, Aziz Ansari, a noted comedian known for the sensitive portrayal of the nuances of race and gender in his sketches, when he was accused, by the medium of a pop-feminist website by the name of Babe, of forcing sexual activity on a woman despite clear expressions of discomfort and unwillingness. Ansari’s reaction was to maintain that he took the encounter to be consensual, not violence, and that he took this conclusion “by all indications.”
As a final illustration, there was also Shamir Reuben, a slam poet in Mumbai, who became an object of trenchant social media attack as narrative after narrative — most of them from ‘underage’ women, where underage is taken to be pre-adulthood — recounted harrowing tales of how Reuben had used his social influence to force the aforesaid women into a gamut of acts, from sexual intimacy to the sharing of explicit photographic material. In his public defence, Reuben said, “I wish Sakina (Bootwala), and all the women who have spoken-up, well and I respect them for raising this important issue. Violence of any form against women should not be tolerated. But, I have not and never intended to harm or harass them in any way.”
The law may have tried to settle the question of consent into fixtures of black and white, but these recent events – and particularly their accused suspects – have demanded a fundamental re-reading of events, asking that consent be reinscribed to account for its indefinite nature and acknowledge only that consent exists in the realm of the ambiguous where a 'no' may be too feeble and therefore mean yes.
Advocates of such an understanding remind us of the need to remain rooted in our obsessive desire for the lingual and the clearly verbal when we say that a 'no' must unequivocally mean negation – a plea towards, in other words, not making things more complicated than they really are.
They submit that Farooqui, Ansari, and Reuben could not, in the absence of a clearly verbal cue of negation, understand that their sexual partners were uncomfortable and thus unwilling actors in the act. Some went as far as to say that the fear that women in the first two cases felt of their harasser inflicting even more violence on them should they resist has clear and deeply racist undertones given their racial positions – a charge that is as untenable as frivolous.
For what politics asks of us, it is indisputable that the reductive maxim of ‘no means no’ has to be rehabilitated, not destroyed, but does this imply a movement towards a greying of the domain of consent, where even a 'no' would mean yes? Or, if one were to hope, a chiming in with the global feminist conversation on affirmative justice, wherein a 'yes' means yes and other expressions are varying degrees of discomfort, unwillingness, and active resistance? The law may once have seen great virtue in tethering justice to language, but there are injustices that language has no vocabulary to express and whose silence, however deafening, is appropriated towards masculinist entitlement to the female body. ‘Grace,’ the pseudonymed survivor of Ansari’s violence, remembers asking if they could stop, taking quiet moments to sob, and write to him against his deliberate neglect of “clear non-verbal cues.” There is so much that we leave unread when we wait, as faithful subjects of law, for that decisive, earth-shattering moment when a 'no' would be voiced. We leave unread violence, its perpetrator, the individual who is more than an aggregation of physical reaction, and the temerity of not saying 'yes' to a man who desires and is unafraid in seizing it.
Published Date: Mar 01, 2018 14:56 PM | Updated Date: Mar 04, 2018 14:59 PM