The popular columnist Shobhaa De was treading on thin ice when in a Times of India column, “Beep! Beep! What the f*** is going on?" she celebrated the 'F' word as "cathartic and liberating".
In her words, "If 'cuss and be damned' is your mantra, you are actually doing your overworked heart a big favour. If more people cussed away uninhibitedly, chances are the world would be a kinder, gentle place."
She then went on to link the popularity of the Hindi film Delhi Belly to the "stimulating dialogue" of gaalis, "especially English ones". She suggested that to call someone "cunt" was not as terrible as its Hindi equivalent. De was ecstatic that our Hindi films had come a long way from showing two flowers kissing to "full on, in-your-face sex scenes". Wanting to sound cautious, she drew a distinction by saying that "Good cussing is when there is no malice behind the swear word, and is used to express love and admiration..." as against "bloody-minded cussing" which is by people with evil thoughts.
I am inclined to believe that many rapists and potential rapists would agree with De because they actually act out those cuss words. Rape as an instrument of violence against women is so deep in human psyche that it has existed in all parts of the world since ancient times — irrespective of the efficacy of the law and order system. Therefore, it is wrong to focus entirely on demanding a good law and order system without even as much as debating what else needs to be looked at in Indian society to address the current epidemic of rapes.
It’s there, sitting innocuously in our daily language. When we say “F*** you” to one another, we are in fact saying that I want you to be punished violently, I want you to be raped. What rapists do is act out their anger and frustration. It’s therefore not a “us” versus “them rapists” problem; it’s a problem that concerns our society as a whole.
The mass protests by students in Delhi and elsewhere calling for stronger laws and better policing in the national capital, the intense television debates blaming poor policing for rape can be justified, but only to an extent. Although they are directed at the police and the politicians, they are in fact demanding a response from the state as a whole. If stiff laws and good policing were enough to control rape, it is worth pondering why rape and gangrape — predominantly by college students — is a widespread reality in the United States.
The US may not have seen brutal rapes of the kind seen in New Delhi recently, but the problem is real and has been analysed by scholars in far greater depth in the US than in India.
Those like De who want more explicit sex in our films and more profanity in our daily language may want to study the views of the American writer Timothy Beneke, author of Men on Rape: What They Have to Say About Sexual Violence. Beneke who has written extensively on gender and sexism in the US says that the dangerously distorted perception of women that rapists have stands reinforced by language: "Not every man is a rapist, but every man who grows up in America and learns American English learns all too much to think like a rapist, to structure his experience of women and sex in terms of status, hostility, control, and dominance."
Beneke says that American English is rich with metaphors which see sex as an achievement and describe women “as a commodity to be possessed or stolen”. This language reinforces status, hostility, control and dominance of men over women through the popular culture and rape is more about this dominance and control over women than about sensual pleasure or sexual satisfaction.
One may argue that Indian rapists, hailing mostly from the lower strata of society, hardly know American English. But what about the culture of sexuality, permissiveness and promiscuity that is being promoted aggressively by our advertisers, films and the media? Is such an emerging culture providing some sort of legitimacy to rape, at least subconsciously. What about the rising incidents of young, well-educated men spiking the drinks of their female companions at late night parties and then indulging in gangrapes? Is it possible that rapists are grabbing young women as a reaction to the changing values in Indian society?
There are many similarities and dissimilarities in the pattern of rapes in India and the United States. The US does not see the kind of brutal gangrapes as seen in India. While a majority of rapists convicted in India are from the lower strata of society engaged in menial jobs, nearly half of the victims (and their rapists, one would assume) in America are from poorer sections. The trend of young collegians spiking the drinks of their female companions and then committing the crime has been long-prevalent in the US and is catching up in India.
There’s the added dimension in India, most pronounced in states like Haryana which saw 16 rapes during September-October, 2012. In many parts of India, women are distinctly seen as inferior sub-humans, who should stay confined at home, behind a veil, cook, produce children, take care of the in-laws and entertain their husbands. It becomes intolerable for men with such mindsets when young women begin to challenge such stereotypes by stepping out and surpassing them in education and employment and by asserting their independence and financial freedom. Such women then, deserve to be punished— and humiliated violently with rape, is the thinking. When more and more men think similarly and decide to punish women, there’s the opportunity for gangrape and the planning and plotting begins.
The solution to such a social aberration does not lie entirely with the police or the politicians. Society as a whole needs to put in greater efforts towards better education, gender sensitisation and creating awareness about the equality of women and their right to free movement. Promoting a culture of free and easy sex as is done by advertisers, filmmakers and the media at large can only be counter-productive with a violent reaction from those who don’t have access to such a culture.
Blaming the politicians and the police comes most easily to us whenever something goes wrong in our society, as with the prevailing epidemic of rape. The media and the opposition parties go in attack mode, the government takes some steps and assures many more to soothe tempers and its soon back to normal till the next crisis hits us.
What is needed is deeper introspection about what’s going wrong. Improving the law and order machinery is part of the solution; the remaining part rests with others in society, which includes each one of us.