Dear Minister Chaudhary: There is nothing sacred about marriage or marital rape

In the last scene of Satyajit Ray’s Devi, Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee, looking dapper despite a thin moustache lying like a dead earthworm above his upper lip) meets his wife Daya (a teenaged Sharmila Tagore) after months. His reaction: shock and horror. The way he reacts to the sight of Daya could actually have seemed funny, if it wasn’t so heartbreaking. His eyes widen theatrically, his lips quiver and his voice is wobbly. Because Daya, it is plain to see, has gone completely mad.

Jewellery gleams on Daya's ears and neck, but instead of dressed up, she looks like a wreck. Her hair is a a mess, her bindi is smeared, the kohl has smudged around her eyes to look like bruising, and her gaze is wild. “We must run away,” she tells her husband. “Otherwise they’ll kill me,” she whispers.

Dear Minister Chaudhary: There is nothing sacred about marriage or marital rape

Representationail image. Reuters

Devi is a film about superstition and its story has nothing to do with marital rape, but when I read about Minister of State for Home, Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary’s pronouncement on Indian marriages, that scene from Ray’s film flashed before me. Particularly a shot of Umaprasad weeping as he holds a wild-eyed and delusional Daya close.

Responding to DMK MP Kanimozhi’s question about whether the present government would remove the exception of marital rape to the legal definition of rape in the Indian Penal Code, Chaudhary wrote“It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors, including level of education, illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament.” 

That an educated person in the 21st century is of the belief that marital rape is like a McDonald’s menu and needs to tweaked to suit Indian tastes — Mc Aloo Tikkis and paneer wraps for the swadeshi soul — is enough to make me feel like Tagore's loony Daya in Devi.

Perhaps we’re misunderstanding Chaudhary. He can’t be so clueless, can he? For one thing, the man is married. Surely Javalben Haribhai Chaudhary has raised her husband better than this?

So what is the Minister of State for Home saying? Marriage, he says, is a sacrament in India, but not in the rest of the world and therefore marital rape isn't relevant to Indian marriages.

Technically though, marriage is more of a sacrament internationally because “sacrament” is a Christian word. It’s used for ceremonies that are believed to impart spiritual grace upon a person. Baptism, the Eucharist and yes, marriage too, are considered sacraments according to Christianity.

But now I'm being pedantic, right? And hey, maybe he's a word nerd and is opting for the alternative definition of “sacrament”, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary is, “a thing of mysterious and sacred significance; a religious symbol.”

Now, here’s the problem with this point of view. Despite all the priests and religious hoopla, marriage is a decidedly pragmatic affair, regardless of the country. Marriage is indeed ancient, but it’s also a man-made institution, created to establish alliances and secure power as well as ownership of property.

If you think about it, the secular origins of marriage do explain why there are so few divine figures that can boast of a good marital track record. The Christian trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost is essentially a divine bachelor party, only without the naughtiness that ladies of questionable morality bring to the room. Buddha abandoned his wife and child. Prophet Muhammad had a very modern (and heartwarming) first marriage — he was 25, she was 40; she proposed, he accepted; and they lived happily ever after until she died. Then he went on to marry ten more times, including once to a child who was apparently six when they got married and all of nine when the marriage was consummated. In the Hindu pantheon, we have absolute cads like Indra, polygamous gents like Arjun and Krishna who can barely keep track of their legions of wives, and Ram, whose idea of a romantic reunion involved publicly insulting Sita and ordering her to walk into a burning pyre. Saving Hinduism’s rep is Shiva who, despite his questionable love for animal prints and his fondness for intoxicants, is a loving and mostly faithful husband (we’ll ignore the fact that in a jealous rage, he beheads his own son).

Keeping these fine religious examples in mind, it seems like an infinitely smarter idea to take as one's role models thoroughly mortal couples who have actually made marriage work, like undivorced or happily remarried parents and friends for example.

To me, more fascinating than Chaudhary’s conviction that marriage has a sacred aura, is his claim that there are “factors” that make the prevalent definition of marital rape obsolete in India. What is that definition? Marital or partner rape describes unwanted sexual acts committed by a spouse.

How does our “level of education, illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs” turn non-consensual sex in a marriage, consensual? What is the connection between knowing one’s alphabet and recognising someone's right to not be physically violated? Does a couple’s bank balance decide whether the sex is consensual? Are rich people incapable of rape? If you’re poor, then is the value of your consent proportionately low? Are the social customs and religious beliefs that Chaudhary speaks of a reference to the Hindu Marriage Act, according to which a Hindu wife cannot reject her husband’s sexual advances?

Why can the idea that there should be consent between a married couple engaged in sexual intercourse not be “suitably applied” in India? Is the minister suggesting that all Indian men are simply socialised into being a little bit rapey and Indian women accept non-consensual sex as normal?

The implication in Chaudhary’s statement is that the husband-wife relationship in India adheres to a 'traditional' (read: primitive) mindset and because the concept of marriage remains unchanging and tethered to age-old norms. To impose “modern” concepts like consent and rape to it would be too radical. Essentially, Chaudhary’s saying that until social attitudes and practices change, the laws don’t need to; and he’s not alone in this point of view. Across the political spectrum, Indian politicians have refused to acknowledge marital rape, arguing that it isn’t a priority. This is why the Verma committee's recommendation to criminalise marital rape was ignored. So we wait, and we ignore that the most common form of sexual violence reported by women is within their marriages.

No one can force India’s politicians, judges or anyone else to open their eyes to the reality of marital rape. However, people like Chaudhary should keep in mind that marriage as an institution is changing rapidly in India. Ironically enough, those changes are being effected by some of the very factors Chaudhary listed. Only, they’re contributing to dismantling and de-institutionalising marriage.

We have a woeful shortage of data about contemporary India, but the few studies and surveys that have been conducted offer unmistakable portents for the future. Marriage is shape-shifting. Traditional norms are being steadily diluted. From parent-arranged setups that placed little importance upon the couple’s personal dynamic, those getting married increasingly have more of a say in who they marry.

According to the India Human Development Survey of 2005, as far as types of marriage in India go, the greatest shift has been in the rise of marriages that were arranged by parents, but with the children’s participation. More and more young women (and men) were demanding a say in their marriages. Not just that, they felt more confident about taking their own decisions because education and jobs gave them a sense of independence and often meant living away from the family, which in turn led to old values being re-evaluated.

Earlier this year, in a paper titled “Potential (Mis)Match? Marriage Markets Amidst Sociodemographic Change in India, 2005-2050”, academicians Ridhi Kashyap, Albert Esteve and Joan Garcia-Romain studied the impact of education upon projected populations and marriage in the future. They noted that in the past, despite the appalling sex ratio at birth, India had an excess of women in the marriageable age bracket, which helped to sustain social evils like dowry. Effectively, men could still pick and choose.

However, there’s no such excess to fall back upon anymore. “Between 1990 and 2010, the total fertility rate fell from 4.1 to 2.7 and is forecasted to fall below replacement levels to 1.8 by 2050,” write Kashyap et al. As a result “between 2020 and 2050, there will be 8% to 10% excess men in marriageable ages of 20-24 and 25-29”, which means more men competing to marry fewer women.

You’d think that this would tip the scales in women’s favour, but that might not happen. Studies suggest that this imbalance is more likely to lead to rising violent crime — often against women — as well as theft. For instance in China, which has as skewed a sex ratio as India, abduction of women is becoming more and more common. The big change predicted for India and China is that marriage will no longer be "universal", which means the vast majority of the population will not be married.

According to Kashyap and her colleagues, one of the most important factors impacting the future of marriage in India is education. Although the disadvantage is still significant, over the years there have been enormous improvements in the percentage of women who can access and complete primary and secondary education. This is good news because it means more empowerment. Already, a focus on education has led to the marriageable age rising, but that's not all. Across Asia, a growing number of educated and independent women opt to remain unmarried and a high percentage of Indian women look like they're looking to join that club.

Significantly, Indian men are not matching the pace set by Indian women in terms of education. As Kashyap and her colleagues write, “In 2005, females made up nearly 65% of those with no or less than primary level of education for those between 20 and 39 years and a little more than 35% in those ages with tertiary level education. By 2025, however, more females than males aged 20-24 are expected to enrol in and complete tertiary education.”

At some point in the near future, we’re going to have to give up the idea of wives being younger and less educated than their husbands because there just won’t be enough women to go around who fit that description. Will Chaudhary now claim secondary and tertiary education for women can’t be “suitably applied” to India, since its likely to play an enormous role in changing marriage as an institution in India?

This is probably a nightmare that Chaudhary and his tribe don’t want to consider, but the fact is that Indian society is changing rapidly. Surveys from the 1990s reported that 95% of Indian women were married by 25. Look around you and you’ll know that isn’t true today, particularly in the cities. Traditional gender roles of the male breadwinner are already eroding and the day when a woman is considered attractive because she can support a house husband isn't that far away. And she's not going to take rubbish like the Hindu Marriage Act's definition of wifely duties lying down.

Hopefully, despite the likes of Chaudhary standing as bulwarks, we'll be able to ensure she doesn't have to.

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Updated Date: Apr 30, 2015 17:49:47 IST

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