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Guiltlessness of gang rape: Safety of numbers

 by Shiv Viswanathan

The recent reports on the increasing frequency of gang rape raises a set of unsettling questions. We all know it happens but we do not question it as a happening. As a wag put it, “Woman gang raped” is becoming a weekly headline as much as “Woman loses gold chain” was in the sixties.

Gang rape is a strange ritual. Unlike rape, which is a one to one encounter, gang rape has an assembly line quality which violates the woman again and again. It is an assault in sequence, where the brutality repeats itself to emphasise the animal desire of man, not as an individual but a species. An individual rape may focus on desire, an erotic need for a person, a need to control a person. Gang rape is sexuality as an urge, lived out as indifference.

Five men entering a woman turn her into a vessel, a machine for assuaging need. The asymmetry of the encounter is both horrific and meaningless. It is as if the man is indifferent to the woman, except as a point of entry.

 Guiltlessness of gang rape: Safety of numbers

Gang rape is sexuality as an urge, lived out as indifference. AFP

In that sense, gang rape is more savage, brutal and more difficult to comprehend. After the encounter, the men acquire an invisibility of gender, number and collectivity. They become nameless while the woman becomes a type to be singled out for criticism. The victim has to account for her presence, identity, and behavior while the men fade into anonymity. The act of kidnapping often precedes the rape and threat virtually follows it.

Our sensitivity does not extend to the fate of the woman. Instead of sympathy, we provide sociology, often reading it as a biological act. The closure is an almost flippant “men will be men”. It is almost as if the collective nature of the act provides a sense of apparent legitimacy.

The question that one must ask is: why is gang rape treated with indifference? Does one woman’s rape look like a crime and gang rape look like a trend? Does the fact of number make it a biological act, a force of nature we dare not talk about? Does the fact that the woman is usually abandoned and left in trauma, like an empty vessel, add to the vulnerability and silence? Society provides gang rapes with a coating of invisibility or inevitability, which we must challenge. There is nothing epidemic to gang rape. For all its bestial quality, it is a premeditated act of brutality which needs to be treated as such.

The genres of explanation for a rape and a gang rape tend to be different. A single rapist is confronted as psychology or pathology; he is law and order problem. A gang rape summons policy and prohibitions against the women. It is she who is seen as a law and order problem vitiating morals in a region. There is a touch of excess which works against the woman. Crime in collectivity seems less “guiltless”.

Thus gang rape creates the mask of two false sociologies. The man becomes a collectivity and as a gang seems to have a different persona. The woman rather than being constructed as a victim, as a survivor, is in fact, seen as first cause. She is seen as an unbounded figure available as she moves in the night, responsible for her own plight because she is “out after eight”. The men become Pavlovian dogs salivating at a woman.

The network of anonymity, invisibility and indifference creates a narrative which is less like an event and more like an abstract statistic. People read the report as they read news on weather. It is a social weather forecast about which they can do little. It has this air of episodic inevitability. Urbanism, consumerism and scarcity explain it away.

We need to break the language which gives violence an impersonal quality and name the perpetrators. Secondly, we must challenge the narratives that seek to explain away the event by locating cause, the source of the problem in women. The observation, “a woman in the night is a woman out of place” is a false rationale. Why is it when it comes to independent women, we ration freedom and respectability in pipettes?

We need to make the perpetrators more visible. List out their names, localities, residence, and village origins. Print their photographs. Till there is a cycle of humiliation, the rapist acts as gutlessly as an animal in a rut. Unless we put the perpetrator on the defensive, the cycle of indifference will be hard to break. Deterrence is the beginning of exorcism where the victim can feel whole again.

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Updated Date: Mar 17, 2012 15:11:58 IST