By Saswat Pattanayak
The need is to change the entire language of rape. Not to just call it a rape, but as rape by men. Not simply that a Dalit woman was raped, but a Dalit woman was raped by a Hindu upper-caste man. Not just a woman was gang-raped, but six men raped a woman one by one by one by one by one by one. Not just Violence Against Women (VAW), but Violence Against Women By Men (VAWBM). Not just laws around gender discrimination or sexism, but specifically around men discriminating against women or laws to hold male sexists accountable. Not just a survivor or a victim, but a woman victim of a crime committed by men. Sure, it will upset the traditional editing style sheets, and the brevity would be a casualty, but there are far greater casualties in the process when we do not explore the societal norms by calling them what they really are and each time supplementing them with supportive statistics.
In a rape culture, as Andrea Dworkin once said, statistics do not quantify the injuries, they are used merely to convince the world that such injuries even exist. All the more reason why social locations of the victims and the perpetrators need to be declared while reporting the violence, because the invisibility of genderqueer and religious/caste/racial minorities is even more pronounced when we fail to take into account the perpetrator as even a gendered being. Merely categorizing a sexual assault as violent crime is to discount the very complexed and humanized basis of rape culture. The truth is all of us – men and women – have been socialized with casteism, homophobia and heterosexism. Denying this will keep the prejudices intact. We need to recognize any racist and homophobic/transphobic remarks and the abundantly circulated “rape jokes” even before we can recognize the various ingredients of the rape culture we inhabit. As Dale Spender mentioned in her work “Men Made Language”, there are 220 words for a sexually promiscuous woman and only 20 for her male counterpart. We need to alter this man-made language and call rape as what it actually entails, as described by the women survivors/victims, not as how the sexist judicial experts define it by.
Military rape, minority rape, date rape, workplace rape, marital rape. There is our rape, and then there is their rape. If violence against all women must stop, there probably is little use in stratifying rape in this way. But in a lesser than ideal environment that pervades us, such a stratification is acutely essential. Social locations – age, gender, class, nationality, sexual orientation, ability, caste, race, religion, etc play significant roles in enabling a rape culture to remain acceptable for centuries now. Ignoring social locations is the primary reason why it takes so long for the men to realize that rape is untenable. Because truth be told, rape culture prevails not because rape is considered an heinous aberration, but because rape is socially sanctioned in the garb of various systems of oppressions.
If conviction rate is abysmally low all over the world when it comes to cases of rape reaching the court, it is precisely because there lies a distinction between what ‘we’ consider as rape versus what ‘they’ do. Ageism affects rape culture to the extent that younger women are more likely to be accepted as rape victims than older women. The “two-finger” test is a logical continuation of such an illogic. When it comes to gender, the men are rarely accepted as rape victims (even when the perpetrators remain overwhelmingly men). Out of fear of being called a “sissy”, a man in the rape culture rarely tests legal boundaries, which in turn, by definition exclude men from the purview as potential victims. Class as a cultural construct poses as much a hindrance to justice as it remains as an economic category. Rape of “low-class” women hardly merit any legal consideration, let alone conviction. The “good women” can only be raped, ever since the days of mythologies or since beginning of the “world’s oldest profession”. Nationality of the woman works against her if she happens to be a refugee from Bangladesh, a subject of a disputed region such as Kashmir, a freedom fighter from the North-East, or a prisoner of war anywhere in the world. Rape is blurred even more when it comes to alternative sexual orientations. The stigmatization goes one step further as the larger world perceives sexual assault itself might have “caused” queer people to be queer. Caste and race play decisive roles in how rape statistic is registered. Dalits, Muslims or genderqueer in India are constant targets of sexual assaults that are hardly ever considered as hate crimes, leading to no special provisions to protect the most vulnerable sections of the society.
Such abject desensitization is not unique to a specific country. Following the unprecedented media coverage of recent gangrape in Delhi, many commentators across political milieu have come up to interrogate “Indian culture”. While some have discovered the Indian culture mutilated through western influences leading thereby to violence against women, the more critical variety have been on a spree to denounce everything about Indian culture to point out its inherent sexism that has logically led to a misogynistic atmosphere. Demands are being made to not just focus on Delhi, but rest of India, not just on Hindu women, but women from all religions and regions, not just the middle class, but also the working class and the indigenous. All these are necessary and certainly long overdue. At the same time, all these demands invariably – directly or indirectly – work towards cleansing the national image. The idea is to let our Motherland emerge stronger by taking care of ‘her’ women and prevail upon the world as the land of mythical superwomen that India is destined to re-emerge as. Such romanticized notions of an infallible nationhood undergoing a shocking phase of gangrape has itself made a mockery of women’s issues on this planet, while systematically undermining the political economy of sexual assaults.
In a rape culture, rape should appear as the least shocking of realities. Sure, India has a 26% conviction rate, but in the United States, there are an estimated 400,000 “rape kits” currently backlogged. And by the time the kits are tested the statute of limitations expires and the rapists no longer get charged. Only 24 percent of rapists are arrested in America. The statistic is not any more encouraging in the United Kingdom either. The British government acknowledges that as many as 95% of rapes are never reported to the police, and the country has roughly 6.5% conviction rate. Los Angeles with 923 cases, Philadelphia with 945 cases and New York City with 1092 incidents of reported rape cases, the differences between first world and third world countries soon begin to fade when it comes to treatment of women. According to FBI, a violent crime occurs every 25.3 seconds with a murder every 35.6 minutes while forcible rape takes place every 6.2 minutes. Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center reports that 78 women are forcibly raped each minute in the U.S. (which is 1,871 per day or 683,000 per year). Over 23% of lesbian and bisexual women had been raped compared to 6% of their heterosexual peers. Likewise, 83% of women and 32% of men with developmental disabilities have been sexually assaulted.
America has no national rape law and among the victims of hate crimes, the number of raped women are double the number of those murdered. Not to mention, of the average 90,000 rapes reported, only 20,000 rapists are identified each year. Moreover, statutory rape is excluded from the definition of rape, just as forcible oral or anal penetrations are. Also excluded from the definition of rape are penetration of vagina or anus with an object or other body part, the rape of a man, the rape of a woman by another woman, any non-consensual rape that does not involve physical force such as rape during the drugged or drunk conditions.
Dwelling upon the uncanny resemblance between India and the United States, the “culture” in Rape Culture emerges as merely a condition, not the root. The political economy – the various stages of evolving feudalism and capitalism – offers the systemic grounds for rape normative. Towards that extent, rape culture is a global, and not a national, phenomenon and it sanctions violence against women by men across all cultures of the world.
Delhi faltered only in so far as the jingoistic tone retained its character by expressing shock and disgust that unfolded in dramatized teary-eyed disbelieving manners. Beyond that, any feminist movement small or big – in rural hinterlands or capital cities – is worthy of unquestioned solidarity. It is only because the Delhi protests focused so much on reclaiming “Indian culture” (clearly a regressive myth in itself), that the global media continued to focus on India reforming itself, rather than understanding the revolutionary potential that such a movement could realize at an international scale.
Just as not everyone who protests against rape condones death penalty, it is also erroneous to assume that all those who join the protesters in Delhi have necessarily remained silent during assaults on women in Kashmir, Manipur or Gujarat. Instead, the question we need to ask at this hour is whether or not those who have been protesting against injustice anywhere else in the world will also join their counterparts in Delhi. The dominant energy within progressive forces displayed in enormity is a continuation of the larger anti-status-quoist progressions in India that are quite evidently present to the extent that the Prime Minister considers some activists as traitors to the country and as principal threats to India’s internal security. It would be a monumental mistake to overlook this acknowledgement on part of the state power that a viable alternative exists in India that clearly has caused unprecedented discomfort to the ruling elites. The massively organized supports for the Maoists and indigenous peoples all over the “tribal belts” demonstrate this anti-nationalistic presence. Numerically, the statistics may not be overwhelming, but there is a growing consensus and empathy-building in process that must be duly recognized as potentially revolutionary in Indian context. These groups of dissenters have invariably always protested against misogyny and patriarchy, without exceptions, and they have expressed similar outrage when it came to Delhi.
Everything that has been said about violence against Dalits, on Muslim women and women elsewhere in India, especially in Gujarat and Kashmir, are true. And it is also true that the national media have neglected to adequately report – as is their wont – the protest movements associated with the causes in North-East and Odisha. But it is quite another thing to suggest that people have not raised their voices against oppression in India, while the Indian state machinery has been roundly harassing and brutalizing dissenters – including numerous Soni Suris – all over the country all these years, precisely to throttle the resistance movements.
Many progressives have questioned why Delhi, why now and why the middle class? Isn’t the middle class, after all, the biggest perpetrator of violence against women? The answer is perhaps a tad simplistic – culturally enslaved by the corporate media, the bourgeois elements in Indian society usually wake up only to the “breaking news” and “shocking news”. And therefore the concerns are genuine – that the middle class might even disappear from the map of activism as soon as the media cease coverages of this specific “event”. And to criticize them for not finding Manipur and Gujarat shocking enough is to state just the obvious. However, to find them joining the ranks of their traditional adversaries in exposing the multi-level failures of the Indian state power, in fact provides a profound opportunity for further sensitization and consciousness-raising. Any occasion is as good as the present to forge alliances with the reluctant and the enthused, the enlightened and the uninitiated. History is replete with revolutionary moments, occasional and unexpected “sparks” that have altered its course.
What India needs right now is greater mobilization among peoples across social locations from all over the country and the world – to sufficiently challenge the dominant narrative propounded by the “vibrant democracy” advocates. Not to strengthen it by employing reactionary excuses of undermining the growing dissent. But to overwhelm the ruling class with pronounced narratives of non-compliance that hitherto were considered unpatriotic. If the eventual goal is to transform the entire society, it has to take into account the heterogeneity of comradely compositions and revolutionary diversity – recognizing the differences, and celebrating the common goals. Its not some monolithic Indian culture we need to reclaim from the purists. We need to participate in and make the entire women’s movement our own – sustained media or not, political will or not. And we need to Take Back the Nights – everywhere in the world.
Renowned feminist Selma James recently cited Mumia Abu-Jamal’s response to the increasing criticism of the Occupy Movements as being less than inclusive. She said when some people asked Mumia why “this place (Occupy) is so white?”, he answered, “Then get your ass over there. If its white, darken it. Turn up. Participate. Make it yours.”
(Written for Kindle Magazine. Illustration: Soumik Lahiri)