Bengaluru Freethinkers’ January 2013 Meet – A Discussion on Rape Culture
Our meeting on 6th January 2013 was held at Jaaga. We had 7 people attending, including two new faces!
In light of the Delhi gang rape case, we decided to talk about rape culture and the sexual violence that women face everyday. Rather than think of rape as a one-time event, we decided to look at it as one extreme in an entire spectrum of sexual violence. At one end, there is street harassment: intimidation through blatant leering, catcalling and sexual comments directed at women. We then have women being groped and stalked, and men exposing themselves to women. At the extreme end of the spectrum, we have rape, acid attacks, mutilation and murder. All these crimes may have different motives, but there is one thing in common: they’re all condoned by a culture that chooses to blame victims for somehow provoking their attackers, dismisses the issue as a “women’s problem” rather than a societal problem, and normalizes and glorifies sexual violence.
We talked about how male sexuality is portrayed as aggressive, and violence is glorified as something that’s sexy. We see this in the increasing popularity of hip-hop and singers like Honey Singh in cities. In rural areas, there is this mindset that encourages upper-caste men to prove their masculinity by raping lower-caste women. Movies portray heroes who continue making sexual advances even after the girls have made it clear that they’re not interested. We then talked about the heavy amount of repression in India. The stigma against dating and pre-marital sex leads to sexual desires being expressed in unhealthy and violent ways.
We discussed how Indian society is structured in a hierarchical manner. Because of this, people feel entitled to prove their dominance over those who are below them in the hierarchy. Sexual violence is one of the methods perpetrators use to establish their dominance over someone else. Since women are always considered lower than men in the hierarchy, they end up having to put up with the most sexual violence. In many parts of the country, such caste-based sexual violence is rampant. We see this in villages where wealthy landowners routinely rape Dalit women and get away with it.
We talked about how rape has been used as a weapon of war to intimidate and subjugate an entire population: in North-East India and Kashmir, West Africa, and even during the communal riots in Gujarat. We talked about how Al-Shabab militants are ordered to rape civilians in Sudan, and how rape has been used as a means to boost soldiers’ morale. We talked about how we can stop rapes by soldiers, how we need to modify the Armed Forces Act and look at how gender sensitization training is done in other countries’ armed forces.
Rape is also used as punishment. Women are often raped for doing something that upsets the status quo (Phoolan Devi, lesbians). Sometimes, women are raped to punish her family. We talked about an instance where a woman was raped because her brother eloped with an upper-caste woman.
Disincentives to Reporting Rapes:
- There is a lot of stigma attached to rape. In no other crime is the victim blamed for ‘bringing it on to themselves’, or the victim’s character questioned. Moreover, there is the notion that the rape victim has brought dishonor on her family. Often, the family is ostracized by the larger community. Not only does the victim have to put up with the stigma, but so does her family. Once the word gets out, it becomes difficult for her siblings to find someone willing to marry them.
- Indian culture makes it difficult to level allegations against men in the same community who are older or more powerful (or both). In these cases the victim is often discredited, especially when the perpetrator is a relative or family friend. These men are considered above reproach, and they are in a position to make the victim’s life very difficult. Even if the victim tells someone who believes her, they are often advised not to report the crime to the police.
Effects of Rape:
Many people close to the victim are affected by a single rape, even across generations. It’s not just the victim, but the victim’s parents and siblings who suffer the stigma. In addition, the victim feels the need to place restrictions on her (future or current) daughters as an attempt to keep them safer.
Cultural Narratives around Sexual Violence:
We talked about how there has been a gender-based division of labour that relegates women to the domestic sphere. Women who work outside the house are paid less, which adds to the notion that women are inherently worth less than men. Women’s roles are primarily those of a wife and mother, which means their worth is based on their sexuality. This leads to the idea that rape is an act of destroying a woman’s life permanently, and is the worst way someone can take revenge on a woman or her family.
Another part of the problem are the rigid gender roles assigned to people. On one hand, it restricts women’s roles, so that women are viewed primarily through a sexual lens. On the other hand, it leads to the notion that women are supposed to stay within certain limits. Women who step out of the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ are considered fair game when it comes to sexual violence.
We talked about how culture treats women’s sexuality as a taboo. Right from puberty, girls are told that they are unclean during menstruation, that their bodies are shameful, that it is uncouth to talk about their bodies and their sexuality. When a woman is sexually abused (often by a family member, relative or family friend), she is discouraged from talking about it. This means rapists often get away without any consequences and go on to victimize others without being stopped.
We discussed the notion that a woman’s sexuality does not really belong to her. Before marriage, it is the responsibility of her father to safeguard her sexuality. After marriage, it belongs to her husband. This means that culture doesn’t recognize marital rape. It is viewed as a husband claiming ownership of something that belongs to him. For the similar reasons, domestic violence is also dismissed.
We talked about how parents raise boys (and girls) to believe that women are not supposed to be better than men. The boys grow up to believe that any woman who reproaches them or raises her voice against them is guilty of trying to emasculate them. These men then feel a need to assert their dominance by assaulting the woman, often sexually. In this case, sexual assault becomes an act of ‘putting women in their place’. We discussed examples of this attitude that we had personally witnessed.
We then moved on to media and its portrayal of women. How tabloids use sex to increase sales, how sexual images are used in advertisements. Newspapers like the Times of India put pictures of scantily clad actresses next to articles that have little to do with them. Films employ item numbers to grab eyeballs, which leads to their portrayal as sexual objects.
We talked about the film ‘Cocktail’ that portrayed two different women. The first woman is modern and independent: someone who drinks, wears short skirts and engages in sexual relationships with men. The second woman is traditional: someone who prays regularly, wears traditional clothes and doesn’t date around. The film then goes on to show that the first type of women are only suitable for casual relationships, to be discarded afterwards, and the second type are the ones who are to be married. There is this idea in today’s culture that the only women who are worthy are those who are chaste and who conform to traditional roles.
We discussed the notion that women who wear non-traditional clothes are asking to be raped. The idea that it is provocative for women to show a little bit if skin, while men who show a similar amount of skin are not being provocative. We discussed the parallel narrative that it is provocative for a woman to walk around late at night, but not for a man. That women get raped even when they wear traditional clothes and avoid going out late at night, and how it’s important to challenge these perceptions.
What We Can Do:
We talked about how there was a need to change attitudes towards women, even if it will take a long time for cultural change. We discussed what we could to prevent rape.
- In the short term, we need to come up with mechanisms to protect and assist women.
— Set up committees for women to complain about harassment.
— Training about what constitutes harassment.
— Sensitizing the police force about sexual violence.
— There isn’t enough awareness on women’s rights among the general population. We agreed that we should create a pamphlet to educate people on women’s rights, telling them how to reach out to the police and what kind of procedures they are likely to come across.
— We also discussed mobilizing volunteers in each neighborhood who can help in an emergency situation. This includes people who can help ensure victims’ safety, assist while dealing with the police and provide legal guidance. We talked about how we could team up with NGOs who are already working on the issue.
— Call for an end to the ‘two-finger’ test used to medically verify rape.
— Safety in numbers: advocate for public transport to ply throughout the night. Don’t discourage women from staying out late.
- In the longer term, we need to educate people and bring about a change in attitudes.
— Keep facilitating everyday interaction between members of both sexes. Without this platonic, everyday type of interaction, men and women only interact with each other as family members or sexual partners. As a result, women are viewed primarily through a sexual lens.
— Educate men on how to approach and talk to women whom they wish to date. Talk to them about boundaries and what constitutes respectful behavior, and to respect women’s decisions when they say ‘No’. Tell them that direct communication is important to prevent confusion and any non-consensual sexual interaction, and how they can’t pretend to be platonic friends with a girl just to wait for an opportunity to ‘get in her pants’.
— Teach people about consent. What constitutes date rape. That just because a woman has consented to one sexual act does not imply she has consented to any other sexual act.
— Facilitate the economic empowerment of women, which will help prevent sexual violence from being swept under the carpet.
- We also need to bridge the urban/rural divide in women’s issues.
— Ask rural NGOs how we can help them and complement their work.
— Unite pro-women groups in rural areas.
— Keep pressing the government to combat caste-based violence, which is often manifested through rape.