Freethought Activism

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.

Indian women hold placards during a protest over the gang rape of a woman in New Delhi

Two Indian women hold placards outside the residence of Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit during a protest over the gang rape of a woman in New Delhi, on December 19, 2012.
The first sign reads, “Touching a girl without her consent doesn’t make you a man, it makes you a coward”. The second sign reads, “We live in a society that teaches women not to get raped instead of teaching men not to rape”.
(AP Photo/Manish Swarup. Image links to source)

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.


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  • Sensitize Hindu–mind to the fact that both ‘Manusmrithi’ and ” Githa”{9–32},which are glorified even today, condemn women as born to sin. Remind them the vedic gods Indra and Vishnu raped Ahalya and Brinda in the mythology.

      • Even if the claim made by Shankar R is true (though not true really) I fail to see how that is a relevant comment to this article which is about misogynst attitudes in India.

        • The reason is that the title is quite misleading, as though India suffers a rape epidemic, although the issue has been thrust into the limelight due to one or two high profile cases recently. What is “rape culture”? This is as absurd as claiming there is a “murder culture” or “theft culture” or “kidnap culture” when criminals commit those crimes randomly for their own selfish gains, much as they commit them anywhere else in the world. Certainly, no schools, parents or friends cajole young men in India to rape women, at least to my knowledge, so don’t know what the term is supposed to mean.
          Here are statistics from Wikipedia on the rape rates of various countries.

          A lot of other advanced countries are relatively worse off, and I can completely believe the statistics. I have, in my long period of more than 30 years of residence in India, right from childhood, never personally known any woman who was known to have been raped, nor anyone else who personally knew a rape victim. On the other hand, during my stay in the US for only a decade, I had many of my colleagues who knew someone personally who had been raped, mostly by their dates. Date rape drugs such as rohypnol used to be circulated widely in the 90’s in certain parts of the US. If there is a “rape culture” to speak of, this was it.
          I know that there is a blip in rape rates in the NCR region surrounding Delhi (in all categories of crimes, not just rape). The problem is, the media wants us to believe that Delhi is India and India is Delhi, and as though other regions don’t matter. If Delhi has a problem, the rest of India is supposed to have the same problem. This is what the talking heads of our media would want us to believe.
          Within India, the rape rates vary widely. See p 206-207 of the official statistics of National Crime Records Bureau here-

          The relative rates are Delhi (2.8), Bangalore (1.1), Chennai (0.9), Mumbai (1.2), Ahmedabad (0.9) and Coimbatore (0.4). It can be seen that the reality is complicated. India has too heterogeneous a population to talk of some crime wave sweeping the whole nation. And the issue needs to be addressed in specific ways depending on the exact context in which rape might occur in different parts of the country. For example, date rape might be an issue in Delhi or Mumbai, but would hardly matter in a place like Coimbatore with its conservative mores and no night clubs to speak of. Similarly, rape as a mean of subjugating lower castes might be of more relevance in rural parts of the country compared to urban centres.
          I’m afraid the current mass outrage against rape we see might just go the way of the Anna Hazare movement without doing anything productive in the long run, since it is rooted more in appealing to emotions than any well thought out policy which has to first and foremost scrutinize the actual statistics and see the feasibility of how lower it can go realistically. One cannot achieve a zero rate any more than one can achieve a zero murder rate or a zero traffic fatality rate.

          • First you link to a piece that misrepresents statistics to spread hatred of muslims.

            And now you are presenting poor evidence to support your claims. You make a category error in assuming that statistics collected in India are on parity with statistics collected elsewhere. Women in India don’t report sexual harassment to the same degree that women in western countries do. You are using a privileged narrative to assert that just because you haven’t heard of any acts of sexual harassment, they don’t exist.

            Before you comment again, I suggest you read this. This isn’t the first time you hijacked these comment spaces to make it a platform for your bigoted views.

          • Couldn’t you have made these ridiculous points with out bringing up Muslim immigrants in Nordic countries?

            So what really was the point of your first post?

          • // What is rape culture? //

            // so don’t know what the term is supposed to mean. //

            This very article explains various elements of rape culture in the Indian context. I take it you didn’t read it? Stop wasting our time.

  • “This very article explains various elements of rape culture in the Indian context.”

    Don’t know if this comment of mine would go through (the last 2 didn’t), so will keep it short.

    Whatever points were brought up in the article doesn’t still justify the term rape culture, which implies that there is a culture in India that actively encourages rape, and I have no reason to believe that that is the case. Also regions with conservative mindsets regarding women do not necessarily report the highest rape rates. This can be cross checked in the National Crime Records Bureau document I have mentioned earlier.

    “Stop wasting our time.”

    No one is forcing you to read my comments. You have every right to skip over them on seeing my name. But in any case, I will spare even that agony, for I have decided not to post henceforth on this site. Bye.

    • I think you came into the discussion with a definition of rape culture that suits your purposes. If you were interested in good faith argumentation rather than in simply injecting your preconceived notions, you would have googled what rape culture is. You would have then found in what sense the article uses the term “rape culture” (Hint: the entire second paragraph of the article).

      Of course we could have simply ignored your comment. But this site tries to achieve a balance between debating ideas and making it a safe space. When comments which are obviously bigoted are let to stand, it signals that a person who is marginalized would not be taken seriously here. When they see someone saying that there is no rape culture, it means that if they were to share their experiences, they would get a response on the lines of “I don’t believe you”, or “are you for real”. For us, making such people comfortable enough to read this site is a lot more important than to give people a platform to air bigoted views in the name of a debate.

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