When it is a young woman that is raped, people ask what she was doing, what she was wearing, where she was, who she was with.
When a little girl is raped we ask what kind of monsters did it.
When an elderly woman is raped we ask the same question; are these men or monsters?
I have two questions:
When does the age of innocence end and the age of connivance kick in? And what age does it end again?
To me rape is so obviously a crime that needs a criminal in order to take place that I do not see any link between it and who the victim is. But following a conversation about the rape of an elderly nun in my home state of West Bengal, I have been thinking about rape, the so called rape culture and the far worse phenomenon (in my eyes at least) of victim shaming.
I think people who ask the first set of questions do so because it helps them distance themselves from something unpleasant. When they find a reason, it is immediately easier to assume a position of superiority by saying/thinking it would never happen to them or someone they know. A bit like the people who say they or their children never face discrimination because they are not black; or Chinese; or Indian. Victim shaming serves no real purpose apart from that extremely selfish one; it only absolves the rapist by questioning the victim’s right to lead a normal life as she has grown up to expect. The rapist and his supporters (and lawyers) seize that as an opportunity to question the victim’s motives in doing every day things like catching a bus or watching a film. A young woman walking home at night or catching a bus late is not an isolated event, her meeting a rapist is. Just as a man wearing an expensive watch while walking alone/after sunset is not doing it to attract a thief, a woman wearing anything other than full camouflage gear is also not asking to be raped. If a skirt or a pair of jeans were some kind of secret sign saying it was okay to assault the woman inside them, there would be no rapes in countries where women wear the hijab, the saree and other supposedly ‘decorous’ clothes.
I have heard people commenting on how a good looking woman is especially brave (what they mean is foolhardy) when they do the same every day things as the rest of the population. If there was any real link between good looks or the lack of them, age, hairstyle and a hundred other things with rape, baby girls and elderly women would almost always be safe.
If women going out was how women put themselves at risk of rape, then the statistic that 70% of rapes happen between an abuser and a victim who know each other would apply to rapes by strangers and not the other way round.
Victim shaming is so embedded in the way we are that it permeates the language used in media all over the world. Why do newspapers report a woman as being raped? Was it an accident? Did the woman accidentally fall down and find herself pinned underneath a man who then proceeded to rape her?
Please, let us have some justice from the start; let us say ‘a man in the northern suburbs assaulted several women’ instead of ‘several women in the northern suburbs were allegedly assaulted by a man (on a bike who drove up to them, grabbed their bottoms and drove off).’ He had to be there, and if several unrelated women are reporting the same thing about a man who matches all the unrelated descriptions, I am sure no one is going to quibble over the use of the word ‘allegedly’ so let us drop that too.
An overhaul of the way men and women are described in media is long overdue any way; so, less of the Anglo-Indian woman who was the Park Street rape victim, the female minister who keeps trim by describing circles with her ankles under the desk in meetings and by using a treadmill outside them, the middle aged teacher with a motherly approach and the svelte female cyclist whose blonde ponytail swung behind her as she overtook everyone to come first. Being Anglo-Indian might have been part of her identity but it had nothing to do with her death from encephalitis; she is a minister first, her ankles are secondary to the work she does; being a mother is not a requirement for teaching and by middle age, I for one am past feeling motherly towards anything with teenage hormones and lastly, I have seen any number of male cyclists with long hair, so why do the papers never talk about their hair care regimen?
Rapes only happen when people grow up thinking it is okay to violate another person and not because someone goes out seeking to be raped any more than they ask to have their watches or their wallets stolen,. Rapes happen because someone takes that option. They do it because they have been allowed from an early age to treat women, both in their homes and outside with impunity; they do it because they grow up thinking of themselves as superior to women. Sadly, they are encouraged in this feeling of entitlement by parents of both genders. As they grow up, only a few of these entitled individuals will choose the option of rape. Most will not. This has nothing to do with whether they are poor or rich, or from India or Bharat. This is why I am not comfortable with using the blanket term ‘rape culture’. Rape is not a result of cultural factors but the decision of one or more individuals to commit a violent crime. In fact, I feel that calling it a culture removes personal responsibility from the violence and is counter productive. Of course the rapist knows that rape is wrong; they have simply decided to ignore the general consensus on that. That is why they seek to silence their victims and witnesses as in the Jyoti Singh Pandey case.
A rape takes place only because someone is saying No and their voice is being ignored. Which in turn is all about respecting the rights of another human being. Even when a person initiates sex, it must be understood that he/she has the right to call an end to the event. That is their right, end of story. It is the same if the sex is between strangers. No must mean No. But in case of rape, whether of women or men, there is an abuse of human rights taking place, and that is why it is a crime. Let us not glorify a crime by giving it a blanket endorsement as part of some kind of culture; it is not part of my culture and hopefully not that of the friends I am fortunate enough to know. If any of them do commit rape, it will be a crime of violence that they would have committed. It will then be my duty to support the victim of that violence and to ensure that the rapist is punished. I would expect the same at the very least if I was ever in that position.
I have no illusion that we are peculiar in some way and that rape is a peculiarly Indian thing. Countries such as the United States, Australia and Pakistan are considered to have a ‘rape culture’. Rape is not some kind of epidemic that needs to be contained like Ebola. It is a problem that is widespread and worldwide. When I was having the conversation this morning and every other time that I have it, I hear the disbelief in people’s voices when I try and talk about the people who do not rape, who will escape that crime, who have never thought of breaking the trust placed in them by another human being. Statistics mean little in this case, as not all rapes are reported anywhere in the world and especially not in our country where there is such emphasis on good behaviour, chasteness and a general lack of controversy as a desirable feminine characteristic. But even one rape is one too many, because it is a violation of a human right. And whether India comes in at the top of those statistics or at the bottom, it is still shameful and it is about time the authorities took the appropriate steps to change the pervasive atmosphere of societal misogyny and sexism. Changing from being a ‘rape supportive culture’ where victim shaming, media bias and patriarchal blinkers are firmly in place to a supportive culture where rape is treated as a crime, rapists are not excused as social anomalies, officials are more receptive to complaints, victims are treated with respect and punishment is swift and punitive measures as well as rehabilitation are undertaken.