What more can I say about the unconscionable event that took place on the night of December 16 in Delhi that has not already been said or written about over the last fortnight? Every conceivable aspect of the brutal rape and the reactions to it have been reported, dissected and analysed. We have all seen stirring images of the outrage on the part of young Indians from Delhi and many other cities in the country.
We have all been angered by the rank insensitivity of the powers-that-be and their anaemic responses. And most of all, we have all been deeply saddened when the undeserving victim’s body, viciously savaged by six barbarians, could fight no more. We have heard, read, felt all of these and more, but still, like most other horrified Indians, I feel the need to say something — if for no other reason than to honour the memory of the 23-year-old student whose name has remained protected, and who will doubtless become a posthumous icon for the war on violence against women.
I know that at such a time, the most immediate thing to do is to demand the lynching of the perpetrators — the gang of six. Which is why we have had debates about the most befitting punishment for the crime. Some of us believe that nothing short of the death penalty would be acceptable. Many of us want castration in the belief that this will not only be just punishment but will also deter other potential offenders from even contemplating such an act. Some want the rape laws to be tightened and legal processes to be fast-tracked. And some of us quibble about the definition of rape.
Whether accompanied by violence or not, rape is, more than anything else, the complete violation of a woman’s self-respect and dignity. Her sense of humiliation and utter powerlessness at the time leaves mental scars that are far more difficult to heal than the scars on her body. Which probably explains why many social scientists consider rape to be driven by the need for dominance and control of men over women. However, evolutionary biologists are more inclined to believe that rape is more about sex than dominance and control. The underlying theory here is that the male of the species is more likely to be sexually profligate and is more likely to forcibly satiate himself sexually when he believes he can get away with it.
This simmering sex vs control debate was powerfully renewed in 2000 after the publication of The Natural History of Rape: The Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer. This book still remains controversial because its biologist and anthropologist authors pooh-poohed what has come to be known as the “feminist perspective” that views rape as a patriarchal tool to dominate women. The issue is clearly a complex one, but I believe the two perspectives are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Obviously sex does play a role, particularly in a sexually repressed society like India where even at a protest march against rape, men reportedly sexually grope women in the crowd. But given the brutal manner in which the poor young girl was assaulted for no real reason other than that the perpetrators could do so, it’s obvious that other factors are equally if not more important.
If men didn’t feel protected by the institution of patriarchy, they wouldn’t feel as free to engage in sexual coercion as they do. Nor would they see their sexual gratification as an entitlement from their wives or from women belonging to the more oppressed castes. From eve-teasing (which has almost become a man’s rite of passage) to sexual assault is not much more than a small step. There is something terribly wrong with the way in which we, as a nation, experience and understand masculinity.
While I have no quarrel with making the punishment for rape more stringent (I personally favour 10 years to life imprisonment), I don’t believe that changing the law is by itself going to ensure justice for victims of rape, for the implementation of even the best of laws by a system where power equations are lopsided is unlikely to ensure equity.
Even after this tragedy, we still hear the voices of those who are considered leaders and opinion makers exhorting women to “de-sex” themselves so as not to arouse men’s lust, thereby victimising the victims even further. And although I don’t believe that all women are necessarily more empathetic of other women than men could be, I still believe that an independent all-woman criminal justice system for acts of violence against women would stand a better chance of enabling equitable justice than one dominated, certainly at its lower levels, by patriarchal insensitivity.
It’s always easy to place the onus for the remedy entirely at the doorstep of legislators. But each of us also needs to do our bit, for patriarchy happens inside our heads.
It is an attitude deeply entrenched in our minds by systems that are constant reminders that men are more equal than women, where men are the protectors and women the protectorate, where brides are “given away” (kanyadaan) but grooms are not, where chastity is a feminine virtue but a masculine weakness, where daughters are “dowriable” liabilities and sons “dowriable” assets, and so on.
For all of these to change, each of us needs to ask ourselves how we can ensure that our sons are never allowed to feel superior owing to their gender and our daughters inadequate owing to theirs. Tough question. But one that, at no time more than the present, demands to be asked. And answered.