The misdirected debate on rape in India

Protests in Delhi, on December 22, against the gangrape of 23-year-old girl. Photograph: The Kashmir Walla

The streets of the capital fume with fury and desperation. Thousands of people gather at India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan, Jantar Mantar and other nook and corners of the country to express their disgust and condemnation to the incident. I struggled to find an adjective to be added before the word ‘incident’ in the last statement.  Was it ‘shocking’? –No. Every day we as Indians are used to ignoring incidents of women being stripped, paraded naked, murdered after rape while we flip through the morning newspaper with our cup of tea. We think of our daughters, calculate the amount of clothes she wears and the time she come home and compare the incident to our everyday realities. We suddenly find an odd time the victim was out, or the man she was befriending and assure ourselves that it cannot happen to us.

This incident is being termed-horrific, horrible, shameful and what not? The reality is that it is not. Yes I say it loud and clear. It is not a shocking, horrific, brutal, inhuman act. How could it be? How could this incident be inhuman when young girls starting from the age of three months are raped in some part of our cities every day? How could this be shocking when we do not protest against millions of unborn daughters killed in wombs, when we silently and happily let the practices of dowry flourish and give birth to so called social evils like ‘bride burning’. How could this shameful for a nation where a woman has to go through the social rape after the incident, the judicial rape and the inhuman despicable two finger test. The list is endless. How could this incident with a twenty-three year old girl ever be horrific? No it is not. It is not horrific to kill your daughters in the womb. We all have, including me, people in our families who have killed daughters before being born, sisters and brothers getting married through the trade of dowry. And not surprisingly all of this is acceptable to our society.  How could this incident be anything but unusual to us?

Remember the Dalit woman in some ‘remote’ part of India paraded naked, raped and killed. It was not a far away jungle, may be just a few kilometers away. I feel a strong emotion in my heart when I see the protests happening in Delhi. For the first time, the youth of the capital has come out and said what was already known and forgotten that the violent crimes against women should be taken seriously and tackled sensitively by the law and order machinery and our criminal justice system. It will not be getting carried away with the emotion of the protest when I say I am so proud to be the part of this youth that screams out loud tells the administration that something is terribly wrong and they better watch out.

But all said the debate over issue of ‘preventing’ rape has been deeply misdirected. I will blame the intellectual class and the politicians for this intellectual deficit that this issue has fallen the victim of. The ‘dented painted’ woman has a lot of questions that needs to be answered by the administration and society. I will criticize the debate or discourse on rape in India on two counts. First is the sheer inability to separate the social side of the problem from the inadequacies of the system. Second is the vicious cycle in which this debate falls where we are so desperate to save the ‘modesty’ of a woman that we seek to ‘prevent’ these crimes. I do not know any Criminal Justice system in the world that has been able to do this. Even in our outrage we fall victim to deep seated medieval attitudes stored in our spines.

To begin with, since when was law the tool to ‘prevent’ crimes? There could be a great philosophical debate over the topic. From utilitarianism to the theory of natural justice, positive law, consequentialism, there are differing viewpoints that provide a lot of food for thought. Frankly, it is not the direct duty of the law and order machinery to ‘prevent’ crimes. Can we anticipate the murder and put the murderer in jail before he commits the crime, Can we jail a rapist before he commits the act, Can we arrest a thief before he steals or rob? No we can’t. It is not the direct action of the law to anticipate crime and arrest people in anticipation. Don’t we term the ‘preventive custody’ under section 107, 151 of the Criminal Procedure Act as unconstitutional when used for suppressing protests and mass agitations?

Although what can prevent crimes is the efficiency of the system, speedy trials, citizen friendly police stations sensitive attitude towards the victims and most importantly intelligent and socially dynamic laws. Once an offender knows that he would be punished for his deeds, the crime rate is bound to fall. But nothing can end the crimes in our society, especially one like rape. It is the sheer laziness and the ‘chalta hai’ attitude seeped into our homes, police stations, offices, court rooms and hall of sh/fame-our Parliament, I mean, that the country today stands where we only have words like ‘ashamed’ to describe the situation.  The Delhi police must be thinking, ‘Ye to roz ka hai, aaj itna halla ? ’.

‘A woman should not be stripped of her modesty’. Really?  Stripping clothes takes away her modesty. If her vagina is penetrated violently by men and she has suffered grievous harm, then she ‘loses her life’ and become a ‘zinda laash’. For heaven’s sake, she has a life beyond it.  And that now is the social side of the rape. People today, including me, who scream their lungs out that no rapes should happen anymore, we know in our hearts it is not possible. But there is something that we as society can do. No, I do not mean, protests and candle light marches or slogan mongering.  What we can do is, treat them like one of us, we can end the social pariah, segregation and the non-eligibility of the girl to become the ‘bahu’ of a ‘khandan’. This is something we can start in our homes. The day rape becomes disassociated with the ‘modesty’ or ‘izzat’ of a woman; it would be an incident in a girl’s life that she would be able to forget and move on in her life. Just like a bad accident. And the government does not have to do anything in this regard. Here the power is really in our hands. Most of the  violent sexual crimes are ego-crimes done to teach woman a ‘lesson’. Be it the Delhi gang rape, acid attack on Shonali Mukherjee or the Guwahati molestation case where the girl ‘asked for it’ because she was wearing or behaving in a particular manner.

Teaching our sons better, sounds a good cliché. But it is far away from the reality like the social inclusion of the victim girls. The democracy in our homes has to be established for the world to be a better place for women. Kitchen and cleaning shit of the house are not the prerogative of the woman. She is an equal partner in life who does not need to surrender or bow down to let the ‘grihasti’ work.  When in our society forbearance is no more the virtue of a woman, when she learns to react, get angry and respond only that day the woman walking on the street would get her right to life and freedom to live with dignity back.

For now, I do not have any prayers for the Delhi gang-rape victim. I do not think she was a hero. She was like me, an ordinary girl with her dreams and ambitions. The brutal death of those aspirations by the hands of male chauvinism and misogyny pains me. I wish to remember her like an ordinary girl who died in a hospital. I am sure; she is safer in the place she has gone to. Better than this earth, better than this subcontinent. She does not need prayers.

Anusha Soni, 23, is studying law at University of London. Earlier she has done masters in International Relations (Contemporary Asian Studies) at University of Amsterdam and also studied journalism at Delhi University.

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