November 2017: Understanding consent and rape in a gendered society.
I think I was born a feminist, although obviously not fully formed (still evolving!), and I have been deeply interested in gender violence in particular. It is apparent that a lot of the impositions imposed on women—don’t go there, don’t do this, don’t wear this, don’t laugh too loud, don’t stay out too late—come from a need to protect us from violence. With reason: I have and do pay a price for being someone who pushes the boundaries, as do countless other women just wanting to live their lives. Not that we are always safe at home or in marriages…
But the focus must move away from the women and to the cause—the perpetrators and culture of violence. And, understanding the problem is the first step to solving it. Thus the question: why do Indian men rape?
Research Methodology & Primary Findings
My primary research methodology involves spending up to a week each, undercover, with 10 perpetrators across the country, in their home environments; interviewing and observing them, and their family and friends. This is in addition to all the books I’m reading, experts I’m interviewing, etc.
We live in a particularly gendered society, with deeply entrenched rigid norms. Then there’s the internet, bringing liberal, modern, feminist ideas into minds and homes through phones. Plus there’s the unfettered access to porn from an early age. And then, there is NO understanding of consent and rape, neither legally nor socially—how can we, when we still have arranged and child marriages? There are so many instances of mixed legal signals—a woman who has lived with a man for 32 years is allowed to claim ‘rape’ if he doesn’t marry her; Mahmood Farooqui was acquitted on the basis of the complainant’s ‘soft no’; child marriage is illegal but recognised, yet sex with a child wife is rape—contributing to this confusion.
As these and other paradigms meet, the gender dynamic is fraught with conflict and different expectations—of each other and for ourselves. One of my subjects, known to gang rape women found alone with their boyfriends, didn’t believe such a thing as rape exists—no sex happens without a woman’s consent, according to him, ignoring the role of his gang’s coercion and power.
From this khichdi “into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.”
How We Deal with the Idea of Gender
We retain the Victorian model of the gender binary long since it has been challenged—if not abandoned—in its country and since its era of origin. Historic texts show that many Indian religions-societies-cultures acknowledged gender plurality and the existence of a third gender (although its social roles were also rigidly defined). Yet we are only now giving ‘others’ on the gender spectrum legal recognition—because the IPC is based on the puritanical English legal system of the time.
Men are trapped in gender binaries as much as women are—forced to be breadwinners, protectors and perpetrators of their positional superiority, emotionless automatons. This binary is unhealthy and excludes people who don’t fit in to it owing to their sexual or gender orientation—or simply, their individuality. Why must the Hijra community congeal outside mainstream society? Why did the post-op trans man who worked with me have to deal with such vicious rumours in our ‘liberal’ media organisation? Who defines normal, and what is normal anyway?
The change has to come top-down, through the legal system and enforcement, and bottom-up, through media and education’s impact on society and culture.
Impact of Education & the Relevance of Western Feminism in India
Education, the media and the internet are exposing people to ideas of female liberation and modernity. This is having a trickle-down effect, percolating all societies and cultures, even in the remotest villages I’ve visited—whether or not cultural custodians like it. The other day, I watched a man teach his wife to drive a scooter on a village road. “Dekho, madam,” said one of my companions, picking up on a conversation we had just been having, “dus saal pehle toh yeh aurat ghoonghat mein hoti, ghar se bahar nahi nikalti… aur ab akeli road pe scooter chalayegi.”
But there is a long way to go. A dear friend is a highly educated and successful professional, who, in her 30s, married another professional she met online. They moved abroad, but the marriage collapsed shortly after. “He wanted me to make him a tiffin everyday, babe,” she said to me, “and he didn’t want me to travel for work… Why didn’t he just marry some village girl if that’s the kind of marriage he wanted?” Men and women are trying to negotiate these new realities, and fumbling.
Neither Western feminism or Indian feminism can be considered hegemonic cannons; they are pluralistic and continue to evolve. I believe that feminist theory and the ultimate goals—freedom and equality (through equity)—are common; its practice is experienced and lived in context.
Challenges Before the Feminist Movement in India
There are many Indias, living simultaneously in many centuries, and there are feminist battles to be fought at all levels. Elements from all waves of Western feminism—legal rights from the first, social rights from the second, individual expression from the third and online activism from the fourth—are all valid here. While privileged feminists battle for the right to retain our surname after marriage, the length of our hemlines and other ‘evolved’ issues, we’re still battling dowry, child marriage and the right to education on other levels. The twain meet in strange ways—I’ve heard of women earning to help pay for their own dowries!
The biggest challenge of the Indian feminist movement is to unify despite these differences, to be truly intersectional and recognise the context of each of these battles being fought—acknowledging considerations of time, place, age, religion, caste, class, economics, etc. Feminist activists are pushing as many boundaries as they can in their respective milieus, and we need to respect each other.
Do we understand feminism… I don’t know. My own circle of friends and followers is an echo chamber of feminist thought, but this is not representational of India at all. In the upper and middle classes though, I have a bit of concern about the popularity of ‘choice feminism’ that is evoked to justify the resurgence of karva chauth and other old-fashioned practices—not all choices made by women are feminist, just because they are women’s choices. And there are the open-ended questions—is a woman performing an item number empowered or pandering to the male gaze? Should the fear of pandering to the male gaze make her cover up?—that drive us mad.
Effect of Class & Caste on Gender Roles
Class in India can be described as an intersection between religion and caste, culture, money, education, language, and the historicity and vocation of the family. And the gender dynamic is unique to each situation. For instance, women are taught to aspire to marry wealthy men, and doing so is a badge of honour. However, women married in to wealthy families are often very disempowered—they aren’t encouraged to work in light of the family money and/or their earnings are ridiculed, and their economic dependence can lead to situations ripe for domestic violence. Needless to say, my advice to women is to ensure their financial independence at all times.
Class position impacts the level of entitlement men feel, and it follows that gender violence tends to follow class lines, with men of any class feeling entitled to women of their class and below. (Of course, there are instances where these class lines are subverted and power dynamic shifted, like in the Delhi Gang Rape because of the number of men, or where the domestic help violates the child of the family, etc.)
At the crux of the matter lies the fact that egalitarian ideas, including feminism, are at odds with the hierarchical Indian caste system, the very basis of our cultural structure. We need to learn to respect the personhood of people across classes, extending to the women.
How Can the Indian Man Join the Feminist Movement in India?
In inviting Indian men to join the feminist movement, I could extoll the advantages of feminism for men, and there are many. But advantages to the men are somewhat irrelevant.
Truth is, not being a feminist today is an unconscionable stand. You either don’t see the historic privileges accorded to the male gender, or you don’t think other genders deserve those privileges. Which makes you either stupid or an asshole… or both.
An edited version of this article appeared on CJP in November 2017.