I am an ostrich when it comes to news on rape. I prefer to bury my head in the sand and not read or hear about it. But even for this ostrich, it’s become next to impossible to do so. After the shocking gang rape in broad daylight in Mumbai – because Mumbai is supposed to have been one of the safe cities for women, dammit – I heard about the brutal rape and murder of a nine-year old child in Gurgaon.
This makes me sick. Disgusted. Afraid. And I’m forced to take a closer look at the issue to try to make sense of the moral depravity that seems to have gripped this country.
But surely, India isn’t the only place where rape is a common occurrence. It happens across the world – in both developed and developing economies.
There’s the Stubenville High School rape case in the US; the brutal gang rape and murder of Anene Booyson in South Africa, where gender violence is “systemic” nationwide; rapes in conflict zones; in Brazil, where an American tourist’s boyfriend was forced to watch as his girlfriend was gang raped…
And that makes me think – why?
What gives men the license to exploit a woman’s body? To subjugate her. Dominate her. Violate her against her will? Subjugation and domination are two aspects of it. But why? Do women terrify men that much? Is rape the only way men feel manly? What makes it OK? Is there something condoning it in the stories we grow up with?
The two most popular mythological stories that most Indian children grow up with are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. And both vilify women. Consider the story of Srupanakha. An independent woman, roaming the forests alone, who was bold and confident enough to make a pass at Ram. What happens to her? She’s mutilated. Her nose and ears cut off. Take Sita. We are told that Sita was abducted by Ravana because she dared to cross the Laxmanrekha. When Ram fought for her release, though, did he take her back? No. He discarded her. But we aren’t told about Sita’s strength. About her refusal to go through the agnipariksha. To defy her husband and say if you want to put me to the test in front of your entire kingdom, to reject me for no fault of mine, I want nothing to do with you. She went into the forest and brought her children up alone. No one talks about that.
Look at the Mahabharata – Draupadi’s vastraharan (disrobing). Her husbands put her up as a prize in a game of dice – shocking – and when they lost, they sat back and watched as Duryodhan proceeded to strip her. Boys aren’t taught that this incident was wrong on so many levels. That a woman isn’t a prize to be won or lost in a game of dice. That raping her is absolutely and completely wrong. But what about Draupadi? After that episode, she didn’t go back to her husbands and cower in a corner. She was enraged. She swore to leave her hair loose until her honor was avenged. And so the stage was set for the battle of Mahabharata. But these stories of women’s bravery aren’t extolled. The barbarianism of these men isn’t called into question. Instead we uphold Ram as the ideal man and say Sita was abducted because she dared to cross the Laxmanrekha.
And I’m sure there are similar stories across cultures and countries, where men treated women like objects and continue to be glorified for it.
So what can we do?
Does the answer lie in an eye for an eye? More laws? Chemical castration?
Yes and no.
Strong laws can work as a deterrent. But for that, the law needs to be equal for everyone. One factor that the media pointed out in both the Mumbai case and the Nirbhaya case in Delhi is that both were cases of lower class men raping middle class women, which is why they were caught so promptly and which is why there was so much outrage against these rapes. Look at Asaram Bapu. He has been accused of rape, yet he refuses to co-operate with the cops. Politicians are supporting him. There are no protests on the streets asking for justice for the girl involved in this case. This attitude needs to change.
Another factor that needs to be considered is the prevalent mindset of the police. When they believe that the woman asked for it; that it’s all about money; that women have made it a business; that it’s consensual most of the time, how will a woman get justice? What’s needed here is awareness at the grassroot level and increased gender sensitivity. Cops need to understand that rape is not OK, no matter what the woman was wearing or what time she was out of the house.
Which is why tougher laws alone cannot solve the problem. A lot more needs to be done before we can lower rape statistics.
There is an urgent need to look at our mythologies a little differently, to call out acts of violence against women, to speak more about women’s courage and fortitude. It is imperative on each and every one of us, irrespective of class or status, to teach our boys about gender sensitivity; to teach our women that there is nothing “wrong” with them if they are raped, to get them the counseling that is needed following such a traumatic event.
And even after all of this, there is no guarantee that violence against women will cease to exist. But maybe, the woman will no longer have to live in disgrace, ostracized from her family, rejected, forced to commit suicide.
There are no easy answers here.