How is it possible that there are men in this world who are capable of raping a girl, capable of holding her down while she screams, capable of scarring her both physically and psychologically, capable of condemning her to the worst ordeal of her life- all while maintaining an erection to heinously penetrate her body and her dignity? How can this sadism be pleasurable? How can it be, that these men have such little respect for their own humanity that they’re willing to outrage that of someone innocent? How does it take so little- a short skirt, a drink in her hand, her promiscuous behaviour- to provoke the monsters inside us to such horrendously harmful action?
It takes a lot, actually. It takes years of gender-insularity, years of alienation and demonisation of the opposite sex, and years of tension between the divergent forces of desexualisation and sexualisaton that tear apart the psyche of a man, and leave behind nothing but his primal urges, and the forbidden fruit of sexual gratification. The woman therefore, is no more than the vehicle that a man uses for this purpose.
Over the last week, a student of UChicago has sparked off what in my mind should never have been a debate- whether Indian men are shamelessly sleazy products of a conservative culture that has a particular fetish for white skin. Her bold article on CNN (http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023053) describes how she was groped, sexually threatened, masturbated at (yes, that IS a thing in India) and in general had a dark, lecherous shadow hanging over her because she had white skin.
In response, several Indian women have sympathised with her, but with some reservation- attempting to highlight that not every Indian man is an obscene misogynist (as I would hope to demonstrate myself), or trying to point out that Indian women have it worse, or that sexual harassment happens elsewhere as well- not exactly ignoble deeds, but still those that digress from the main issue. This was followed up by another UChicago student who in the article ‘Same India, different story’ (http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1023426) warned against careless generalisations that tend to mutate into racial stereotypes.
And as opinion after opinion has come in, this ‘debate’ seems to have swung from side to side. But I think one of the biggest mistakes we’re making here, that many feminists make too often in my opinion, is that we’re allowing the racial and cultural overtones of this issue to undermine the very real sexist problem- that women aren’t really safe anywhere in India.
And just when we were pretending that some places were safer than others, it happened. Again. This time, so close to home that it sent a chill down my spine. Last night, a 22 year-old photo-journalist got gang-raped near the Shakti Mills compound, Mahalaxmi. And for a South Mumbai that isn’t used to this sort of thing, the idea of a girl getting raped while she was on a work assignment, not dressed ‘provocatively’, accompanied by a male colleague (who was beaten by the gang of attackers), was far too horrific.
And as people are having their say on internet forums and in the media with the sort of passionate anger and passionate frustration that we witnessed after the ‘Delhi Gang Rape’, I want to attempt to dispassionately analyse why this might happen, especially in the context of Caucasian women, and what might be done to restore our nation’s tainted pride, and more importantly- respect for women.
Sex is taboo in India. That isn’t something that makes us unique. It is remarkable though, the extent to which people are unwilling to talk about or even acknowledge sex or sexuality. Paradoxically, in the country of the Kama Sutra and the Erotic Sculptures of Khajuraho etc, women will censor themselves from talking about menstruation and will avoid using feminine hygiene products; parents try protecting their teens from condom advertisements because not talking about sex is better than talking about safe sex, and there exist several other examples about how our society tries to dust a mud-heap under the carpet. The dichotomy carries onto our popular culture as well, with ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ of Bollywood movies consistently depicting traditional gender roles and being idealised and idolised for that. While the success of titillating ‘item numbers’ that show a promiscuous girl being ogled at by scores of men reflects the extent to which our sexuality is repressed and waiting to burst. India is depraved and deprived society.
The effect of this desexualisation is augmented by the existence of barriers between the two genders. Making sure more girls go to school is a battle we’re fighting everyday. But even so, their interaction with the opposite gender is extremely limited. Parents are weary of the fact that having friends of the opposite gender could undermine their child’s prospects of a good marriage. Many boys at my university (IIT Bombay) admit to never having had a genuinely close female friend.
Quarantined by societal barriers and heavily tinged with the traditional misogyny that we’re all familiar with, male and female sexuality often take divergent paths. Women learn to suppress themselves, be obedient and think of sex as a dirty necessity meant only to please their husbands. And men are influenced by the male-centric and raunchy aspects of our popular culture. Not only that, but also the exposure to western trends and practices, in a rapidly modernising and westernising India causes male desire to simmer with dissatisfaction.
This lack of interaction leads to a lack of empathy. And sex starts becoming an individualistic act. A goal that some men set for themselves. The forbidden fruit, the schadenfreude that was withheld for so long.
Sex is not about sex anymore. Its about conquest. It is the manifestation of a man’s desire to dominate a woman. A desire crafted by the patriarchy. A desire that, combined with surges of testosterone and often alcohol, is easiest to fulfill through violence.
This is how they maintain that erection, this is how the monsters come out- because they’ve been dormant for too long. Its not a lust for sex that’s the problem, but a lust for power. And this is capable of having a blinding and de-humanising effect, which is why rape is often accompanied by inexplicably brutal torture.
Its hardly surprising then, that societies where children are exposed to violence of any kind, either as victims or as spectators, are societies that see a higher incidence of rape- Congo, South Africa, for example. This is because it de-sensitises them to this violence and makes them think violence is a legitimate tool to quench their chauvinistic thirst for dominance or to vindicate themselves as men.
We see all these factors- sexual repression, a desire to conquer, a quest for vindication, and the otherisation of a certain set of people develop in the minds of men over decades.
But in scenarios like war, or genocide, where all these factors strongly exert their influence over a short period of time on soldiers, we have evidence of them overwhelming their human compassion and empathy. That’s why the Soviet soldiers indiscriminately raped every single woman they could find after Berlin fell in 1945. That’s why horror stories of rape-cum-amputations exist from the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Those and many others from places like Srebrenica, Sierra Leone as well as Indian examples like Naroda Patiya and Best Bakery (Gujarat riots).
And its much easier to otherise or dehumanise someone who looks different, who probably is very different. Minimal and unrepresentative exposure to Western media has crafted in the minds of the Indian man, an image of a promiscuous, easy, and morally bereft Western woman. That, combined with our not-so-post-colonial obsession with white skin, that is evidenced by the mainstream popularity of fairness products, makes the white woman the ultimate conquest for an Indian man. General compartments of Mumbai local trains are safe places for women to travel (usually). But when there’s a white woman on board, its no holds barred. Its similar in other public places as well.
Which is why I do believe the traumatic tale of the UChicago student and I can only imagine how horrific it was to be treated like that. We can have debates about what the statistical spread of misogyny within the Indian demographic is as much as we like. And we can argue that decent men do exist to reassure ourselves as much as we like. But one thing is certain, that those men that do sexually assault and rape, are those whose actions will speak louder than our words. And that regardless of how safe a place like South Mumbai might be in actual statistical terms; women will always feel insecure, and have to look over their shoulder.
The solutions therefore, aren’t as simple as employing more female officers in police stations, or having harsher penalties for rape. Reforms within our police and judiciary will certainly help, but they’re of the same nature as those required within our broader society.
Speaking about sex is key. Sex education in the best schools in India is a pathetically atrophied form of the basics of reproductive biology. Putting a condom on a banana and blue ink on a tampon does not count as sex education. Issues of consent, issues of mutual enjoyment, issues of basic sexual and sanitary health need to be covered. Gender studies are being proposed as a compulsory subject within school curricula. It is imperative for this to be oriented towards understanding sexuality better. And these things can be done in ways that aren’t considered socially crude- by using Indian traditions like the Kama Sutra.
Growing up on a playground with people of the opposite gender can be an incredibly helpful tool for understanding that they’re people as well. De-segregation of gendered schools and a transition to co-ed will be of great help.
But then obviously, we must ensure that kids go to school in the first place. The mid-day meal scheme as well as free education for the girl-child has proved extremely effective. A big lacuna in the system is that girls are forced to skip school while menstruating, because of inadequate medical or sanitary apparatus. Provision of menstrual health facilities like tampons and pain-killers, as well as over-all basic healthcare facilities within schools can incentivise parents to send their children there.
Awareness campaigns about sexual consent, domestic violence and crimes against women can be held. And state-subsidised welfare schemes like rations and farmer’s loans can be made contingent on attendance of these campaigns or the girl’s attendance in school. Even Gram Panchayats can be monetarily incentivised by both the States and the Centre to have preventive and remedial measures in place for things like rape, domestic violence and sexual assault.
And the link with general violence is also true, which is why it is vital to ensure that violence of all kinds is reduced, in a concerted manner, and the traditional approach of viewing rape, wife beating, bullying, and gang violence as isolated issues needs to change.
Its an overhaul that we need to make for the long haul. Gender violence is a problem, seated deep within the core of our country’s cultural and social realities. Knee jerk reactions will help us feel better only till the next brutal incident comes to light.
For the women of India, and the women of the world, this is the Story we need to change.