Isn’t it strange that rape had been outlawed for millennia before modern societies conferred agency upon women by recognising their right to vote, or right to own property? Isn’t it strange that the word raptus from which ‘rape’ is derived, means ‘seizure of property’? Isn’t it strange that one of humanity’s most primitive legal documents, the Hammurabic Code, indeed defines rape as equivalent of property theft? Isn’t it strange that Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code defines an adulterer as “Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man” ? Isn’t it strange that historically, rape laws have viewed as distinct- virgins, married women, and widows? Isn’t it strange that the physical violation of an individuals genitalia is considered infinitely more heinous than violating any other part of her body?
It is strange. It is a rather peculiar irony that rape, the male-centric, patriarchal crime of ‘despoiling another man’s maiden’ has morphed into ‘non-consensual intercourse’ and is now one of the primary grievances of the modern feminist movement.
While welcoming the transformation of this crime-against-men to a crime-against-women; while welcoming the perception of the woman as the victim of the crime rather than a mere conduit, we must note that the transformation isn’t complete yet. We must have cognition of the fact that many of our laws and our attitudes towards rape, are still intoxicated by a patriarchal hangover.
And it is this patriarchal toxicity that causes us to view sexual violence as distinct and somehow more heinous than generic forms of violence. In so far as rape is a crime against the woman being raped, it is crime is of non-consensual physical violation, and ought to be nothing more criminal than punching her in the face. It is only when we extrapolate the implications of rape from physical pain to mental trauma, lifelong humiliation, victim blaming, and shame or regret upon the family, can we conclude that sexual violence has worse consequences than physical violence. But these extrapolations bear the ugly stamp of a misogynistic view of rape. Insisting that rape brings contempt and shame is insisting that the woman being raped is the conduit of that shame and contempt. It is empowering men who want to inflict this shame and contempt upon a particular woman, women in general, or a woman’s community. This is why the rape of non-combatant women is a very common feature in ethnic violence. This is why defiled women are often shunned by their families- because they are conduits of shame and contempt.
This is why I believe it is regressive for society to have a retributive perspective on rape rather than rehabilitative one (rehabilitative of the victim). It is more important for us to mitigate the consequences of rape to that of physical pain, and appropriately counsel the victim so that she may be convinced that the loss of her hymen is not the loss of her honour or dignity, than it is for us to call for the rapist’s execution because he’s raped one of our women. Rehabilitation recognises the true victim of the crime and recognises that the consequences she’s suffered are reversible. Retribution implies that something of value- her virginity, her honour, her husband/father’s monopoly over her, are gone forever, and therefore ‘justice’ must be served. It is barbaric, therefore, for facebook intellectuals to be celebrating the fact that a Delhi man tortured and killed his daughter’s rapist, or that a mob recently butchered an attempted rapist’s penis.
This barbarism manifests itself when we juxtapose Indian attitudes towards marital rape with those towards premarital sex and inter-caste eloping. The fact that marital rape is not a legal concept in India and many other countries, and the fact that often, premarital sex and inter-caste eloping is reason for the girl’s father to report rape (or worse, commit an honour killing), reflects that the property-theft logic is still strongly prevalent. This is why we must hesitate to make rape convictions easier and rape penalties harsher, until we’ve changed our thinking.
And our thinking must change in the context of the dynamic, ever-changing reality of rape. This article has so far addressed only man-on-woman rape. But as we get more and more conscious of rape being perpetrated not only against women, but also against men, and (very pertinently) those who fit outside the gender-binary, it is vital for us to work towards a gender-neutral conception of rape in both, a legal, and a philosophical sense. We must work towards a world where rape is no longer a crime by a man against a man via a woman. Where it is no longer a crime by a man against a particular woman or ‘womanity’ in general. But where it is a crime by an aggressor on a victim, and one merely of physical violation that can be recovered from.
It is important for us to loudly and boldly oppose rape. But it is more important for us to do it for the right reasons.