On India's "rape pandemic": A national disgrace Print E-mail
Sunday Magazine - September 11 2005
PERSPECTIVE

Hands off

By NIGHAT GANDHI

A woman gets assaulted every half an hour. But why are women silent about this issue?


REALITY?: Statistics prove that modesty is not a deterrent to assault. (PARTH SANYAL)

SELDOM do people hold those robbed responsible for getting robbed, or those murdered responsible for getting murdered. If we made such statements as a matter of routine, our sanity would be questioned. Yet, it isn't at all uncommon to blame women for getting raped. An acquaintance of mine, a social worker, who ironically works with women, commented: "Young women nowadays dress so provocatively. What do they expect? Men get tempted, naturally." Such views are commonplace in the aftermath of the heavily publicised rape cases in Delhi and other metros.

If I were a man, I would feel offended if the behaviour of some violent men was generalised to all men. To believe that men's violence against women is a natural act, that all men are abject creatures at the mercy of their hormones, compelling them to uncontrollable acts of sexual atrocities at the sight of female flesh, is a specious view of male sexuality. It deprives all men of their rational and moral agency, and places them at a par with sociopaths. If male sexuality were so unmanageable, almost every male would be a potential rapist. Therefore, to excuse some men's violence by dressing it up as a biological argument that applies to all men, does disservice to the vast majority of men who are not rapists. And even if some men do get tempted by the way certain women dress, is rape their only recourse?

To place the entire onus of violence against women on women is unjust. To blame women for their own victimisation is to make invisible the real issue ? the inferior status of women in a patriarchal society. It is win, win, for patriarchy, when even women have been brain-washed into blaming other women, especially the urban, middle class women, for violence committed by men.

Why won't college principals bent upon revising women's dress code and parents imposing more stringent curfews on their daughters investigate the facts about sexual violence against women?

Rape statistics
Only one in about 70 cases of rape gets reported. This means that about 69 women get raped before one lodges an official complaint. Of the reported cases (only one out of 70), only 20 per cent are convicted. Consequently, only three out of 1,000 rapists ever get convicted. So most rapists can get away with rape. A woman gets raped every half an hour in India. So what in the world is keeping women silent about this heinous crime?

If you are as puzzled as I am by the collective silence of women, would their silence be less puzzling if you were told that almost half of those raped are a vulnerable population, under the age of 18? Or that most sexual abuse takes place in the sanctity of that most venerable of institutions - the Indian family? Most women are raped by men who are well known to them. The rapists are fathers, grandfathers, fathers-in-law, husbands, lovers, uncles, cousins, or the voyeuristic neighbour next door. Lower class and lower caste women are raped by upper caste and upper class men. Women are silenced because they are the safe-keepers of their families and communities. When the victims are very young, they are coerced into silence by their older, more powerful abusers. These women live in cities and slums, villages and towns, all across India. Surely they aren't all dressing up provocatively to tempt their rapists?

Those brave women who do take the perilous path of lodging an First Information Report (FIR), are haunted by the fear of public shame, family dishonour, a gender-insensitive police force, the rigours of medical exams to prove that the rape did happen, and repeated cross-examination in court. No thought is given to the physical, mental, and emotional trauma suffered by the victim. How many women are crazy enough to undergo this further trauma in addition to what they have already suffered? In very bizarre instances, the male panchayat, as in the recent Imrana case in Uttar Pradesh, has even ruled that the raped woman should continue providing sexual services legally to her rapist by marrying him! Such women-insensitive practices explain the puzzling discrepancy in the statistics of committed versus reported rape. The rapists know it too. They are well-informed performers in a system, which protects and condones their crime.

Power imbalance in relationships
Rape is a violent crime and there is little that is sexually arousing about it. What can be exciting about a victim who is scared witless at the sight of her rapist and is resisting him to the best of her ability? Rape is not a sexual act as much as it is a power trip, an act of domination and aggression, a ghastly game where the aggressor is bent upon humiliating the victim. Rape is a violent crime, and incurs serious physical injury and mental trauma. Ludicrous criteria such as the amount and type of clothing worn, the moral character, caste, class, and the marital status of the victim (married women can't report their husbands), are never applied to other violent crimes. But this is exactly the kind of laughable reasoning applied to rape cases. The fact that rape consists of sexual abuse in addition to physical and emotional abuse, should make rape a crime harder to get away with, not easier.

The solution to rising violence against women can't lie in having women behave with greater modesty. Statistics prove that modesty is not a deterrent to rape. If this were the case, women in purdah would never get raped. What women must not do is suffer in silence. Silence only increases the intensity of suffering. Women must find the courage to report the rape. They must find support from their families and friends to deal with the stress, anger, and fear they experience. Most of all, women must never feel guilty or blame themselves. For there is no need to accept shame or blame for a crime committed by another.

As a long-term approach, women need to boost their modest participation in legal, economic, political, and religious spheres to increase their decision-making powers. Less than 10 per cent of Parliament consists of women. Even Sub-Saharan African nations are doing better than that. Even the United States Senate has only 14 women senators out of a total of 100. Only six heads of states in the world are women, and four of them belong to countries in the global south where they have risen to power as the daughters or spouses of prominent male leaders. Is it any wonder that most women don't have the power to put their rapists behind bars?

When Anita Hill, a law professor, challenged the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme court in 1991, alleging sexual harassment charges, the then 98 per cent male U.S. senate still ruled in favour of Thomas's appointment as the Supreme Court Justice. He assumed the nation's highest judicial office, one that assumes its holder to have an unblemished record. We live in a man's world because a woman's testimony against a man's doesn't hold much sway. This situation is unlikely to change as long as women remain silent, as long as they don't assume decision-making powers in private and public life.

Nighat Gandhi
is a writer, activist and mental health counsellor. E-mail: