Our voyeuristic outrage at rape will not end the life of this crime.
I happen to know a few victims of molestation, possibly rape; some of them did not specify. Barring two, these victims are women. I do not know why they confided in me. Not all of them were friends. Not all of them were violated by strangers and at least two still maintain more than a functional relationship with the violators. I also know a few sexual offenders. I brought up the issue with two of them. One soon got abusive in denial and the other answered me patiently before breaking down. Since the victims refused to press charges, the offenders had no real reason to be fearful of me. But they were.
It was almost 10 years ago when I last spoke to some of them. In 2003, a spate of rapes—including the much-reported assault on a Swiss diplomat during the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) at Delhi’s Siri Fort complex—had pushed me to seek a few answers. From chatty crime reporters to wary sociologists, everyone was busy offering theories. Some blamed “a cow belt mindset”, some spoke of new money and narcotics. In a sudden spurt of sensitivity and outrage, terms like trauma-care and summary trial became household terms. Activists took to the streets against what they termed a “culture of rape”.
The same outraged righteousness was manifest in the media and the shrill demonstrations following the public molestation of a young woman in Guwahati last week. The footage was run 24×7 across channels and, to highlight the enormity of the crime, breathless anchors went into every detail of the “barbaric violations” the victim suffered. Some doubted her age and marital status, others questioned her purpose outside a pub (the crime spot) late at night. Activists hit the streets with placards demanding that ‘the rapists’ be hanged—casually branding a molestation victim as raped.
We haven’t overnight created a ‘culture of rape’. One of our most popular deities is worshipped in the phallic form because he was cursed by the sage woman he raped. The Greek myth of Callisto—a river goddess and a member of Diana’s band of virgins who was raped by none other than Zeus, exiled by Diana, transformed into a bear by Hera and finally enshrined in the sky as the Great Bear constellation by her violator—tells us how ancient the practice is.
Data from the US National Institute of Justice classifies rape as one of the three most frequently committed violent crimes in the US, with an estimated one million victims every year. That, when the National Crime Victimisation Survey indicates that only 30 per cent of the cases are reported. The under-reporting is worse in India—no more than 20,000 rapes are reported annually—but the Indian male is no worse than the male anywhere else.
Through history, rape comes across more as a means than an end in itself. While there have always been enough instances where the sexual urge alone drove men to force themselves on women, it might be safe to hazard that women would have felt much safer if sex was the only impetus for rape.
Before man worked out the institution of family, the alpha male could have sex with any female in the herd. Quite like the lion king. The institution of marriage followed the institution of family and early societies invented the most brutal ways of meting out death for adultery and incest—but not rape. Probably because rape was still shrouded in mysticism—a king could ‘marry’ the daughter or wife of another king after conquest, a priest could ‘bless’ a woman of his choice in the name of occult rites.
Understandably, the common man associated such practices, which created a kind of pseudo-legitimacy for rape, with power. Raping the adversary’s women was as emphatic a statement of supremacy as capturing his land or cattle. It took on mass dimensions in times of anarchy. In Bosnia or in Gujarat, rape became just another weapon—almost de-sexed. Rape also stands de-sexed when infuriated members of a runaway girl’s family rape the adolescent sister of the guy who eloped with their girl. Even today, as in the past, a large number of victims are just rape fodder in the clash of false pride and misplaced honour among men.
But hasn’t the woman come a long way? The industrial revolution gave her room to seek her own identity. She had played her part in the agri economy too, but as far as men were concerned, so did the livestock. Now she could finally have an economic identity. She has walked a long way since on that path of independence and created a world of her own, which presents new dangers.
Before the woman started to seek her own identity, male supremacy was taken for granted. Even the most sensitive of men would try to score, play, ride or earn better than other men to become the rightful claimants of women. Not anymore. Girls top public exams, women CEOs and entrepreneurs steal the show at award nights and it has been some time since men learnt to take orders from women bosses. The master has suddenly been reduced to the competitor in all walks of life. Except sex, where men and women are supposedly equal partners, but most men see it as the last standing bastion of traditional male dominance.
Man did not inherit the knowledge of how to compete with the woman probably because he never had to in the past. Some of those who could not learn on the job and felt threatened were tempted to take on the new woman in a field, which, according to their collective male memory, promised only male winners. And this new woman needn’t necessarily be the urban stereotype. Haven’t we known the fate of a number of village women who dared to defy traditions? Unfortuna- tely, today’s women can become targets for what they are, rather than for what they are not.
More recently, rising social tension can be blamed on lopsided growth policies, pitting a shining India, an aspiring (and frustrated) India and a doomed India against one another. Strikingly different sets of values make such social interfaces even more stressful. Again, rape, like any other crime, becomes a tool when those who feel left out try to get even with those better placed in the socio-economic hierarchy. Worse, the frustrated target their own who try to climb the social ladder. Trace the social standing of the victims and offenders in most cases of rape committed by strangers, and the pattern will hold out.
None of these theories, however, explains why a family member or a friend seeks out a victim. That is plain perversion, we have been told. None of these theories matter to the victims of rape either.
The ones who spoke to me made two common points about their ordeal. First, they never believed it could happen to them, were relieved that nobody else came to know of it and felt “paralysed” or “blank” considering the possibility of it happening again. Second, they did not want to discuss why it happened or how it could have been avoided because that would not have lessened their trauma. They did not even care if the offenders were punished; some feared the stigma associated with the prosecution process, others sought solace in the fact that they were not “actually raped”.
The one offender who did answer some of my questions said it was an error of judgment at a “really bad moment”. He blamed his drinking and a “weird state of mind during that phase” when he easily felt rejected. Then he blamed the victim for “freezing with fear or something” and not “really resisting”. At this point, he suddenly broke down. Years later, I ran into him in Mumbai. He introduced me to his wife and child, but expressed no desire to stay in touch with me.
The other offender claimed he never “took advantage of anyone” and whatever happened was consensual. When I asked him if he was sure, he turned abusive and dared me to prove otherwise. “My word against hers even if she dares accuse me” was the refrain. He pointed out that his wife and the victim’s would-be husband knew each other well and that the four were “in touch for another couple of years or so” till the newly married couple moved to a different city. I could not verify.
The Guwahati victim, or the ones groped during different New Year eve revelries in Kochi, Mumbai or Gurgaon, suffered in public and did their best to fend off the violators. The ones abducted in Delhi or Gurgaon and gang-raped inside moving cars probably had little chance to resist. So can we do anything at all about getting raped, apart from observing commonsense precautions? We need to address the social fault lines. We also need better policing, investigation and prosecution. But murder is as base a crime and we have the strictest possible penalties in place. People still get killed.
Only one of the victims I know was angry that her family did not allow her to report the offender. When she spoke to me, she resented that she was too young to decide for herself. “I didn’t and still don’t understand the social stigma thing,” she complained, “Yes, it is a terrible feeling to be touched against your will. But that is entirely personal. For society and the legal system, it is only a crime. In case of every other crime, it is the criminal who is on the backfoot. Why should sex offences be any different?”
I remember her last words from that evening and, more than a decade later, she suddenly made a lot more sense to me. I hesitantly called her up. She was surprised but managed to laugh at my query. No, she has not “really got over it” and hates the fact that she has not. “I can’t really explain but the consequences seem to be much more punishing than the act. I really wanted to report him then. But since I didn’t and it remained a secret, I learnt to fear that someone somewhere perhaps knows or will come to know about all that happened to me,” she says.
So is there a way to deal with it, minus the histrionics and the breast-beating? “The idea of rape is so enormous that most of us (victims) perhaps get mind-fucked before we are actually… you know? I simply went numb when I realised what I was in for. I so wish I was myself and faced him. The guy was not a martial arts type or terribly intelligent either,” she laughed again, “If it happens now, I won’t give in so easily.” I called her crazy and she hastened to add that she wasn’t really looking forward to an opportunity to prove herself.
Our theories may help us understand better the motives behind rape and molestation, but they will still continue to happen just like any other crime. Handicapped by fear and stigma, we lose even our slim chances against criminals. If she can stand up to her crippling memory of shame, the woman’s best bet against rape might be to dissociate the crime from its life-ruining baggage and deal with it for what it is: a crime as heinous as murder but a crime nevertheless.
If the media, the activists and civil society stop making a victim of the victim over and over again, many more instances of rape will get reported and rapists prosecuted. If only it were easy for her, or us, the salaciously righteous multitude, to focus on the crime in ‘sex crime’.