Many years ago, in 1990, something changed in India. It wasn’t something that everyone noticed. It wasn’t something that a lot of people even cared about. But it was something big, something to do with how the law actually extends its protection to citizens in practice. In October 1990, the Supreme Court of India ruled in favor of one Banubi Sheikh, a woman who admitted in court that she was party to an extramarital relationship, a woman who also stuck to her guns in stating that that little fact should be treated as irrelevant to her main allegation that she was assaulted and raped by a policeman at her home.
Like many things in law, it wasn’t the case that was important; it was the precedent. For the first time, the supreme court explicitly stated that a woman’s sex life was her own business, and no matter how many people she chose to have sex with, no matter what her moral standing was, no one had the right to rape her as and when they pleased. It was just a little reminder that women’s sex lives were really their own. It was a reminder that a lot of people found very hard to swallow back in 1990, and one that many people find hard to swallow now, in 2012.
Talking about rape in India produces predictable responses. Women should take care. Women should learn to defend themselves. Women should carry pepper spray. Women should avoid certain areas. Women should maintain high situational awareness. Yes, rape is a crime, but a rapist is little more than an animal. Why blame an animal? If you provoke an animal, it’ll get you. Ergo, some restrictions are necessary.
It sounds sensible, right? Well, not really. Not if you think about it.
In this guest post, I will attempt to explain why the advice above is not as useful as it sounds. I will point out how culture ties into sexual assault, and put forward my opinions on why the current strategies for handling sexual assault are largely ineffective, and will remain so unless we take remedial steps.
I will finish by discussing a few possible solutions and the outlook for the future.
So let’s begin.
One of the traditional prescriptions to avoid being a victim to sex crime is to dress conservatively. It’s supposed to be obvious that attractively dressed women are more likely to get raped. It’s supposed to be so obvious that it goes unexamined.
Let’s examine it now. Here are three facts about rape:
Most convicted rapists do not remember what their victims wore.
Rape victims aren’t all single, attractive young women. They can be infants or grandmothers too. In fact, rape victims are not necessarily women, but that’s something I’m not going to get into right now.
A United States Federal Commission on Crime of Violence Study found that only 4.4% of all reported rapes involved ‘provocative behavior’ (self-defined as a noticeable gesture towards the perpetrator, encouraging him or her to carry out the crime) on the part of the victim. In murder cases 22% involved such behavior (as simple as a glance).Clearly, there’s a lot going on in a rapist’s mind apart from, “hmm, this woman is attractive, I can’t control myself”. It is a mistake to call a rape a crime of passion. Let me repeat that. Rape is NOT a crime of passion.
Rape can be far more accurately described as a crime of opportunity. It is not a beauty contest. While it’s not easy to conduct research on rape due to factors like under-reporting and skewed statistics, what we do know is that a rapist does not look for the most attractive women to assault. Instead, he chooses the most available woman, the woman he has the greatest access to, the woman he perceives to be the least likely to report the assault. That means girlfriends, coworkers, neighbors and even spouses. That means women in vulnerable, dependent positions. That means women close to the criminal.
And if all this talk of ‘choosing’ surprises you, it really shouldn’t. Research shows that most rapists premeditate their crimes. They know who they are going to assault and how. They decide this beforehand. They decide itbefore they have a chance to see how their victims are dressed on that particular day. And they do it because they are part of a culture which tolerates and encourages this behavior.
Which brings me to my next point. Culture.
A lot of people are surprised when I point out that sexual assault isn’t just a random act of violence. It’s not. As I’ve had occasion to say before, sexually assaulting a woman is a very specific violent act that is linked to a plethora of cultural tie-ins. For most rapists, the act isn’t about satisfying a biological need, it’s about satisfying a psychological need. It’s about power and control. And power and control are two things that, more than anything else, are culturally defined.
In a patriarchal society, where sexes are segregated and sexuality is repressed, women aren’t really people and sex isn’t really an activity. Both are objects. You don’t just have sex, youtake sex, you get sex. Taking sex is a way of taking power, snatching power, asserting power. From there, it’s only a short hop to rape being considered normal.
India took that hop a long time ago. This is a country where raping your wife every night for years and years isn’t even a crime. This is a country where it’s considered mental cruelty for a woman to not have sex with her husband on her wedding night. This is a country where a woman gets gang-raped and the first thing people say is – you were probably behaving like a sl*t. This is victim-blaming, but it’s also much more than that. It’s resignation and normalization. It’s the acceptance of the idea that rape is a normal, inevitable outcome of certain situations. It’sworse than victim-blaming. And as long as we keep doing it, fat chance of getting rape numbers down.
The whole problem with the legal attitudes to rape in India is that they are built within a patriarchal framework. Indian laws provide for harsh punishment for rape, but it has minimal deterrent effect, because in India, most rapists do not fear being caught. Many are actually surprised if they do end up getting reported. Because they live in a society where rape is considered normal in certain situations, they do not even understand the full magnitude of their actions. And the one true solution, perhaps the only solution is – openness.
Open attitudes towards the sexes mingling with each other.
Open attitudes towards sex itself.
Open discussion of what’s really going on when someone decides to sexually assault a woman.
Open education about sex and sexuality.
Openness between men and women while talking about sex.
That’s the key to a future where women don’t have to walk on eggshells all the time. As citizens, we owe this to ourselves. Let’s teach our kids to be open about things. Let’s teach our kids to communicate. Let’s teach our kids to robustly challenge assumptions about rape and women in general that just aren’t true.
Putting women in conservative clothing isn’t a cure. It’s an ineffective, rather useless measure against a complex problem. By all means, dress sensibly. By all means, learn karate. By all means, carry pepper spray. But know that those aren’t solutions.
Let’s not go overboard with that stuff. Let’s focus on the real issue here. Wearing a salwar kameez instead of jeans is not a solution. It’s a home remedy that doesn’t work.
Women have lived in fear long enough. It’s time that changed. It’s going to take time, but let’s start to trudge that road, one step at a time.
I tweet @Archsmta