The Devil In Our Midst
Every few months I find myself circling back to this issue. On a daily basis, there’s a grim reminder in the morning newspapers: yet another rape. There are so many so often now that we are in danger of seeing the victims reduced to meaningless statistics.
To anyone who’s reading this: please read the Tehelka article by Sai Manish and Priyanka Dubey, “Haryana’s bestial rape chronicles” (the 27th October issue). Read the second paragraph: about a girl abducted and raped by four boys; a girl who managed to crawl to a brick kiln, where she was raped again by two men; then again by an autorickshaw driver, and then for another nine days, by a truck driver and his sidekick.
Try and imagine that. Ten days — ten days. 14,400 minutes in the worst kind of hell imaginable. How does anyone ever recover from that?
The girl was 13 years old.
Somehow, Manish and Dubey manage to keep their tone civil and calm. Reading the report, I am neither. I have two daughters. But for the grace of someone or something I have never believed in, and now can no longer find reason to, it might have been them. Or any of the many young women of all ages I know. The trajectory of my feelings is familiar: it arcs from a sense of physical sickness to rage and then to despair. On Facebook, when I post the link, a senior lawyer wants to know if we’re going to do something about this, or just talk and move on. I don’t know.
From the Tehelka article: In the eight months between January and August of this year, there were 455 reported cases of rape. That’s nearly two a day, and these are only the ones that do get reported and possibly the most heinous. In the past year, there have been over 300 separate news items reporting rape. Many are beyond imagination: girls with disabilities, pregnant women, children. What kind of monster finds himself sexually aroused by a 31/2 -year-old infant?
What I do know, and have said before, more than once, is that at least as far as the law on sexual assaults on women is concerned, Dickens was right, and a more daft statute is hard to imagine. But the law isn’t the problem here, but something else entirely. Tehelka quotes a village headman as saying that if “the girl is known to sleep around with many men, then we do not encourage a police investigation.” This means that in Haryana it’s open hunting season on any woman forced into prostitution. And it doesn’t help when the ‘solution’ offered by a politician is to lower the marriage age.
Caste, power politics, a skewed male-female ratio; all these are cited as possible explanations. And then there are the law’s enforcers, with their own weird mindset: blaming ‘Western clothes’, of course, but incredibly one who actually asks “How can you rape a woman forcibly when she doesn’t want it?”
That one question puts into perspective an entire ethos. Women, we are asked to believe, enjoy rape. A police officer, supposedly with a passing acquaintance with the law, makes a distinction between forcible rape and some species of rape that isn’t forced, a distinction that only exists in what passes for his brain. This is a direct result of submersion from early days in feudal thinking: a Jat, Tehelka quotes a landlord saying, is not worthy of being called a Jat unless he has had sex with his farm labourer’s wife and daughter.
Here we have a living echo of that mythical legal entitlement called droit de seigneur, the right of a medieval lord to take the virginity of his serf’s daughter and bride. There’s no known historical or legal source for this, but the law being what it is, there’s even a Latinism for it: jus prima noctis, or the right of the first night. In both, and in the Haryanvi iteration, there is the notion of women as chattel, or property, and therefore disposable.
What’s even more distressing is that we aren’t alone. Earlier this month, 10 of 14 accused of repeated gang rapes of two teenage girls in a Parisian suburb were acquitted by a French jury. The remaining four got what amounts to a judicial slap on the wrist: six months to a year in jail and a suspended sentence. The US Presidential elections have given us their own version of this very mentality, with the Republican Senate nominee from Missouri, Todd Akin, talking in August about something he calls ‘legitimate rape’ and, in the context of rape pregnancies, pushing the boundaries of medical science by saying that the female body has a way of ‘shutting that whole thing down’. Yesterday, another Republican with senatorial ambitions, Richard Mourdock, told us a few days ago that rape pregnancies were part of a divine design. Akin got a spectacular come-uppance, none better than the one from Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues”:
You used the expression “legitimate” rape as if to imply there were such a thing as “illegitimate” rape. Let me try to explain to you what that does to the minds, hearts and souls of the millions of women on this planet who experience rape. It is a form of re-rape. The underlying assumption of your statement is that women and their experiences are not to be trusted. That their understanding of rape must be qualified by some higher, wiser authority. It delegitimizes and undermines and belittles the horror, invasion, desecration they experienced. It makes them feel as alone and powerless as they did at the moment of rape.
Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to close your eyes and imagine that you are on your bed or up against a wall or locked in a small suffocating space. Imagine being tied up there and imagine some aggressive, indifferent, insane stranger friend or relative ripping off your clothes and entering your body — the most personal, sacred, private part of your body — and violently, hatefully forcing themself into you so that you are ripped apart. Then imagine that stranger’s sperm shooting into you and filling you and you can’t get it out. It is growing something in you. Imagine you have no idea what that life will even consist of, spiritually made in hate, not knowing the mental or health background of the rapist.
Then imagine a person comes along, a person who has never had that experience of rape, and that person tells you, you have no choice but to keep that product of rape growing in you against your will and when it is born it has the face of your rapist, the face of the person who has essentially destroyed your being and you will have to look at the face every day of your life and you will be judged harshly if you cannot love that face.”
Why is it that the only defence of rape victims comes from women? Across the planet, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, dismembered the leader of the opposition for his misogynistic and sexist comments and conduct with an excoriating address in the House. Two days ago, Deepanjana Pal, writing for Mumbai Boss hit a wider target, and she did it at the time of Durga Puja, supposedly a celebration of female power:
“Well into the twentieth century, women in India have been burnt alive, beaten, imprisoned, starved, raped and generally treated despicably for generations. They’ve been socialised into accepting they should be submissive, unthreatening, serene; they shouldn’t pick fights; they should be invisible and if visible, they must be perfect. We have a few token examples of emancipation — a prime minister here, a president there, a sprinkling of CEOs.”
“Is it a good time to be a girl in India?” asks a New York Times headline. Yes, there more girls in schools, but does that even begin to address the issue? Three further reports from the New York Times — 28 February by Nilanjana Roy, October 12 by Raksha Kumar, and October 18 by Heather Timmons — all point to the manner in which social shaming is used to victimize the victims. See this with the thinking that sees raping as a badge of honour and we have some idea of the dimensions of the problem.
In the American and Australian incidents, there is a self-correcting mechanism at work, to whatever extent. In India there is only a loss of trust and faith, and one that works at several levels. Women are, as Pal points out, conditioned into submissiveness. Nothing else explains why so many of the women who work as domestic help in our households and come from abusive marriages all think nothing for praying for their husbands and, worse, for the same husband for the next seven karmic cycles when they should be daily praying that those men be sent further and further down the evolutionary ladder. This conditioning results in fatalism and a loss of faith in the social support and defence systems that should be at work in the first place. Then there is the loss of trust in the law and the judiciary, perhaps the most tragic circumstance of all.
There are many suggested answers to the question what separates us from animals? The unequivocal answer must be rape and torture. We must be the only species on the planet that finds pleasure in the deliberate infliction of pain and torment on our fellow beings. Yet there is a third answer: justice.
To the question, then, of what can be done, one possible answer might be to overhaul the law and the judicial processes to deal with rape crimes: stronger punishments, penalties for laggard investigation, an automatic fast-tracking of rape cases. When friends, family, social structures fail, there remains only the law and a system of justice. If we allow that to fail the victims of rape, we fail ourselves. As a society, as a civilization, as men.
The domes and finials and crenellations of our temples of justice lie at the feet of a familiar blindfolded figure that holds both scales and sword. For 2000 years that one figure has told men everywhere that they are subject to the law, and held out through the ages the promise of a form of justice known only to mankind. As a symbol, that statue is perennial and universal, and every act of rape that goes unpunished desecrates it and everything it stands for. For that symbol, that figure, that statue, has everywhere the form of a potential victim of rape.