In other words, statistics show that women who come out against domestic violence and sexual assaults tend to be from deprived quarters of India’s economic cross-section. What could this imply? Could it be that marital crimes, domestic violence and sexual assault do not take place among the elite?
On one side, there exists great anxiety to hush up such cases, citing family status and future prospects of the victim and the accused (as the accused in many cases is a member of the family). At the same time, there is also great concern and apprehension against the misuse of women-friendly laws in the same quarters.
This disproportion clearly points to other concerns that shape such anxieties. Definitely, there is anxiety about losing proprietorial rights over women’s bodies. The right-wing notion of women as sites of honour and tradition of a culture attributes virtues of chastity to female bodies as long as they fit into the category of the ideal woman. When this image is punctured, the act is submerged in a discourse of this proprietorship.
This is precisely the reason why even after so much feminist pressure and progressive debates, marital rape has still not been declared a crime in India. Often, in legal reforms, this will be sidelined with a claim that it is against Indian tradition and will affect family values.
It is imperative also to look at honour killings and women being violated by men of other communities while discussing the abuse of women-friendly laws. When women are bearers of a community’s honour, female bodies become the battleground where honour and virtue are contested and debated. Therefore, violence against women is read as violence against a community. The voices that propound family values and male rights also express concern about ‘love jihad’ and intercaste marriage.
Any instance of sexual violence against women involves power but this seldom comes up in debates hailed by men’s rights activists. They ignore the entire history of the feminist movement in India, which tries to address the question of power imbalance when it comes to gender relationships.
The first feminist intervention in rape law and the demand for legal reforms after the Mathura rape case was to shift the onus of proving consent to the accused. This was demanded on two grounds, primarily from the notion that courtroom procedures have underlying prejudices that a woman means ‘yes’ when she says ‘no’. There is also the dubious practice of determining consent on the basis of physical injury on the woman.
This demand met with a heated debate between human rights activists and feminists. The primary concern was the misuse of law and the curbing of civil rights, as the Indian legal system holds an accused innocent until the crime is proved beyond reasonable doubt. But tracking the history of rape trials in India, this has seldom been the case ever since 1983, and the harrowing experience of rape trials that unfolds in courtrooms continues even today.
Even cases that elicited positive judgments, the excessive reliance on women’s chastity and morality have sprung from underlying patriarchal concerns. That “No woman lies when it comes to questions of modesty and virginity” is one common ground for judgments in such cases. Ascribing martyrdom to rape victims who have died while defending their modesty and the treatment of rape survivors as victims, branding them zinda laash (living corpses) also spring from similar concerns.
While legal reforms are important, accessibility to legal mechanisms and fair conduct of law for women of all sections of the society is pertinent to create a safe habitat for women within the family and outside. More importantly, the concern should be to address underlying patriarchal concerns tangential to dowry deaths, sexual assaults and any instance of violence against women. Given the prevalent social equations in India, gender neutrality in such cases will be ignoring the social realities of a country that is premised in highly patriarchal values and misogynist assumptions.