Sure, rape shocks you, but hang on a second


By Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh
Feminist Lawyer and Researcher

Illustration: Anand Naorem

IF RAPE is the sexualisation of masculine power, the ‘rape scandals’ we have witnessed in the past week tell us something about the fantasies and contours of the power at play. The rape scandal being stories of violent sexual crime that cause extreme outrage — moral panic accompanied by the public demand for death penalty for the rapist. It may erupt at different moments. It may occur at the moment of the alleged rape itself — as in the case of film star Shiney Ahuja’s assault on his domestic servant, or at the moment of the discovery of a violated body, as in the case of Scarlett Keeling, the British teenager whose body was discovered on a Goa beach. Or then again, it may be enacted at the moment of judicial pronouncement of the “truth”, as we have seen in the three cases reported in the past week: Priyadarshini Mattoo, Pratibha Murthy and the unnamed American student whose case is publicly known only by the institutional affiliations of her alleged violators: the TISS students case.

The moral outrage can serve as an impetus for introspection. The Mathura rape scandal, in which the apex court judgement exonerated policemen rapists of a tribal girl for her sexual ‘looseness’ and the (upper) caste character of her rapists, sparked off reforms in our rape laws, and a PIL filed in the Bhawri Devi case, transformed into the Vishaka guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace. The overwhelming focus on the sensational details elides the question of what elevates your everyday garden-variety act of forced sexual intercourse — a husband forcing his wife, a man claiming access to his domestic servant, friends or colleagues disregarding a woman’s protestations — into the realm of sensation?

We live in a culture where everyday rape is normalised. The law is blind to marital rape

I would argue that in a rape scandal, the issue of the ubiquity of sexual violence in India is secondary. The body of the violated woman, her smiling face in the papers, becomes a field for the playing out of narratives of power. In the recent past, we have seen several examples: nationalist fantasies of race and tradition, ‘Indianness’ versus western mores of motherhood, alcohol, drugs, dating, sexuality (as in the case of Keeling, or the TISS rape); fantasies of masculine revenge and rescue, caste and class, and feminine sexual virtue — a young Kashmiri Pandit girl raped by the son of a police officer leads to demands for death penalty; an upper-class celebrity rapes a working-class girl, causing salacious speculation; a call centre worker raped by a working-class man begets public outrage and demands that nights be made safer for working women.

We live in a culture where the everyday rape is normalised. The law is blind to rape within marriage, and the age of consent for a married woman is 15, though the statutory age of consent is 18. Through ‘restitution of conjugal rights’, we endorse the forced cohabitation of women with the man they are married to. Despite the deletion of the section on the victim’s sexual history being relevant, the rape trial is premised on the victim’s sexual innocence. Her virginity is a matter of forensic investigation — through the ‘two-finger test’ — to determine whether her hymen is intact, or if she was ‘habituated to sexual intercourse’.

Rape law divides women into two kinds of unrapeable ‘types’ — the ‘wife’ whose sex is the property of her husband who cannot rape her, and the ‘promiscuous’ woman, who by having a sexual past, impeaches her own credibility as a victim. The ‘rape scandal’ reinforces these prejudices. Unless we begin to unravel these structural relationships, rape will continue to be a scandal — an occasion for momentary public displays of dismay, while sexual violence will remain an unremarkable truth of our lives.


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