Rape, a hushed word

The delivery of justice must become much swifter if rapists are to be deterred at all writes Mitra Phukan

For the longest time, the word itself was not spoken. “Rape”. Then it came to be whispered, even as people went into little huddles in homes and other places to talk fearfully about that terrible thing that had happened to the girl, the woman they knew.

Who knows how many rapes and sexual molestations were just simply ignored in those earlier times? Who knows how many women lived with the “shame” of being raped? For make no mistake, society showed no compassion for the victims of rape. This was a crime where the victim was viewed with more harshness than the perpetrators, who often went scot free. In certain areas of rural Assam, rape victims even today are viewed as “polluted”. She is not allowed to enter the kitchen because her body is “defiled”. Stringent social norms that placed – still place – a high premium on virginity saw to it that if at all possible, a rape was hidden from view, even if it meant that the physical and emotional scars of the victim never healed. Even if it meant that the perpetrator went off, getting bolder and bolder, quite free to repeat the crime whenever and wherever he pleased, secure in the knowledge that this mindset of the society in which he lived gave him all the protection he could ever ask for.

And then, of course, there are the questions of honour. A rape against a woman, a girl, is a terrible violation of her body, true. But there are even more complex equations being played out. From time immemorial, a rape was often much more than a momentary giving in to lust. It was an assertion of power, as well. Over the woman who was raped, and also over men. In patriarchal societies such as ours, “possessing” a woman was a way of getting at the men who were perceived to “own” her. This could be a father, a brother, cousins, husband…perhaps even sons. And certainly the clan, the caste, the religion. “Lower” caste women were prey to sexual demands from the “higher” caste men. Often, the degradation was so great that this custom was accepted as part of the unchanging laws of society. This was why even legitimate weddings between a girl and a boy from “different” communities were frowned upon. It still is, in many areas of the country. A woman and her body were viewed as the property of a man. A rape was also a way of “getting” at the men. It gave a double high to the perpetrators – sexual as well power-centric.

In the eyes of much of society, the fact of this sexual violation made the woman a “participant”, even though she was not. And though the above is written in the past tense, it must be remembered that there are huge areas in the country where this mindset holds true even in the present. Indeed, vestiges of it are glimpsed even in the most supposedly “progressive” urban areas, when such statements as “Oh, but she invited rape. Did you see the clothes she was wearing? A short skirt, tight top…” are made. Or “Oh, how can you blame the men? She was moving around on her own after midnight. It was an invitation to rape, if you ask me.” Yes, statements of this kind continue to be made even today.

No wonder rape victims kept silent. If the physical injuries were too obvious, perhaps family members realized what had happened. But it was all hushed up, as far as possible. Sexual violation coupled with dishonour was too much for any family to deal with. And if, in the process, the victim became mentally scarred for life, well, too bad. No wonder the phrase “Death is preferable to dishonour” came into being. Suicides by rape victims were – still are – a common occurrence. For no kind of counselling was ever available to them.

No matter what people say about the terrible times we are living in, one thing stands out. People are talking about rape. There are discussions, demonstrations. This whole issue is now being scrutinized. Rape victims are slowly being seen, by educated people in urban areas as what they are – victims. (And here it must be made clear that being a victim is different from the concept of victimhood.) They are hesitantly gathering the courage to complain, and tell the world of the terrible thing that was done to them.

And the good thing is that there is a great deal of anger about it. The huge outpouring of outrage across the nation after the barbaric rape on the moving bus in Delhi is something that should be seen to be a silver lining amid the dark clouds. As usual, young people are leading the way. They do not whisper the word. They shout it out, and demand justice for the victim. This is a momentous change indeed, and one that is surely for the better, in our society that is only slowly coming out of the Dark Ages. In any case, young men and women take on people in positions of power, and force them to change. In the process, political hierarchies are flattened, and there is more of the true democratic spirit.

Of course it is understandable that in times such as this, emotions should run high. That is perhaps why people are demanding death penalties for the crime of rape. Perhaps they have not thought things through in the heat of the moment. For the fact is that rapists go away after committing their crime because they are assured of the frightened silence of both the victim and society, which protects them and their crimes. In the act of rape, the woman is a witness. If the perpetrators know that they will be put to death if they are caught, they will kill the witness – that is, the victim. This is a truth that should be recognized.

In any case, in our country today, the death penalty is awarded only in the “rarest of rare” cases. Rapes, unfortunately, are not rare occurrences. Besides, it is a fact that many acts of sexual violations are committed by relatives, within homes. And to add to the complexity of the subject is the issue of rape within a marriage. Which woman, even if a victim of a rape by a close relative, would want to send him to death? For her, to do so would actually be tantamount to carrying a terrible double burden for life.

Actually, one of the problems here is of policing. Our country as a whole is not safe for women. Even places such as Meghalaya, with its matrilineal society, are unsafe. Every time a woman goes out onto the streets – to work, to the market – she puts on an armour, a shield that she has created for herself ever since she was a little girl. Taught by mothers and aunts, she arms herself by making herself as invisible as possible. No eye contact. Try to keep a distance from strange men as they walk towards you. Keep the head bowed as much as possible. Wipe off that smile from your face, and look as grim as possible. Keep your cellphone handy, you may have to make a call for help if things look like becoming nasty. If necessary, pretend to talk on it, so that the man moves away.

And yet, it is not enough. And no, neither age, nor even social standing is proof against this.

It must also be recognized here that young boys, too, need to be educated about the dangers of rape. Violations against them are happening, have been happening for a long time, too. And yet this very silence, this self-defeating hush aids perpetrators to continue with their violations, on children, boys, girls and women. Even on infants.

So yes, policing of course needs to be improved, vastly. The perpetrators must be caught, and swiftly brought to justice. In addition, routine policing should be much more effective. Streets should be kept safe, for men as well as women. They should be well lighted, at the very least. Loitering around by goons should be dealt with firmly.

Also, the police force must be made more gender sensitive. This is of course also a reflection of the society in which we all live. For our entire society, in various degrees, is callous in the matter of gender sensitivity. Catcalls, whistles on the street are but a milder form of the phenomenon of “rape”. And yet when we accept these, when we shrug our shoulders and call it “eve teasing” and tolerate it, we are encouraging the Roadside Romeos to move on to the point beyond. Next, a grope on the body parts of unwary women. Then, perhaps, a hand placed for far too long on a body. In the office, lewd remarks and suggestive looks from men in positions of power. And then…who knows?

The delivery of justice, too, must become much swifter if rapists are to be deterred at all. Punishment, even according to the existing laws of the land. is abysmally slow now. This has to change if any worthwhile progress is to be made.

And of course a lot of the blame falls on us women too. As mothers, do we educate our sons to respect women? Those goons who committed the barbaric act, certainly they have mothers, aunts, maybe sisters. Did none of these women teach them that women are more than objects of lust, or vessels through which to feel a rush of power as they violate her body? No, we cannot escape responsibility here. If the mindset of society has to change, women themselves must also be vehicles of that change. Not only by demonstrating on the streets (though that is important, too) but also by educating their men, their boys. No doubt this is a slow process, but it is the only way by which permanent change can come.

Today, the country is boiling with a rage that is spilling over onto the streets. Rightly so. But one cannot help wondering…what about the numerous rapes that are happening in rural areas? What about the violations that take place of women who are not empowered by education or economic and social status? They merit, at the most, a couple of lines in some local paper. Their plight is largely ignored by us. Custodial rapes, rapes by insurgents, militants. These are hardly ever discussed.

Perhaps the laws of the land need to be changed as regards rape, but only after inclusive discussion. What is required more urgently is to see that culprits are brought to book, and justice delivered swiftly, so that a measure of closure can be obtained, and the victim can at least try to move on with her life.

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan is a writer, translator, columnist and classical vocalist who lives and works in Guwahati, Assam. Her published literary works include four children's books, a biography, and a novel, "The Collector's Wife". Her most recent work is another novel, "A Monsoon of Music" published by Penguin-Zubaan in September 2011. Besides, her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Her works have been translated into several languages. She is the Northeast correspondent of the Chennai-based journal of the performing arts, "Shruti" and a member of the North East Writers' Forum.