Man’s world

Print edition : January 25, 2013

The Meham mahapanchayat held on August 1, 2010. The elaborate everyday control of women's lives by families and institutions is systematic, planned and violent. Photo: Manoj Dhaka

At the venue of a film festival in Bangalore. Films strengthen the existing culture of misogyny in India. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K

An acid attack at a workshop organised by the Karnataka Women's Commission in Bangalore in July 2012. Photo: K. GOPINATHAN

Sri Ram Sene activists assaulting young people, including women, at a pub in Mangalore in January 2009. Photo: PTI

THE alarming frequency with which the political class displayed the foot-in-the-mouth syndrome during the public protests over the gang rape of a 23-year-old in Delhi signalled the larger sexist, misogynist tendencies of Indian society. Most of the elected representatives either echoed the demand for retributive justice voiced by a section of the crowd or sought to regulate women’s freedom ostensibly to “protect” them from such horrific incidents. Some of the other responses were justifiably directed at the government’s unaccountability in matters of sexual violence that women face every day. Yet, most of these responses seemed to delineate the ‘rapist’ as part of a depraved section of society and ‘rape’ as an exceptional crime committed only by that section. A refusal to look within and to ponder over the conditions that allow rape to happen naturally culminates in demands for instant justice and increased regulation of women’s conduct. A natural corollary of such responses is that “good behaviour” or “propriety” becomes a preserve of the woman.

It is important to understand the conditions in which crimes against women happen. Feminists and political theorists believe that feudal patriarchal norms are so firmly entrenched in Indian society that any assertive and independent creation of space by women is violently resisted. Rape and other forms of violence against women are only forms of this structural violence. With modernity ushering in greater access for women to commercial and public spaces, these independent spaces, too, have become the site for a crisis of Indian masculinity, which is used to women being homemakers. Says advocate Ratna Kapur: “Over the past several decades, women’s rights have proliferated and they [women] are claiming their subjectivity, asserting their identity as women as opposed to being someone’s wife, daughter or sister. And with the opening up of the market, women are more visible in the workplace. That they are entering male bastions of power has challenged the sense of superiority and entitlement of the traditional Indian male.”

Feminists believe that this subconscious sense of displacement has made even modernist men uncomfortable as they themselves are born into traditional Indian families that are fed on ideas that differentiate sexes by patriarchal virtues. “Sex is considered a fact—one is born with either male or female genitalia. Gender is considered a social construct —it grants meaning to the fact of sex. Conversely, it could be said that only after specific meanings came to be attached to the sexes did sex differences become pertinent,” says V. Geetha, a gender theorist based in Chennai.

According to the British political scientist Andrew Heywood, patriarchal ideas blur the distinction between sex and gender and assume that all socio-economic and political distinctions between men and women are rooted in biology or anatomy. Physical strength, thus, becomes the most important distinction between the sexes in defining modes of production. And actions like rape, which involve physical overpowering, are considered by men as the ultimate subjugation and humiliation of women.

Rape, therefore, has to be seen within the algorithm of power that the institution of family perpetuates at the first level. Even in modernist discourse, the family is never conceptualised without a man as its head. The protectionist responses in the current debate about rape must be seen in this context. “The continuum between the family (the place of safety for women, the home where one is taken care of) and rape has to be stressed: both are fantasies of control, of doing whatever it takes to keep women in their place, wherever that place is. The elaborate everyday control of women’s lives by families and institutions (both will find increased legitimacy because of the rape) is as systematic, planned and violent as this rape was.... We need to stress the continuum between people who rape, people who judge those who get raped, and people who try to protect the women in their lives from getting raped by imposing structures of control. The portrayals of the rape of women allow for those men who want to understand themselves as protectors or avengers to do so, they allow for patriarchal structures of control to strengthen themselves and, crucially, they create women as the ‘legitimate’ subjects of rape,” writes Akshi Singh in an article titled “We are all part of the rape culture”.

The French historian Michel Foucault highlights sexuality as a construct and presents its genealogical history. For him, sexuality is a mode by which one understands the exercise of power and how a certain kind of ‘sexual’ subjectivity encourages the disciplinary mode of power. By crafting a certain kind of imaginary for the female body and its sexual desires, the woman is absorbed into the normative structure of society that is defined by patriarchy. Patriarchy is an endemic historical and cultural practice that exerts an all-encompassing hegemony. It assumes the male as the norm and the female as the other.

This is adequately reflected in India’s villages. It is fairly well known how zamindars and upper-caste men, the patriarchs of a village economy, routinely abuse Dalit and poor women and how at the same time they impose a strict code of sexual and domestic ethics for women of their own households. The ever-expanding mega-cities of India also reflect similar dynamics. The importance attached to a woman’s chastity is measured in sexual terms and not in any other way. Therefore, a rape survivor is automatically treated as the victim or lacking in propriety and is often socially ostracised. At the same time, the rapist is perceived as an embodiment of virility.

Normative structures

Many academics have, time and again, pointed out that feudal sanction to the sexual abuse of women is reified through religious practice and rituals. Various religious texts have openly stated ways to establish supremacy over women in circumstances where they assert their independence. The contemporary polity of the Hindu right-wing in India also perpetuates normative structures. The moral and cultural policing that is a significant part of the Sangh Parivar’s politics seeks to revive the ‘Indian’ ethos that is being “threatened by Western influences”. Within this understanding, women are abused if they do not dress “appropriately” or if they marry or fall in love by choice. At the time of communal riots, women’s bodies are the most important area of contestation; hence the high number of rapes during times of conflicts such as these.

Purushottam Agarwal, a professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, writes: “Rape, even in an individual context, is not just a matter of sexual lust. In a collective context, rape becomes an explicitly political act, and in the context of an organised aggression, it becomes a spectacular ritual, a ritual of victory—the defilement of the autonomous symbol of the honour of the enemy community.”

At the same time, Hindu women are extolled in the name of only goddesses, mythical mothers and sisters. Women figure as “medium” and “symbol” in Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s writings. An area where the question of women significantly comes up in his writings is within the context of Hindu virtue.

Karen Gabriel, who teaches English in Delhi University, says: “The representation of women as only mothers and daughters or goddesses by the religious Right is often an important weapon to control women. This patriarchal language successfully domesticates women and binds them in familial or communal relations. The understanding operating here is at the heart of the khap mentality and seems to be that traditions of hatred towards women can only be neutralised through this language of familial and communal relations. But as we know, mothers and daughters are in fact routinely raped and killed. Besides, incest and sexual molestation within the family are widely prevalent.”

Patriarchy and capitalism

The onset of liberalisation has not helped the larger cause of gender sensitivity in any way. Feminists point out that the greater public space created for middle-class women thanks to liberalisation policies, though projected as empowering, is used to couch the structural issues impending on Indian women. Karen Gabriel talks about the increasing trend of representing women in hyper-sexualised idioms: “The rising number of rapes and other forms of sexual violence on women cannot be separated from the change that the liberalisation policies brought about in representations of women in the public sphere. There is a substantial pornographisation of the media. The dominance of the visual media in the last two decades has, in fact, helped strengthen the already existing and potent cultures of misogyny in India. The increasing sexualisation and communalisation of a woman’s body in our cinema, advertisements, and television programmes needs to be situated within prevalent masculinist understandings of women, gender and sexuality.”

Not a single advertisement, in any way, approaches women as a non-sexual, non-saleable item, she adds. “Irrespective of what is being sold (say, a car), the woman is represented, first of all, as equivalent to the object on sale, and secondly as seducing a man into buying that item. The prospective buyer is intrinsically always a male. And that really reflects the fact that men worldwide own much more wealth than women do. The representation of women is usually sexed up and the women are usually shown to be size zero with inflated breasts and are often fair-skinned. Look at some of the Scandinavian countries; they have taken a policy decision to discourage the size zero body type for women and even size zero mannequins are being phased out there,” Karen Gabriel says. The recent cases of vengeful acid attacks that seek to de-beautify a woman’s face can be located in this understanding.

“In cinema and soap operas, women, if not heavily sexualised, are depicted as sexually vulnerable,” Karen Gabriel goes on to say. “The emergence of nationalistic cinema in the last two decades has represented the vulnerabilities of a community and a nation through the sexual vulnerability of a woman’s body. I mean, a woman could be vulnerable in many other ways. She might be Dalit, poor, or starving; she could be disabled. But her vulnerability is always represented as sexual in Indian cinema. Such an understanding is the result of the patriarchal thinking that men will have to control and protect women. It encourages the sense of ownership that men believe that they have over women’s bodies. Such representation treats women as the private property of men, or the community or even the nation.”

Rape, therefore, has to be understood within the masculinist functions of our economy. Rachana Johri of Ambedkar University, Delhi, says that rape is an expression of the extreme tyrant masculinity operating within patriarchal constructs. She says: “The phenomenon of rape needs to be understood further in psychoanalytical studies. But it definitely reflects the anxieties of men who have developed some sort of ambivalent relationship with women in a context of changing nature of public spaces. And all such processes make women random objects of hostility.”

It is, therefore, imperative to understand that demands for punishments like the death penalty and chemical castration and using the language of protection will not only diffuse society’s need to understand masculine notions of power, but also perpetuate them.