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India: Masculinity is the real culprit

Saturday 26 January 2013, by siawi3

by Praful Bidwai

Source: Kashmir Times, 13 January 2013

One month on, public outrage at the gangrape and barbaric brutalisation of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in Delhi, causing her death, refuses to die down. Among the factors driving it are recent crassly insensitive and misogynist comments on it, and the deplorable deception practised by the Delhi government. It moved her against sound judgment to Singapore in collusion with a money-making corporate group with no experience of treating grave injuries with multiple organ failure and septicaemia, and stealthily flew home her dead body and had it secretly cremated.
The shocking episode has produced three main reactions. The first is to demand more stringent punishment for rape, such as hanging or chemical castration. The second seeks to protect women paternalistically by forcing them to dress “soberly”, running special buses, installing more CCTV cameras, banning cellphone use, and bizarrely in Puducherry, making them wear overcoats.

The third, and the crassest, reaction comes from officials, politicians-especially of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, but also the Congress and Samajwadi Party-and so-called spiritual leaders like Asaram Bapu.

This reaction blames the rape victim by accusing her of having crossed “Laxman Rekhas” (red-lines) such as not going out at night (Madhya Pradesh minister Kailash Vijayavargiya and Chhattisgarh women’s commission chief Vibha Rao), or says the rape could have been prevented had the victim chanted certain mantras or entreated the assailants to treat her like their sister (Bapu).

Alternatively, it holds, like RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, that rapes are alien to rural, traditional “Bharat” and only occur in Westernised, urban “India”, and that marriage is a “contract” under which the wife agrees to be an obedient servant and the husband protects her. If she violates the “contract”, the husband needn’t protect her. This implicitly justifies domestic violence.

The third reaction re-victimises the victim and is rooted in the same patriarchal prejudices that generate a culture of violence against women, of which rape is part. Rape has nothing to do with sex or sexual attraction-or else, 10-month or four-year-olds, as well as 23-year-old and 82-year-old women wouldn’t be raped regardless of their looks, attire or relationship with the aggressor.

It stretches credulity and violates reason to think that mantras or appeals to a brotherly relationship can prevent rape. And it’s nonsensical to hold that the student who lost her life to aggravated assault invited rape: “a mistake isn’t committed by only one side” (Bapu).

Mr Bhagwat’s Bharat-India contrast, based on a glorified notion of traditional society, is also manifestly wrong. Legal analysis shows that 75 percent of all rape convictions in India between 1983 and 2009 were from rural India. Rape, especially of Dalit women, is a major instrument of caste oppression in village India.

The third reaction is downright obnoxious. It rationalises and encourages rape. But the other two responses also fail to address the real issue. Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about male power, aggression, violence and domination, and a desire to humiliate a woman by violating her bodily integrity.
Rape is an assertion of masculinity in a patriarchal society in which women are assigned a subordinate position and inferior roles. Masculinity is associated with traditionally “male” traits such as boldness, manliness, bravery, muscularity, gallantry, machismo, stout-heartedness, robustness, being resolute, etc. Femininity is negative masculinity.

As South Asian feminist-activist Kamla Bhasin says, “a woman is what a man is not…if men are expected to dominate and control, women must be submissive; if men are supposed to order, women have to take orders; if men are allowed to be hot-tempered, women have to be patient; and so on…if men dominate but women refuse to submit, ’peace’ and ’harmony’ will be disturbed.” This is exactly what Mr Bhagwat means by marriage as a “contract”-which maintains an unequal peace, under which women are inferior.

Unlike sex, masculinity is not a biological or genetic characteristic of men; nor is its opposite, femininity, genetically inherited by women. Both are social-cultural traits. As feminist theorist Ann Oakley puts it, “to be a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, is as much a function of dress, gesture, occupation, social network and personality as it is of possessing a particular set of genitals.”

Most societies are patriarchal. Therefore gender violence is universal. Indian society is particularly patriarchal, and denies women agency and any identity other than that of a wife, mother, daughter or sister. All other women, as former President Zail Singh said, are “bhog ki cheez” (objects of enjoyment).
India privileges males to the extent of killing female foetuses on a mass scale. Over the past century, 35 million women have gone missing-through sex selection. Discrimination against women is comprehensive and pervasive from cradle to grave. Girls will get less food, medical attention and access to education than boys. Most will never experience adolescence or discover their inner urges and true personalities. From girls, they suddenly become wives and mothers-and chattel slaves with no right to their own bodies, whose life is mainly drudgery.

Masculinity takes on particularly ugly forms in India. Rape, severely under-reported because of the stigma attached to it thanks to the privileging of virginity and chastity, is one of them. Rape is India’s fastest-growing crime. Its incidence increased by 873 percent between 1971 and 2011, compared to 250 percent for murder since 1953.

A major reason for this is that more and more women are getting educated and have jobs. Girls routinely top school-leaving examinations and compete with boys even in professional courses. Although women’s participation in India’s workforce is still much lower than China’s 70 percent, it has risen rapidly to 25 percent.

This increase, and the independent identity and greater confidence acquired by women, are enough to threaten masculinity and men’s hegemonic ambitions, and draw an insecurity-based violent reaction. Rape is one manifestation of this.

Gangrape is especially disgusting because it involves demonstrative public acts and a “sharing of the spoils” by rowdy, brutish, hyper-masculine men intent on causing limitless injury and humiliation to a woman, in addition to satisfying their lust. It’s a matter of abiding shame that gangrapes are growing rapidly in India.

Rape in India can no longer be treated as an individual issue. It’s a social and political pathology-a part of pervasive gender violence. A woman is molested every 12 minutes, burnt for dowry every hour, and raped every 21 minutes. The demand for draconian penalties for rape lies in the belief that these would deter it. This is a delusion-and a call for revenge, not justice.
The rowdy mobs that roamed Indian cities demanding revenge, with slogans like “You Rape, We Chop”, reproduced the same violence that the crime itself involves. Unsurprisingly, many men saw in the demonstrations an opportunity to grope women participants.

Punishing rape, even gangrape, with death will not deter the crime, whose roots lie in masculinity and male aggression, which is built into the culture of patriarchal violence. Apart from the numerous persuasive arguments that have been made against capital punishment-including its failure to deter, and its cruel, degrading nature-the death penalty for rape will only lead to more murders.

Another knee-jerk reaction is to demand chemical castration of rapists. This is Taliban-style “justice”. It fails to understand the practical difficulties involved in injecting drugs that suppress the production of testosterone, which governs sexual functions including erection. Chemical castration is recommended in prostate cancer, but has serious side-effects, is easily reversible and needs monthly injections, and hence reliable follow-up.
Demanding castration misses the point that controlling men’s sexual urge can’t be the answer: rape isn’t about sex, but about power, domination and aggression. Besides, no punishment in a civilised society can be cruel or inhuman: deploying modern science to accomplish castration is no better than Saudi Arabia’s use of sophisticated aseptic surgical techniques to chop off thieves’ hands.

As the Supreme Court has just said, India doesn’t need a radically new rape law-speedier implementation of existing laws is enough. However, we must criminalise marital rape, as 100 countries have done, and throw out a newly tabled Bill which legalises it if the wife if over 16. We must ban the abominable two-finger vaginal test by a doctor to determine if a rape victim is habituated to sexual intercourse. This is irrelevant to the crime.

We must also secure a higher rate of convictions in rape than the existing 26 percent. But that calls for better policing and more painstaking collection of evidence-as well as deep reflection on the kind of society we are.

The various proposals made for protecting women through segregation, dress codes, CCTVs, etc involve branding and blaming them, while paternalistically denying their independent, equal identity. What we need is not less, but more, and healthy interaction between men and women, and boys and girls, so they can relate to each other with respect and affection and without aggression and violence. That’s the way to be rid of the scourge of masculinity and rape.