Is it still Rape when no one is Looking?

How we react to, and report on, rape cases in India reveals that we are still beholden to the parochial structures that cause them in the first place

Lily Tekseng Delhi

In the wake of the Badaun gang rape case, various sections of society across the country and the world have expressed alarm at the “rape crisis” in the country. The incident brings a feeling of déjà vu when in the aftermath of the December 2012 gang rape of a young student in Delhi, the country and the world protested unanimously against the various structures of society that created such criminals and allowed such crimes to occur with impunity.

After that incident, it was the rape of a young photographer in Mumbai that turned the spotlight back on the issue. It was revealing that the public expressions of agitation and protest were loudest when the victim was situated in the urban-middle-class bracket. But when countless number of women across the country are met with a similar fate, the public scrutiny isn’t that strong, and in many cases, the incident barely even registers in the media. This is especially so if the victim is outside of the urban-middle-class bracket. Therefore, it took the shockingly dehumanising photograph of the two Dalit girls hanging from a tree to stir the collective consciousness of the country to realise that there are countless others in the country who cannot escape a destiny of being at the receiving end ofbrutal violence.

It will be a while before there is an intelligent consensus on what is considered and understood as crimes against women, especially one that legitimately recognises that the degree of gruesomeness does not have to be the only defining feature of gendered crimes. In fact, even the epithet “rape crisis” implies that the recent incidents are out of the norm. That India has been bitten by the rape bug only suddenly or recently is misleading, and largely, the selective and sensational coverage by the media is responsible for this. By and large, the social structures of diverse communities across the country exhibit tendencies towards gender-based discrimination, and espouse a way of life and mode of thinking that sanctions crimes against women to occur with societal legitimacy and subsequent judicial impunity. There are problems of interpreting the rape statistics, i.e., the percentage of reported rape cases is not directly proportional to the real number of incidents of rapes in the country. Often, it indicates that the taboo and stigma against reporting rape is diminishing and that there is greater awareness in the society against gender-based crimes. It is, therefore, impossible to say with certainty if there has been a sharp, “rape-crisis” kind of rise in the incidents of rape and violence against women in the country. However, by suggesting that the “rape crisis” is of now, of this very moment, we steer the conversation away from the deep-rooted tradition and take a pan-Indian worldview, so to speak, that only goes as far back as we can collectively remember and perceives women as inherently inferior.

Caste has a way of percolating into all walks of life in India: there is the politics of caste and poverty, the politics of caste and gender discrimination, of caste and education, caste and the general opportunities available to life, or the lack thereof. The very patriarchal and caste structures that emboldened the three Yadav boys to rape the two sisters and hang them by their necks afterwards also prize the honour of women. Toilets are built on the event of the arrival of the new daughter-in-laws and maturing daughters. It is a privilege that has more to do with reinforcement of control over women’s bodies and less to do with sanitation. It’d laughable if it wasn’t so horribly, chillingly wrong that one’s caste naturally extends to the person’s excretion too, that upper caste excreta is purer and higher in the hierarchy of excreta (manual scavenging with caste’s ugly function at work is a reality even today).The need for proper sanitation facilities across the country has been raised time and again and the issue has been explored through the gender lens in the aftermath of the Badaun case. According to WHO, a staggering 48 per cent of the population lacks access to basic sanitation facilities, and this is an aggravated situation for women and girls because they’re often assaulted in the compromising situation. Government schemes like Bharat Nirmal Abhiyan and non-profit organisations such as Sulabh International will have to deal with the building of toilets as well as awareness programmes to bring about behavioural changes. The direction the discussion on gender based crimes has taken in India in the public space in the recent days has again had the tendency to find a single concrete cause—this time it is the lack of toilets.

While it is true that the lack of basic sanitation facilities make women vulnerable to sexual assault and violence arising out of there, and that it also affects the overall health of the society, it is still only one of the symptoms of the larger social malaise. To seek a cure for this supposed cause of ill and ignore the rest is counterproductive in the long run. The discussion on caste and its relation to gender, the networks of power it contaminates, and pervasive forms of patriarchy that engulfs all walks of Indian life has to permeate beyond the walls of academia, across all walks of society.