Last November, the world watched newscasts with shock as one of the most heinous cases of rape was discussed on Indian television channels. A young 23-year old was raped brutally, maimed and thrown from a bus in the India capital of New Delhi, when she was returning after a late night movie with her boyfriend.
Ever since the Indian air has smelled of anger, paranoia and fear. The walls of all our metropolitan cities are plastered with posters advertising Karate and Kung-Fu classes for girls. Most cities have emergency numbers that can be dialed to report harassment; numbers that were advertised even before the lines became active. Governments are coming up with buses and trains just for women. And more recently, three female engineers won the Gandhian Youth Innovation Award for coming up with a piece of lingerie that can not only send 3800 kilovolts through the body of a molester, but immediately send SOS messages through a GPS to the police and to the girl’s parents.
Men are invited to join this battle too (yes, a battle it is; against rape!). Gillette is now selling its razors to those “soldiers” who fight not for the nation but for its women.
Facebook abounds with posters that define the “real man” as the man who protects and not hurts women.
I have nothing against women learning to break bricks or wearing electrifying underwear, or against these men who are trying hard to be chivalrous. But I do have a problem with the subtext in all these anti-rape war cries, which make it clear that in the minds of the average Indian rape still remains a matter of modesty and shame.
Shamefully (pun-intended), it cannot get more patriarchal than this.
Rape happens because women are taught that their sexuality is their vulnerability, and men are taught to exploit women’s vulnerabilities in order to keep them under control. Most often a patriarchal society exercises this power by controlling a woman’s fertility, and her movements. But sometimes the same society allows its men to go as far as to use sexual violence as a tool of intimidation and subjugation.
But teaching women to speak the very same language of violence may not be the answer, though it does give them a tool of retribution. Creating warriors against rape among men is simply as ridiculous, because it just divides men into those who rape, and those who don’t. All this is most worrisome because it encourages an increased expression of masculinity both among men and women.
Apparently it also encourages dangerous corelations. The recently released over-the-top Bollywood comedy Himmatwala, redefined the real masculine man as the one who protects not only women who are already born, but also those who yet to be born. The whistles that echoed around the theater as this dialogue was being spoken made me cringe, as I realized that these patriarchal messages to protect women were slowly personifying the female fetus, and encroaching on women’s rights to safe abortion!
This focus on modesty, shame and protection also perhaps explains why rape against the lowest classes and castes is not being loudly addressed. Traditionally, modesty has “belonged” to the middle classes. While the rich pretend to live above all such values, the poor are assumed to have none at all. This in turn probably explains why none of the karate classes or the new lingerie is available to women who cannot pay for them.
But if rape is not about modesty, and anti-rape measures are not about protection, then what should they be about?
As for rape I am going to quote Indian feminist and women’s rights advocate Kamayani Bali Mahabal, who speaking at the Mumbai Rising Event on Feb 14 said, “Rape is not about sex. It is about power. It is about the abuse of power.”
And as for measures against rape, what we need is not soldiers, Kung-Fu Pandas or electrified lingerie, or Himmatwalas. These are only alternative expressions of masculinity and alternate systems that foster inequitable distribution of power. What we need is a system that allows both sexes to coexist, enjoy equal amount of freedom, equal access to resources, and equal claim to independence and choice; a system where sexuality can be a woman’s strength and vulnerability can be a male trait. What we need is feminism.