IIT for Society organized a panel discussion on Wednesday, 25th September, on crimes against women. The panelists were Nirupama Subramanian, Associate Editor, The Hindu, Professor Nandita Dasgupta, Chairperson, Complaint Committee Against Sexual Harassment, IIT Madras, Suhrith Parthasarathy, Advocate, Madras High Court, Dr. Kalpana K, Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras and Sneha A., 5th Year student at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras.
Dr Kalpana began the discussion by stating the importance of sustained public pressure on issues of women’s harassment. She spoke about what our reaction to the rape cases says about us as a society. Our demand for chemical castration as a punishment, for instance, stems from a belief that rape is committed due to an uncontrollable sexual urge. This is a myth, and this myth makes us ignore the social basis of rape. We think that rape is done by some ‘brutal’ men ‘out there’. However, rape cannot occur unless there is, on some level, a social sanction for it. For instance, eve-teasing is practically accepted in society as a routine, everyday thing. For women it is an inevitable hazard when they step into public places. The way we view the ‘normal’ and everyday affects the unnatural and bizarre. We need to bring this unquestioned normal into the public consciousness and question the ways in which men and women are socialized to behave the way they do.
Dr. Kalpana mentioned a study that showed that men in small towns harass women as a way to prove their masculinity and bond with other men. A gang of men in a town admitted that they wanted to have sex with the same girl as a way to bond with each other, and, since no willing girl could be found, resorted to kidnapping a girl and raping her. In a survey 73% of men didn’t seem to think that women had a right to do whatever they wanted with their bodies. That partner or marital rape is a crime is an inconceivable concept.
Is there a sign of hope in this? For one thing, after the Delhi rape case, people who earlier dismissed articles like this as ‘women’s stuff’ are now reading and getting involved, trying to understand what happened. Public messages, ad campaigns and the like are spreading the word that women can choose what to wear and what to do with their bodies and they can feel not just helplessness, but anger.
The media has till now focused on the woman in a rape case – what she wore, what she was doing at the time, who she was with, and whether she is ‘good’ woman or a ‘bad’ one. Lawyers defending accused rapists have admitted that the case is often overturned by subtly signalling to the judge that the woman is one of ‘loose’ character. The conviction rate in rape cases is dismally low. Dr. Kalpana ended her speech by saying that we need to be critical of the images of women we consume through the media, games, the internet etc. that fuels how we learn what is sexually healthy or pleasurable.
Sneha revealed a chilling fact – that 1 in 4 men were found in a survey to have raped women (and have openly admitted to doing so), and more than three-fourths of them have not been convicted. We have to understand that crime is a subset of violence. Rape is a crime, wife-beating and verbal abuse is violence. This violence is seen as normal and natural – the husband has a right to treat his wife how he wants. “Patriarchy is as much about the relation between man and man as it is between men and women.” Men often resort to rape to deal with emasculation.
The narrative of masculinity depicts the man as the protector of women. The state does not act against the perpetrator but says that the woman must be protected. The recent viral video, It’s Your Fault makes this clear. Women are told not to go to shady areas. “Why do you want to go there? It’s your fault if something happens to you.” A shady area is, of course, a place with a lot of men.
There has been much demand for the death penalty for rapists. Statistics show, however, that declaring a death penalty for rape does not reduce its incidence. What we need is an effective state and a society willing to change.
Professor Nandita Dasgupta spoke about how most of our movies depict the heroes as a stalker who keeps pestering the girl until she finally gives in. She also raised the valid point that the ratio of girls to boys in the gathering was much greater than the ratio of girls to boys in IIT. It is important that girls are educated, she stressed, but it is equally important that boys are educated about women’s issues too.
Nirupama Subramaniam said that we often externalize events like rape. The media does not point out that the fault is within us, in the way we look at women and men. She spoke about a dilemma of the media – that of whether to refer to the woman as a victim or a survivor. The proponents of the latter term argue that the term helps the woman deal with issue and eventually move on, but this, according to Ms. Subramaniam, is a mistaken belief. Rape is a crime, just like murder is, and the woman is a victim of it just as we have victims of murders.
Most cases of rape are not stranger rape, though these are exaggerated by the media. They are committed by friends, family members, and husbands or partners. The media, cinema and TV can help by portraying these accurately.
Suhrith Parthasarathy said that the Justice J.S. Verma committee made recommendations that were incorporated into the seminal Criminal Law Amendment Act. Earlier the definition of rape was that the man penetrated the vagina with the penis. Thus penetration with a rod would not have been called rape. The CLA Act now expands this definition to include oral penetration and penetration using objects as well. Acid attacks have been brought under the Act. Trafficking of women has also been mentioned as a crime. Sexual harassment is now an offence under the Indian Penal Code. Stalking is an offence carrying the punishment of imprisonment of upto five years.
However, the drawback of the Act is that marital rape is not recognised as a crime under the Act. Unless marital rape is criminalized, he opined, the violence will continue. Suhrith noted that our laws are still a hangover from colonial times. The Indian Penal Code, for instance, uses phrases like “acts violating the modesty and chastity of women” when describing harassment. What do those words even mean, and why are they still used today? It has taken us 65 years after Independence to amend our laws – a fact that is itself deeply shameful.