By Ashley Tellis
So, predictably, the rapists of Jyoti Singh are to hang. And yet another incredible story of the rape, over months, of a disabled minor girl in Chennai comes in with all the graphic details of her sedation and repeated molestation and abuse. There’s no national outrage this time. It is only South India, after all. Even Kathua in Jammu took us months to get outraged over. Perhaps the outrage over Chennai will come in due course. Or not at all. Chennai will never be Delhi.
But the point is our outrage seems like a tired machine working up the smokescreen that protects who we really are. Who we really are is a society of rapists. We seem to save our outrage for only the particularly gruesome rapes (as if there is a graded quality to rape) but that hides the fact that rape is what we swear by every day of our lives.
What is marriage if not a form of sanctified rape? We do not think marital rape even imaginable as a criminal category because it blows open the lid on the fact that marriage is a form of rape: a ceremonial, ritualistic, marketized, and glitzy sanction to rape.
It is the end result of a rape culture that begins before birth because female foetuses are dispensable and found in piles in dustbins. So the rape of a little girl, even an infant, seems nothing so heinous after all. We do not care about girls at all. We want to kill them and raping them while we are at it does not seem too bad a deal.
What is family if not a shroud under which rape goes on unpenalised? Most rapes and sexual abuse happen within the sacralised family, that glorified institution we do not question at all, that we now want to protect through privacy laws so that fathers can continue their rape, real and symbolic, of daughters and sons unabated. Think Hadiya. Think Hadiya’s father.
What is school if not a form of rape? Rapes actually happen in schools on a regular basis but the ways in which boys are brought up to harass girls in schools or outside girls’ schools show that rape is a rite de passage. Successive governments – Congress as much as BJP – have blocked sex education in schools. We do not want educated bodies. Educated bodies will not be raped.
We want romance. After the Jyoti Singh rape case, national politicians came on TV to say that we can’t criminalise romance because: how would boys experience the pleasure of chasing a girl which, after all, is romance? Look at any of our cinemas in any of our languages. How is our cinema not rape-legitimising culture? ‘Kab tak rootegi, cheekegi, chilaayegi. Dil kehta hai ek din haseena maan jaayegi’ (‘Till when will she be upset, scream and shout? My heart says one day the girl will agree’) is a perfect description of rape if ever there was one. Men push and pull women, slap them around, force them into submission, all under the signature of romance and love.
But do we ask for death penalty for husbands? For parents? For school administrations? For college administrations? For film producers and directors? For politicians and legislators? No. The very idea seems ludicrous. Yet these are the people who produce and perpetuate and promulgate rape culture and who really ought to be hanged if we believe in the stupidity of death penalty.
It is so easy to take our complicity with rape culture and project it onto some working class men whom we can then call migrants, monsters, creeps, demons, and whatever else we want to call them. It is so easy to scream and shout for their heads and not question our voyeuristic thrill in watching them die (just like we will never acknowledge our sexual thrill at the gruesome details of the rapes we devour daily in the newspapers and social media). It is so easy to project our own desire to rape onto others and wipe ourselves clean of those thoughts. It is so easy to pretend we are lovely, middle class people who do not objectify women, who do not deny them agency, subjecthood, and a voice but it is only these village brutes who do.
The fact of the matter is that we are a society of rapists and the foundation of our society is rape. We need the smokescreen we jack into action to tell us it is not us but somebody else. We need to froth at the mouth over these outrageous, dark-skinned, brutal men, who do not see women as human beings.
But there’s staggering evidence that nobody sees women as human beings, or children as human beings.
Debates over retributive vs. reformative models of justice, over the incommensurability of rape with death as crime and requisite punishment, over the well-proven fact that death penalty does not deter crime (and in this case will only exacerbate it in the bid to erase witnesses), over the moral and ethical right of the state to take human lives also, at the end of the day, amount to smokescreens.
They do not go to the heart of the matter which is that at the kernel of our society is rape; at the kernel of our psyches is rape.
Ashley Tellis is an LGBH, anti-communal, feminist, child, Dalit, adivasi, and minority rights activist. He lives and works in Hyderabad.
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