Talking rape

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Survivors, not victims:

This goes beyond semantics. The rape victim, in the minds of many Indian families and some of the media, is expected to suffer a kind of death along with her rape. It is not the violence that people are thinking about, when they say “her life is over”, of a rape victim; it’s the fact that she was stripped, exposed to strangers, and in their terms, dishonoured by the sexual assault. There is also a commercial devaluation: in families that see women as property, this woman, the rape victim, has suddenly been reduced to a person of no value on the marriage market.

This is very different from the reality of the rape survivor. In the best of all cases, the rape survivor is the woman who knows (or intuits) how common this kind of violent sexual assault is, and who makes the decision to move beyond shame, guilt, loss and everything else the world around her demands that she should now feel. The rape survivor reclaims her body, gives it the care and attention it needs, acknowledges her injuries but is not defined by them, acknowledges her rape but does not let her life be defined by an act she did not want and would have rejected if she had been allowed the choice. The rape survivor reclaims the right to be happy again, to heal, to have crazy, passionate sex again, to be interested in all that interested her before the rape, to develop new interests and passions, the right to feel whole again, the right to live fully and freely again.

The rape survivor is not necessarily just the brave woman who acknowledges her rape, tries to bring her rapists to justice, gets what help she needs and moves on with her life. The rape survivor is also the domestic worker who can’t grieve for herself and her injuries because she has to get into work the next day, the sex worker who can’t report her rape at the police station because she’ll run the risk of being raped by more policemen, the Dalit woman in Haryana who has no privacy after being violently raped because everyone in her village knows who did this to her, and how. Many rape survivors don’t have a choice in their bravery; the circumstances of their lives force upon them the basic courage it takes to get up the day after you’ve been raped and make rotis, go to office, go to the construction site where you have a hard-won job, look after the children, clean someone else’s house.

Given how commonplace sexual violence against women is, and given that we don’t expect the figures to drop drastically soon, it makes much more sense to acknowledge a basic truth—many women and some men will experience sexual violence in their lives. Instead of pretending that this is rare, or only talking about the worst instances, or talking only about how to prevent violence, important as that is, we need to talk about how to live your life well, even if you have experienced assault and violence.

We need to look at the many, many women and men who have moved on from the violence they were subjected to, and reshaped their lives; and we need to stop telling survivors that they’re on their own in this process of reconstruction. If so many women are going to experience or witness sexual violence in their lives, we also need to find ways to talk about what this does to us—we need to be able to speak openly, without fear of being judged, about our own experiences.

(I’ve said this before, but there is no acknowledgement or understanding of male rape; the ritualised sexual assault of men during college ragging rituals, for example, is normalized, seen as commonplace, the trauma rarely discussed. The male survivor of sexual violence in India is shamed and silenced in a different, but equally effective way.)

Men, not brutes:

One of the points I tried to make in a recent piece, ‘Executing The Neighbour’, was that rapists and the men behind sexual violence are not beasts, brutes or monsters. You will come across the occasional psychopath, the truly twisted horrorshow man who has a bloody chamber in his house filled with the corpses of his victims. But what we collectively find hard to accept is the banality of brutality, the unremarkable every-day quality of violence—perhaps because we are so silent about the violence that seems to run through the veins of many Indian families.

Most rapists know the women they have chosen to rape. What the NCRB statistics say, with stunning clarity, is that the average rapist is someone who is considered family, or a friend, or a neighbour, or a close acquaintance. Rape by complete strangers accounts for less than 9 per cent of all reported cases. The monster, the beast, the brute in the remaining 90 per cent of reported cases of rape across India: he’s familiar, one of us.

This is frightening to accept, just as it is frightening for people to start acknowledging that even violent rapes—the ones with the iron rods, the knifes of nightmare, the razor blades, the sharpened sticks shoved into women’s bodies—are often perpetrated by very ordinary men. The more we call rapists monsters and brutes, the less we acknowledge where rape comes from.

Equally troubling, we should not set up a hierarchy of violence and rape, where the media, and all of us, start to count bruises, start to discuss rapes in terms of competitive damage. That, in turn, diminishes the many, many rape survivors who were terrorized by the threat of force or violence, but who do not have injuries or scars to show. It diminishes all those survivors of sexual violence who never consented to what was done to them, never agreed that their bodies could be used that way, but were left without visible marks of assault.

In so many accounts of rape in India, especially, the man or men who rape have the full sanction of the community behind them. The gang rapes of women in times of communal riots; the almost ritualized rapes of Dalit women and women from lower castes because their men, or they, need to be taught a lesson; the custodial rapes, the rapes of women by men in uniform as a way of establishing dominance over the clan, the village, the community. All of these acts of violence are carried out with the approval and the collective silence of the wider community, just as child abuse (according to a 2007 survey, 53 % of Indian children of both genders have experienced child abuse) is carried out with the help of the collective silence of the family.

Most rapists are ordinary men. Many, like the politicians who have chargesheets against them, are men in positions of power and respect; or like the men who handed a woman around to be raped again and again in the Suryanelli case in Kerala, are “family men”. Perfectly ordinary. Perfectly respectable. Perfectly protected, because we don’t want to open up that can of worms; that comes too close to home.

Also: this violence has a cost. We’re not studying male violence enough, but how healthy do you think men can be if they inherit their fathers’ anger and pass it on to their sons? Perhaps this is why so many young men, in particular, are standing up and saying, Enough. Perhaps we need to hear from more men, young and old, about why they reject the rape culture around them, and why they have walked away from violence in their own lives, choosing other, better ways to live and love.

Some years ago, Sampath Pal, the founder of the Gulabi Gang, told me about how she had found the strength to start this movement of women who wore pink saris and beat up the men responsible for domestic violence. (They do broader work on a range of women’s rights issues now.) Her own passion was matched by her partner’s belief that she was right; he was ostracised by his village, and chose to support Sampath Pal rather than go back to his community.

I often think of men like him, or like Bhanwari Devi’s husband, who went with her to the police station after she was gangraped in 1992. He stood with his wife all through, rather than with the village that had first ostracised her for speaking up against child marriage, and then punished her with that chilling gangrape, the one committed with the blessings and knowledge of the community.

A few days before this December’s protests from young, urban Delhi at India Gate, the Times of India carried a small item. The Meham khap, one of the largest and most powerful of the Haryana village panchayat councils, announced that it would revert to the old methods of punishing boys and men accused of rape and sexual assault. It asked that families boycott the accused, and their families.

Perhaps this will work, perhaps not. It could, however, challenge the idea that the rape survivor is the one who bears the shame of the rape. Nor is the Meham khap’s decision a sudden flash-in-the-pan—over the last few years, Meham’s citizens appear to have expressed a collective anger over rising instances of sexual assault against women. The khaps have been in the news for more controversial pronouncements—bans on mobile phones for women, on various grounds, restrictions on meetings between young men and women—but the Meham khap’s decision signals some change.

Religion and tradition:

 If the family is one major site of change, religion and tradition form the other front. Religions can empower women—take Sikhism, the first major world religion to proclaim that women were equal to men, with souls of equal weight—but religious practice is another matter. If we’re serious about “stopping rape”—making sexual violence against women unacceptable, then one way to start might be to reject traditions and practices that denigrate women.

If your religion tells you that women must fast for men, but men don’t have to fast for women; that women are not welcome as leaders of the faith, or in the shrines and sanctums of faith; that women count for less than men, do not accept this blindly as a matter of duty. Every major world religion has gone through cycles of reform, and the lines of control have often shifted. Embrace that part of your faith which tells you to celebrate the strength of women and their equality with men; do not accept any prescription from any faith that tells you that a woman’s basic human rights are less important than religious practice.

The same applies to tradition, which has been used to justify everything from dowry to honour killings. The simple test for anything that is said to be the custom of the country: does it humiliate women? Does it threaten their wellbeing or their safety or their lives? If so, don’t support it.

Protesting injustice, expressing anger: these are important. But if Honey Singh’s vile pro-rape lyrics and Bollywood’s continued packaging of women’s bodies aren’t challenged as well, there’s little point to holding up placards asking for change and justice. Yes, the government and the state must change; but it can’t be only the government, only the state.

If you really want a system to change, start by changing the way women are treated every day, in their homes, in their workplaces, by their families. That kind of revolution, in our daily lives and behaviours, is much harder to bring about than passing a law, or setting up fast-track courts. It’s also more lasting.

More posts:

A blocked protest: Notes on my city

On the Dec 22 protests: Notes From Raisina Hill

On the Dec 23 protests: At the heart of Delhi, no space for you; Dec 23 photos

On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour

9 comments

  1. Nilanjana, someone forwarded these ‘lyrics’ of a song by Punjabi rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh. Please take a second to see them: http://www.hardnewsmedia.com/2012/12/5744

  2. Hi,
    Thank you for attending the protest at India gate and for writing about it so we could know more about what exactly happened than what the media would like us to. Is there a common forum where people are collecting their written accounts, reports, articles in the form of a blog perhaps so people can easily access them in one location. Like a community news portal may be? I hope someone has organised such a thing. Otherwise someone can now. Please help.

  3. thank you for writing and posting :)

    the following sentences:

    “there is no acknowledgement or understanding of male rape; the ritualised sexual assault of men during college ragging rituals, for example, is normalized, seen as commonplace, the trauma rarely discussed. The male survivor of sexual violence in India is shamed and silenced in a different, but equally effective way.”

    and..

    [...] “what we collectively find hard to accept is the banality of brutality, the unremarkable every-day quality of violence—perhaps because we are so silent about the violence that seems to run through the veins of many Indian families.”

    .. touched something i’ve been thinking about recently.

    about a week ago or so, when making some tests together with others to get on a vocational training of some sort, involving the work we already do (currently with zero education..) as assistants or care-givers for the elderly, persons with various disabilities etc, in combination with guidance and schooling in how to go about these daily chores and interactions in a way that provides safety, support and a sense of autonomy for the persons on the receiving end.

    we were only a few, 2 women, and 6 men. a few of the men were getting together in a playful joking way and their verbal and physical interaction circled around speaking about and acting out (in physical contact with one another) sexualized violence.

    when the way of experiencing togetherness and closeness, with near strangers, amongst men, is to get a public laugh out of what so many have been exposed to and hurt by in private and silence (a behavior that in my mind is common in Finland where i’ve lived the last ten years, and also in Sweden where i grew up.) then i can see that the shame/fear/insecurity around speaking honestly and openly about true and lived experiences supports a silence around what living in a rape culture is really like. the joking keeps the current order present, and at the same time effectively stops any attempts of authentic sharing that might lead to change.

    it’s fascinating how things can be so (blatantly) out in the open and (painfully) hidden at the same time.

  4. [...] On survivors and victims, the language of rape: Talking Rape [...]

  5. a quote from John Irving’s ‘Setting Free the Bears’ :
    [Men say:] “Don’t you know that we are your natural protectors?” But what is a woman afraid of on a lonely road after dark? The bears and wolves are all gone; there is nothing to be afraid of now but our natural protectors.

  6. This article really hit me hard. It came at where I was going through my own personal journey of understanding what it means to be a woman. We live in a sad reality where the media portrays us as sex symbols and for a long time, I though this was okay! I grew up thinking that its ‘the way’. I’m 22, I definitely grew up in a very dangerous time of media. Coming also from a marketing background doesn’t help the fact that I am asked to ‘use’ women to sell products!

    This article really sealed my belief and gave me a very clear image of the worst case scenario (that is already happening). We’ve allowed the media to eat into our deepest subconscious and allowed it to control us as humans. We’ve given up our power. This is indeed a very very sad and unfortunate reality.

    I vow to play a better part in not encouraging this by dressing a little more modestly (not giving people a reason to look at me a certain way), talking and educating the people around me and also my future children. Thank you for writing this piece.

    Much love and light,
    A Woman

  7. Glad a wellknown writer like you has made the point. Yes, it upset me too when I realized the common notion that life after rape is kind of death. Based on my interviews with several rape survivors, I wrote a piece on survivors cope and transform…you may find it useful http://tillingtheearthwoman.blogspot.in/2012/12/take-back-india-ii-coping-and.html

  8. Kimberley do Rego · · Reply

    It’s not often you come across a poignant,succinct and fundamentally well-written article.
    Thank you.Everything you said was brilliant.

  9. Brava! Exactly right – it’s only through each person changing their attitude toward others that change will come – laws won’t stop rape, only changed attitudes will. The call to ostracise is a first step, but the hard work must be done in every home, every human heart.

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