If the khaps can ban so much, let them ban rape

I don’t know how many khap panchayats there are in India, but Haryana (and parts of Uttar Pradesh) in particular appears to be ruled by these all-male village councils. It’s easy to make fun of the pronouncements of the khaps, especially when they blame rape on chowmein, but when I thought about the influence these men have on the daily lives of the men and women under their care, I stopped laughing.

Haryana has a high incidence of honour killings, and of rape. It is not the state with the highest incidents of reported rate—Madhya Pradesh tops the list, with West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh showing a rise in cases of reported rape as well. But with more rapes of women—especially gang-rapes—being reported across Haryana, the khap panchayats have been under pressure to take violence against women seriously.

They haven’t. Suggesting child marriage or early marriage as a solution to rape underlines the strength of the belief that a woman needs either protection or policing, once she crosses the age of puberty. Suggesting that chowmein and the consumption of fast food leads young men to commit more rapes is an interesting twist on the ancient Indian tradition of blaming all problems on foreign influences. It also ignores the surprisingly high number of instant ramen fans who go about their business in countries from China to Japan to the USA without feeling the urge to put their chopsticks down and rape somebody.

Given the kind of influence the khap panchayats have on the behavior of the community, here is a list of things they might want to suggest to combat rape. It might even work better than eschewing Maggi noodles.

1)   Tell your community that women are not to be treated as property. A woman is not a cow, a plot of land, or a shiny new consumer product; she is a person, just as a man is. She is not available for barter, to be exchanged in marriage with another family for a motorbike, a car and a flat. She is not available for sale, to be given to another family as household or field help. She is, like her brothers, neither the property of her birth family nor the possession of the family into which she has married.

2)   As a logical corollary to this, tell your community that a woman’s body is not community property, either. Her womb and her vagina do not belong to any one family or community, just as her sexuality is not the collective possession of all of the men from an upper caste or all the elders in her community. She has an identity beyond “to be raped” or “breeder of children”.

3)   In fact, open up your khaps to women from the community—all women—and see how it goes. Some of these women might argue that women are indeed the property of family and the community, because that is the way they’ve been treated all their lives. Many of these women might not. Given the edicts that khap panchayats have come out with in recent times, many of the younger men in the community might actually have very different opinions on gender equality and sexual violence from their fathers and grandfathers. Either way, no discussion on rape should happen against the background of the echoing, constant, community-enforced silence of women.

4)   Break the silence that surrounds and protects rapists. If a khap panchayat, being a collective of men, can’t find it in themselves to speak to or include women, they can at least speak to the men. Khaps have banned mobile phones, jeans, trips to the market, conversations between boys and girls, even the right of young men and women to choose their own partners. If you can ban so much, ban rape. Tell your men that rapists will not be tolerated in the community; that any man who has attempted rape, committed rape or condoned rape will be thrown out of the family, the khap and the community.

5)   Tell the families of your community that sheltering rapists, either with food and help or with silence, will not be tolerated either. In your next panchayat meetings, call out the names of the rapists, just as you have called out the names of young girls and boys who have married outside the community. Ostracise the families of rapists, as you have ostracized the families of boys and girls who dared to make their own choices. Say that no family who shelters a rapist will be considered part of the community.

6)   Of course, if every clan that has condoned, conducted or accepted rape as a given, and if every clan that has sheltered, excused and helped rapists was actually to be cast out of the khaps, you would have a very small panchayat of men left. But there are consolations. Having disposed of the rapists, the men left in the khaps would then be free to eat all the chowmein they wanted, without fear or worry.

In FirstPost, Lakshmi Chaudhury on the lies we tell ourselves about rape.

In India Ink, Heather Timmons on reporting rape, with a focus on shame.