Is Rape Serious Only Because a Woman’s ‘Honour’ Is Threatened?

Why does rape incite the sort of public outrage that is usually missing during a gruesome murder?

6 min read
Hindi Female

It was a routine that the young Hyderabad veterinarian followed regularly. She would ride in her scooter to a busy toll plaza in Hyderabad, park it there, and then take a cab to the clinic where she worked. On her way back, she followed the same routine, in reverse. Here was an educated young professional, who had worked out a way to negotiate Hyderabad’s public spaces while keeping herself safe.

But, on 27 November, despite taking precautionary measures like alerting her sister, she was dragged away, raped, smothered to death while being assaulted, her body transported to a secluded spot 25 kms away, and then set on fire.


The Culture of Rape & Punishment

The case caused massive outrage across India. Politicians spoke of the need to ‘lynch’ the rape accused, or to hang them within 180 days. News anchors screamed that ‘when it comes to rape, justice delayed is justice denied’. Under immense pressure, the Hyderabad police acted quickly, arresting four suspects.

In the early hours of 6 December, the police took the four accused to the crime-scene. The men, allegedly, tried to ‘snatch’ weapons, ‘fired’ at the police and began to ‘escape’. The police then fired at them in ‘self-defence’ and killed them.

By early morning, hundreds had gathered at the encounter site. Some raised slogans hailing the police, as others showered petals. School girls screamed in joy as they passed in their school bus. Popular actor Anupam Kher tweeted “congratulations and Jai ho to Telengana police for shooting down the four rapists”.

The dramatis personae of the entire series of events give us a peek into the entire culture that surrounds rape and its punishment in India. The victim herself, a young professional following certain rules, to negotiate the restricted freedoms that urban India gave her. Men acting as a group to plan her rape and murder. Public outrage at the failure of law and order. Populist politics riding on that outrage. Encounter killings by a police that was under great pressure. Public support for such instant justice.


Why Does Rape Incite More Anger Than Murder?

But, why does rape excite such public anger, which gruesome murders often don’t? One reason is that rape is considered to be a crime against the ‘honour’ of society. Female sexuality is not just a woman’s own property, it is something she protects for her family and community at large.

So, when she is raped, her ‘honour’ is ‘looted’ (izzat lut jaana). It conjures up images of invaders raiding and pillaging populations.

As Michel Foucault, that enfant terrible of French intellect, provocatively pointed out some 40 years ago, treating rape as a qualitatively different crime from any violent attack on the body, amounts to saying that “sexuality as such, in the body, has a preponderant place, the sexual organ isn't like a hand, hair, or a nose. It therefore has to be protected, surrounded, invested in any case with legislation that isn't that pertaining to the rest of the body.”

Rape & the Idea of Female ‘Honour’

This idea of sexuality is a crucial aspect in the process through which a female body gets feminized as a sexual object, who is constantly in fear of ‘losing her honour’, and thus, ‘dishonouring’ her family and community. A ‘good’ man recognises that another woman’s sexuality is ‘sacrosanct’ because it maintains the balance of ‘honour’ in society. Rape, thus, becomes unthinkable, because it is a crime against the entire moral order of things. Only ‘perverts’ and ‘evil’ men can do it.

On the other hand, one of the ways to punish another man, a family or community is to rape ‘their’ women.

This is what makes rapes common during riots and wars. Rape is equally a way to ‘discipline’ ‘wayward’ women, those who challenge male rights over their sexuality. By assaulting the core of their feminized existence, rape teaches them to fall in line and understand their place in the social order. Patriarchy treats such rape not only as justified, but even morally right.


Object of Male Desire

The manner in which culture, custom and law ‘produce’ the feminized body, simultaneously produces male sexuality, as a corollary. The object of male desire is to possess, her ‘virginity taken’. The man whose wife is promiscuous is seen to be a weakling, someone to be treated with derision. A promiscuous husband on the other hand is seen as someone giving in to his baser natural instincts, who has not fulfilled the ‘responsibility’ of looking after and ‘protecting’ his wife. The wife becomes an object of pity.

The underlying premise is that male sexuality is naturally aggressive, conquering and possessive. And, a man who cannot protect and own his woman’s sexuality, stands dishonoured. The idea of male strength translates into virility, size of the penis, and variety of sexual conquests. This becomes a founding condition for male bonding via sexuality-related rituals such as the use of sexist expletives or jocular sexual commentary about female friends and acquaintances.

Rape: An Expression of ‘Male Power’

The relationship between rape and such male bonding rituals has been well documented in the case of fraternities in American universities. In developing countries, such rapes are often committed by groups of young unemployed or under-employed men, who live in groups in urban slums, away from their homes and communities. Such men, disempowered and disenfranchised in everyday life, try to take out the frustrations of their own powerlessness on the unfamiliar forms of feminized bodies they find in urban public spaces.

Rape, especially ‘multiple-perpetrator rape’ becomes an expression of male ‘power’ against the only people who can be subdued – women caught alone in an isolated urban space.

Rape is both ‘entertainment’ for the group, and a form of ‘disciplining’ the woman. It is a way to establish control over a world which is beyond control. The assault itself becomes an act of exhibitionism and voyeurism, and it establishes hierarchy in the male pack. It is interesting that in South Africa, a colloquial term for such rapes is ‘streamlining’ or a method of ‘punishing’ a woman’s transgressions from the norm.


How Patriarchy Produces Male & Female Sexuality

Male sexuality sets up a specific object of desire – the ‘pure’ and ‘submissive’ woman, who says ‘no’ because she ‘wants’ to be ‘dominated’. This is one of the characteristics of ‘acquaintance-rape’, where young girls become targets of older men related or known to her. The man uses the secrecy surrounding the incest-taboo and the cloak of proximity to dominate and subjugate.

But, if the way patriarchy produces both male and female sexuality is to blame for rape, shouldn’t societies that give more power to women have lower incidence of rape? Peggy Reeves Sanday, pioneer of cultural studies on rape, argues exactly that. She studied 95 tribal communities and found that nearly half of them were entirely rape-free, another one-third had a low incidence of rape.

Rape Linked With Valourisation of Conflict & War

What caused this? Sanday found that “gender relations were marked by respect for women as citizens, significant female power and authority, and the near absence of interpersonal aggression in social relations.” These were not isolated tribes. Amongst them was the Minangkbau, the fourth largest community of Indonesia. The Minangkbau are a matrilineal society where women play a major role in public life. Sanday cautions readers from concluding that matriliny alone makes a community rape-free.

Her research shows that rape is often associated with the valourisation of aggression, conflict and war.

That brings me to my own provocative question: Does valourisation of a strong State, of war and conquest, of avenging perceived historical wrongs, strengthen aggressive forms of male sexuality? Does ‘machismo’ in public culture create grounds for violent expressions of sexual behaviour? Is use of rape to ‘subjugate’ a woman any different from the lust for war?

(The author was Senior Managing Editor, NDTV India & NDTV Profit. He now runs the independent YouTube channelDesi Democracy’. He tweets @AunindyoC. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Rape   Gangrape   Feminism 

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