My teenage years have been marred pretty much, as it is for most Indian women, by isolated incidents of sexual molestation. Of men touching me in buses, touching themselves in trains, of being groped on the road, of being spat on, of having a hand come through my car window and squeeze my breasts. But what really irks me about these incidents (and has since I was little) is that the onus of those stray incidents was put on me. I had to be careful. I was told at my convent school, along with all the other girls, to carry a folder in front of my chest to prevent men from touching me on my breasts. I was told to cover myself even in the forty-degree heat. I was told not to go out in the night. I was told not to confront the molesters. I was told to avoid eye contact with them. I was told to behave ‘decent’ so as not to attract the ‘male gaze’.
Every Indian girl has been taught the same thing. To not speak up. To not speak out. To become a repository of shame in matters of sexual violence. No wonder then that every Indian girl associates this underlying sense of shame with being molested.
Men are granted impunity, because boys will be boys, and it is told to us that as women we have to act responsibility so as not to tempt the men, almost as if they are the weaker sex. We live in a male-identified and male-centered nation where it takes almost no criticism at all in order for men to feel bashed or start eye rolling and evoke that exasperated sense of “Here we go again,” if women do speak out.
Is it a surprise then that sexual violence in India has become something of an epidemic? Every 20 minutes in our country, a woman is raped. 10 per cent of rape victims are under the age of 14. 33 per cent are under 18 years of age. Despite these horrific numbers, state machinery has been unable to punish most rapists and perpetrators. This impunity has left most of India’s daughters and mothers vulnerable and unsafe. Keeping in mind this grim scenario, I was not surprised to read that marital rape, under much debate in the last week, will not be criminalized in India.
The reason? Some lawmakers, in opposition to the Justice Verma committee recommendation to criminalize marital rape, have said that if marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress. The onus of marital rape has once again been carefully shifted to women. And we know women agree with this. Why? Because Indian women, who are far more likely to face sexual violence from their husband than from other men, report just one percent of marital rapes.
Marital rape, along with other means of sexual violence, is not going to stop. Psychologists and experts have said that one of the reasons that we are seeing more violence against women is that an increasing numbers of women have become financially self-reliant. This is translating into greater overall independence, as women push back on the socio-cultural boundaries ascribed by tradition. Indian women have begun asserting their own choices, rather than letting the males in their lives decide for them. Men who feel threatened by these newly emancipated women are countering the power shift with an aggressive dominance, the most execrable manifestation of this being the rapes we are seeing.
Meghna Pant is features editor at SheThePeople.TV
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