In the last few years, there has been a lot of talk in India about sexual violence, especially stranger rape. Starting with the December 2012 gangrape of Jyoti Singh, the discourse on ‘safety’ and ‘protection’ of women has taken on several dimensions. There are apps that can alert your family if you’re in danger, clothes that make your rapist’s job difficult. There are calls for increased policing, for cutting down on night shifts for women, for not letting women use cell phones to prevent rape… The list is endless. And most items on the list are problematic, because these ‘good intentions’ come from a very flawed understanding of the problem.
And it is this same lack of understanding that lies at the root of the government's latest reply in Parliament on marital rape. “It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors e.g. level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament, etc.,” Union Minister Maneka Gandhi said in a written reply on March 10. This is the entirety of the Minister’s reply on the issue of marital rape. (It's also exactly the same reply given by the Ministry of Home Affairs to another question on marital rape back in April 2015, so at least, they have been completely consistent in their stand!)
Screenshot of written reply given by Minister of Women and Child Development in Rajya Sabha on March 10, 2016.
Meanwhile, the government is yet to decriminalise consensual gay sex — or indeed any ‘unnatural’ sexual activity including anal sex, oral sex, and the whole gamut of sexual activity that isn’t penis-in-vagina intercourse. While a curative petition is waiting to be heard in the Supreme Court, the government has, at the latest instance, refused to take a stand on the issue.
As many have pointed out, right now in India, rape is legal but consensual sex isn’t. And the reason for this is our understanding of rape itself: ‘Indian rape’ is not about consent. It’s not about the mental and physical trauma that the victim undergoes. Instead, it is about the ‘sexual purity’ of a woman, and the honour of her family. Anything that takes away either is wrong — and therefore, as members of the Home Affairs committee said back in 2013, “if the marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress and the Committee may perhaps be doing more injustice.”
By corollary, ‘Indian sex’ isn’t about consent either. Nor is it about mutual pleasure. Sex within a marriage is about duty, honour and reproduction for a woman. Any sex outside of this definition is not recognised as sex at all, and automatically becomes either ‘unnatural’, or ‘rape’.
While the Minister’s reply in Parliament is infuriating, not just for the views there but also the absolutely flippant nature in which they were presented, outraging about just her, or just this government will not help much. The political class feels that “marital rape has the potential of destroying the institution of marriage” and society doesn’t feel differently. The challenge before civil society and liberal media right now is to shift the debate away from ‘culture’, and steer it towards consent, or the lack of it. The challenge is to stop focusing on ‘family honour’, and start focusing on the physical autonomy of adult women.
Until that happens, until our euphemisms for rape, in all languages, continue to revolve around ‘loss of chastity’, rape and sex will continue to come with unnecessary prefixes.