Where violence against women is systematic and hyper-regular, every joke about it only reinforces its normalcy.

Salmans rape analogy is terrible but sadly he isnt an aberrationPTI (File Photo)
Voices Misogyny Tuesday, June 21, 2016 - 16:23

Actor Salman Khan has proven something to us once again, that despite all the anger and rage that surfaced after the 2012 gang rape and murder in Delhi, rape is still taken rather lightly in the country.

Talking about the gruelling shooting for “Sultan”, Khan said that at the end of each sequence he “felt like a raped woman”. While there are now claims that the actor immediately retracted the statement, the very possibility that something like the repeated takedowns of a wrestling match could be compared to rape is alarming. Because, and let’s get this straight, his statement is not an outlying aberration.

Indeed, it lies squarely in the middle of the norm, as rape gets thrown around as a casual description of any kind of humiliating defeat or assault. That self-proclaimed voice of the junta, Chetan Bhagat, for instance, reportedly tweeted in 2013 (less than a year after the Delhi gangrape) that the Rupee was being raped. “The Rupee is asking, is there no punishment for rapists?” he wrote. And he was not alone in the comparison, joined by BJD MP Jay Panda, who also tweeted that the rupee was being raped by the government.

Then there is that other great voice of the Indian conscience, Aamir Khan, whose character in “Three Idiots” (ironically a Chetan Bhagat book-turned-film), plays a prank that involves a public speech that is essentially one long rape joke. Khan’s character purposely mistranslates the words chamatkar (miracle) and dhan (wealth) with balaatkar (rape) and stan (breasts) in an Indian-Ugandan student’s speech praising the dean of the institute, and the education minister.

Of course, public rape quips like this get immediately noticed and called out. But they’re only more visible manifestations of a more pervasive presence of rape analogies in everyday men’s conversations. As this cartoon indicates, any attempts to call out such casual misogyny (because while, yes, men can also be sexually assaulted, rape is predominantly deployed against women) are seen as overreaction. “What’s the harm in just a word?” you get asked.

The answer has to do with the nature of rape as an experience of trauma. As our politicians have shown, rape is often thought of primarily inducing shame for the victim – making them, in BJP leader Sushma Swaraj’s terms, a “zinda lash”. But the real consequence of rape is the feeling of violation and powerlessness. And in that sense, rape is a crime whose trauma continues to undermine the lives of victims even as they struggle to continue past it. In that sense, it is also distinct from other forms of assault, in that it leaves psychic wounds that sit deeper and quite apart from the physical wounds of the assault.

Forget this, and it’s easy to think that rape is just a word. That in jokes, analogies and casual comparisons it can be funny and even “harmless”. Because ignoring the trauma of powerlessness caused by rape focuses attention solely on the sexual act, which can then be shaded in a whole range of directions. Thus, Stanford rapist Brock Turner’s father could refer to his son’s crime as “20 minutes of action.”

Take account of the real power of rape, its ability to undermine any potential for regaining one’s sense of autonomy, and you can see why such jokes are never harmless. In a country where rape continues to be an alarmingly common occurrence, where violence against women is systematic and hyper-regular, every joke about it only reinforces its normalcy. Then no amount of outrage about rapes helps. 

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