Rape is about power and control, not ‘uncontrollable lust’, and the narrative needs to change

Till we abandon the moral view of rape in terms of lust, depravity and shame, we can't get at the politics of power it represents.
Rape is about power and control, not ‘uncontrollable lust’, and the narrative needs to change
Rape is about power and control, not ‘uncontrollable lust’, and the narrative needs to change
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Between them, the three Supreme Court judges passing the verdict in the disturbing rape and murder of paramedical student Jyothi Singh in 2012 used the word “lust” no less than 11 times, both in quoting from previous judgements and in their own observations.

Aside from that, they also made references to “beastial proclivity”, “wanton lust” and “unchained carnal desire”.

Read through the judgement, and you’ll find that the three judges were following a well-established tradition of Indian judges – to see rape through the lens of lust and perversion.

And listen to reactions on mainstream and social media – which has been buzzing with calls for “creative” punishments like, “Chop their penises off. In public. Inch by inch” – and you’ll see that their judgement also corresponds with the popular mood. Again, perverse lust is the lens of choice.

There’s no denying that the six men who raped and murdered Jyothi on that December evening put her through unimaginably brutal physical and psychic torture. The judgement gives in graphic detail the extent of suffering she was subjected to.

But, there’s a severe flaw in thinking of such cruelty as perversion, and opposing this sexual lust with our collective bloodlust. This cycle has no proper answer for why hundreds and thousands of rapes and acts of sexual violence are visited upon women in the country, why the threat of sexual violence is the first thing most men turn to when confronted by women who threaten their assumed entitlement to the world.

It can’t properly understand why or even accept that girls just a few months old are subjected to rape. And it certainly can’t understand why groups of men, sometimes entire villages will publicly participate in gangrapes, particularly in cases of religious or caste conflict.

If you find yourself shaking your head skeptically at these statements, take a look at two recent judgements delivered by a Karnataka Sessions Court and the Bombay High Court.

In the former, what was ostensibly the trial of former French diplomat Pascal Mazurier for allegedly raping his own daughter turned into an extended questioning of his estranged wife on her morality and fitness as a mother. Most shockingly, the judgement claimed that since Pascal and his wife were having regular sexual intercourse, he wouldn’t rape his daughter.

“It is undisputed that the accused and the complainant were having regular sexual intercourse. Then what was the necessity for the accused to have sexually abuse on his own child,” the judgement says.

In making this assumption, the judgement even disregards the child’s own statement that, “I love Papa but he should not hurt me,” on the grounds that since the child loves and misses her father, she couldn’t have been abused by him.

The Maharashtra case related to the gangrape of a pregnant Bilkis Bano and two of her relatives, and the murder of 14 people including Bilkis’s three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, during the 2002 riots. One of the few cases to take account of the sexual violence faced by women during the riots, and to indict police for trying to bury the case, there’s a lot to be praised in the verdict.

But it’s also very instructive when compared to the Nirbhaya verdict. In the latter, the judges go into horrifying detail of the minutiae of the physical torture Jyothi Singh was put through. In Bilkis’s case, on the other hand, the rape of her and her relatives receives only minimal mention in the most general terms.

And although both sets of convicts were adjudged not to be hardened criminals, Jyothi’s killers were condemned vociferously and sentenced to death, while Bilkis’s rapists were described as men driven to a fury in the aftermath of the Godhra train burning incident, and the court refused to sentence them to death on grounds that the case would not count as the rarest of the rare.

What is crucially missing in the court’s narrative of this incident is why these men and others in riot and conflict situations resort to raping women between a series of murders. Take away the lust narrative, and there is no proper lens in which to explain this action.

It has been said hundreds of times before by representatives of women’s movements across the world that rape is a violence born from power and not desire. This is not to deny that rapists derive sexual pleasure from the act of rape. But it does mean that they carry out the act not because of any uncontrollable urges of sexual desire, but because rape makes them feel power over their victims.

The lust narrative actually works to increase this power that they derive from rape. This is because the conversation almost immediately turns on the woman victim, and what she may or may not have done to encourage this lust towards her.

So, women’s clothes, their speech, actions and behaviour all automatically get blamed. Shrouding women in shame in this manner leaves them even more vulnerable to the games of power that their attackers play. Added to the physical helplessness they felt when their bodies were invaded, comes a much heavier burden of “honour” that has been lost.

It’s only when we stop thinking about rape through the moral lens of lust, depravity and shame that we can properly address the politics of power that uses rape as a tool. It’s only then that we can understand how sexual violence can be a substitute for clashes of caste, religion, class, and gender.

It is only then that we can begin the conversation about the safety of women as a question of independent persons with rights, instead of objects set on pedestals as the holders of our collective purity and honour.

Note: Views expressed are the author's own.

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