'Patriarchal views against rape are anti-feminist'
A society mired in patriarchy sees rape as evil because it is a crime against 'family honour', argues JNU professor Nivedita Menon in her new book, Seeing Like A Feminist. She speaks to Kareena N Gianani about demystifying rape and how it is analysed by feminism
You speak about the emergence of the term ‘feminisms’ in plural —is this recent? What are the most common points of disagreement in feminist thought here?
“Feminism” and “women’s movement” have always been plural. Historically the idea of “equal rights for women” is initially articulated by women from dominant class-caste-race groups, but soon complicated by voices of women from subordinate groups, who question the notion of gender as a shared unitary identity.
In India, some of the questions that complicate feminist thought are caste, religious identity, class and sexuality. Hence the debates over a uniform civil code versus gender-just civil codes that may not be uniform across communities; whether sex-work is ‘work’ or ‘violence against women’ (which complicates gender with class); whether transgender people are part of the “women’s” movement; or whether feminism in India ignores the caste solidarities between upper caste feminists and the men of their own caste positions.
Could you elaborate on recent battles that may have been fought by those “using feminism for anti-feminist ends”, as you mention in the book?
That was in the context of the witch-hunt against Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder, accused of sexual harassment. Many feminists feel that while rape in general continues to be neglected, the charges against Assange are being used to persecute him for the damage that Wikileaks did to the US establishment. More recently, in the country-wide protests over rape in India, we saw some utterly patriarchal views against rape being aired that in fact are anti-feminist.
How do you address the fact that crimes against women have become more gruesome over the past few years — khap panchayats, or the brutal beating up of a girl during and after the rape?
I’m not sure that violence against women has gone up or become more gruesome. Caste and class based sexual violence against women in rural areas, including terrible acts of humiliation, has been routine, but does not come to the notice of a literate urban public, or is not taken seriously even if reported.
So I reject a view expressed by some commentators that migrants to cities are responsible for increasing violence against women because they leave behind the accountability provided by village communities. Actually, powerful castes and the rich in villages have no accountability at all, nor do men raping women of their own caste and class. In cities most rapes happen among acquaintances or within the family. The figure of the working class rapist unable to deal with the freedoms of the modern Indian woman, conjured up by such analyses, has no takers among Indian feminists. Most working class rapists are raping women of their own class — non-westernised, poor, and just like them.
It seems that more women are reporting such incidents today, refusing to stay silent. Unless we have concrete evidence to the contrary, I think it is this factor that accounts for the apparent increase in violence.
The increasing violence by khap panchayats reveals the growing resistance to their diktats from within their communities. For every act of violence that we read about, there would be at least one “illegitimate” marriage passing without notice.
How does feminist thought analyse the ‘solutions’ suggested by the angry mobs after the recent gang rape that, once again, concentrate on the ‘women who lost her honour’?
For patriarchal forces rape is evil because it is a crime against patriarchal family honour, while feminists see it as a crime against the autonomy and bodily integrity of a woman. This difference in understanding naturally leads to diametrically opposed proposals for fighting rape.
In the patriarchal perspective, rape can be avoided only by locking up women within the family. The woman is responsible for rape, because either she crossed the lakshman rekha of time (by going out after dark) or that of respectability (by dressing unconventionally or by leaving her home at all). This understanding is common in the judiciary and police too.
Feminist campaigns against sexual harassment and assault however, contend that the more women are out at night and in secluded places, the safer all women are. Prompt redress is essential for checking sexual violence — which the Indian justice system does not offer.
How does feminism ‘walk a tightrope’ when it comes to demystifying rape?
Rape is only one aspect of a pervasive misogynist culture that severely restricts women’s access to public spaces. The belief that the threat of rape is everywhere and can happen at any time, or that it is the worst fate that can befall us, is enough to make women police ourselves, restricting our own mobility.
Feminists also want to demystify rape; to see it not as a unique and life-destroying form of violation, but as (merely) another kind of violence against persons. Men too are raped but this is rarely acknowledged, for the dominant commonsense is that only women are always rape-able.
Does the real damage of ‘rape’ lie in the web of meanings around it rather than in the act itself? People recover even from murderous assaults, but once identified as ‘sexual’, even a less physically damaging attack becomes magnified due to the resulting shame and pain of the victim. Freeing ourselves from the very meaning of rape as violation, as the most deadly of all forms of violence, is therefore essential to build up immunity to this virus — the fear of potential rape.