Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day.
On March 2, 2023, an SC/ST court in its verdict in the Hathras case of 2020 held that the four accused men in the case were not guilty of rape. The main accused was convicted under charges not related to rape.
After four ‘upper’ caste Thakur men allegedly raped and brutally assaulted the 19-year-old Dalit woman, she fought for her life for 15 days before succumbing to her injuries at a government hospital in Delhi, upon which the police hastily cremated her body in the absence of the family. In its verdict, the SC/ST court cited the lack of evidence to rule out the possibility of rape and murder.
“The judgement, which reeks of patriarchal and casteist bias acquits all the four ‘upper’ caste men of gangrape and murder, and does not give any credence to even the dying declaration of the victim, and the brutal assault obviously suffered by her,” said the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) statement slamming the verdict.
Months ago, on August 15, 2022, as India celebrated the 75th year of its independence amid Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for ‘Nari Shakti’, 11 gang-rape convicts walked out of a Godhra sub-jail as the Gujarat state government allowed their release under its remission policy. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) greeted the released rape convicts with garlands at its office in Gujarat. These convicts had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 for gang-raping a five-month-pregnant Bilkis Bano and killing her three-year-old daughter, during the Gujarat riots of 2002.
Cut to today and that sport of misogyny has takers is evident in the fact that spine-chilling details of the murders of Shraddha Walker and Nikki Yadav were splashed on news outlets for days. With details of body parts stored in refrigerators, patriarchy was served chilled and chiselled.
And yet it is ironical that in a nation where marital rape is largely legitimised, several jumped to comment upon the “no-respect” nature of live-in relationships. Seizing the political zeitgeist, radical sections of society labelled the Walker murder as ‘love jihad’ owing to the Muslim identity of the accused, Aftab Poonawala.
A Public Interest Litigation seeking to frame rules and guidelines for registration of live-in partnerships in India was filed in the Supreme Court of India. The petition submitted that since there are no rules and guidelines covering live-in partnerships, there has been a vast increase in such crimes by live-in partners.
Conventionally dubbed as ‘crimes of passion’ laced with hints of hyperreal violence as common to pulp fiction, both incidents stirred the moral sentiments of the patriarchy’s custodians, warning young women of having to pay the price for choosing freedom, mobility, ‘love, sex, and dhokha’.
Apparently, the solution lies in marriage, they were told. Of course, marriage itself is an institution structured upon heteronormative power dynamics, where a slap, verbal abuse, psychological terrorisation and dowry deaths are just statistics in domestic violence registers or counted as instances of casual sexism.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2019 showed that the conviction rate for rape is as low as 27.8%. India recorded an increase in the rate of crime against women (the number of incidents per 1 lakh population) from 56.5% in 2020 to 64.5% in 2021, as per the NCRB data. A majority of these cases were registered under ‘cruelty by husband or his relatives’ (31.8%), Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
This is not penned in defence of either Aftab Poonawala or Sahil Yadav – the accused in the Nikki Yadav murder case – but in defence of Indian women’s right to articulate and fashion their own socio-economic, romantic and sexual lives; to break the boundaries of home and claim their political momentum in the outside world.
This is to argue why neither their bodies nor their agency should be put under any further curfew under the pretext of safety.
This is important as several young women are at the crossroads of making a new life, and working hard to gain economic and social agency, with several being first-generation learners and working in the informal sector, as highlighted in the EPW report titled, Do Female Lives Matter?
Hate, violence and censorship
When Dalit girls and women are raped, their bodies mutilated, it is as an act of hegemonic power play – sanctioned by a feudal-landed casteist-bro-supremacy. The age-old mindset is this: in order to “punish” oppressed castes, violate the bodies of “their” women’s bodies.
Just like land and cattle, the central idea is to view a woman as a symbolic product of the family, caste, community, and, ultimately the nation-state. In Brahmanical patriarchy, the woman’s body and moral status has been traditionally viewed through the caste lens of purity-pollution with the binary setting boundaries on female sexuality, placing a premium on virginity, and ultimately in her being given in marriage to a person passing the test of caste, class and faith.
Hence, a woman’s own autonomy over her body and mind has been vis-à-vis her status in her maiden and marital home. She is innocent daughter, then virgin bride, then dutiful wife and finally, sacrificial mother. This extreme impora sanitised body – not “defiled” by a man of an oppressed caste or that of another faith – is the ultimate dollhouse-project controlled by the chauvinist fantasies of a patriarchal nation-state.
In the final chapter “Aspects of Contemporary Hindutva Theology,” of her book Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation, author Tanika Sarkar writes that the latest brand of Hindu cultural nationalism focuses on reinforcing patriarchal structures by reducing women as symbols of the nationalist movement.
Today, the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ narrative of the ruling regime is designed to politically and socially exclude and eventually invisibilise minorities. At the same time, it conjures the idea of a mythical Hindu/non-Muslim woman as a modern domestic goddess, who is a consumer and even a new-age investor, but who must be tamed through devotional fervour and veiled passion.
If the ‘love jihad’ laws brought by several Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states and Hindutva campaigns around it feed into the populist patriarchal sentiments of the electorate by playing upon the religious identity of the Muslim man, one but also remember that the saffron tone of the bikini sported by actor Deepika Padukone in Pathaan, opposite Shah Rukh Khan, offended Hindutva’s pop-patriarchal sensibilities too.
The message is clear. The Hindu/non-Muslim woman too has to be sternly reminded to not violate the codes of saffron modesty.
Love, sex and dhokha in a digital age
And yet, the politics of pleasure is being redefined through a rights-based and gender-fluid lens outside the bounds of traditional heteronormative marriage and conjugality. However, there too, there is violence.
One in three women in India is likely to have been subjected to intimate partner violence of a physical, emotional, or sexual nature, reveals research published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. IPV is as much a systemic product as is patriarchy.
In a society where expression of gender identity is still repressed, sex is a taboo topic, and desire is conventionally censored, romance is often the gateway to a fantasy land, a release to an alternative world of passion and play. This also explains the popularity of romance movies in India until the turn towards a more hyper-nationalistic macho opera.
However, conventional romance has perpetuated myths of fairy tales, of Prince Charmings, of princesses, and in essence, the idea of idealistic or eternal love. On the other hand, conventional marriage has been a microcosm of the nation-state, reflecting the values of wifely submission, chastity and duty often in the absence of love, companionship and respect, and even in the face of violence.
The premium placed on female virginity – as supposedly it is in the vagina that the family’s, and in essence, the community’s honour resides – has favoured a marriage system largely based upon the goal of reproduction and perpetuation of the family line of inheritance.
Hence, it is critical to examine the flaws of the caste-and-class ordained marriage system where individuals marry out of fear of tradition rather than choice.
And, yet, nothing is black and white. That same marriage, otherwise dogmatic in nature, is an act of subversion for an interfaith couple. A Bollywood song-and-dance ritual, often clichéd and sexist, can become the symbol of defiance.
We are in a digital age where dating apps deliver desire to doorsteps, paving the way for choice and privacy, where ‘matches’ meet or not meet according to evolving nuances of situationships, and where sex is increasingly being liberated from the clutches of conventions in a casual space. But these have not yet impacted caste-and-class ordained marriage pacts, which continue as before.
Privacy is a right; however, it does not mean safety. It could mean treating bodies as meat, aided by a mechanical consumption-centric predatory behaviour. It could mean living dual lives or committing crimes. Consent itself is political, with many individuals not quite in grasp of what it means.
Gender-sensitive education coupled with pleasure-affirmative awareness campaigns could shape a healthy dialogue around choice, dignity, and emotional quotient in relationships.
It is time to dismantle the virginity tax and stop idolising marriage as sacrosanct.
It is time to raise girls as autonomous beings rather than as flag bearers of family honour, and to empower them in thinking that it’s all right if a relationship doesn’t lead to marriage. Girls must also be taught that it is all right to have safe and consensual premarital sex, and that she would not be bringing shame to the family by doing so. They must also know to exercise ethics and dignity in intimate relationships. It is time to instil the idea that the first man she likes or gets infatuated with does not have to be the one.
It is also all right if two adults engage in consensual sexual activity without the promise or deliverance of marriage. It is time to teach young women that the promise of marriage should not act as precondition of sex or as a liability of consent. This so that a rape convict is never offered the option of marrying the survivor in order to evade punishment.
So, today, when Indian women are breaking the shackles of provincial shame, it is time to accept desire as natural and sex as a non-judgemental practice. It is also time to demand access to safe places and practices, contraception, and information about sexually transmitted infections (STI).
When we choose to call perpetrators of violence on women ‘beasts’, we tend to animalise their instincts and pretend that they are outlaws. By doing so we run the risk of not examining the burden of our social systems and outdated moral values that limit the choice of individuals. When it comes to Indian women, let us not take away the agency of the living – and let them exercise choice – and the dignity of the dead – those whom the system failed.
Sanhati Banerjee is a Kolkata-based journalist.