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View: Rape is about power. Learn to wield it to fight rape

Last updated on: August 23, 2013 12:12 IST

The empathy that the vocal, opinion-making class now feels for the 23-year-old student in Delhi who was gang raped in December has kindled something. But is it enough, asks Sonali Ranade. 

We are reproducing this column, which was published after the horrific rape of the Delhi braveheart. The gang rape of a photojournalist in Mumbai is a chilling reminder of the case in the national capital.

I have been following the discourse on the Delhi rape as it sweeps past me atop that turbulent stream we call Twitter. Too far removed from the scene, and having no access to TV, it's been my only source of information on the unfolding events. I am fascinated by both the richness of the narrative and the various levels at which the discourse is proceeding.

But one thing stands out. This time people are shredding some of the narrative that has been used by the State and society to shield male perversity in the discourse on rape. That is very different from just crying yourself hoarse on the bestiality of the crime and the lack of justice to victims. Perhaps an example or two will explain my point.

I saw a tweet that effectively said, 'Don't call rapists monsters. It absolves men of the responsibility.' I don't remember the tweeter.

Read: Photojournalist gang raped in Mumbai, 20 detained

You can take this tweet at many levels. A rape by monsters is an exception to the general rule as implied in our discourse. Fact is, rape is very banal, not exceptional. It is an ever-present threat in the air.

Women live it, breathe it, and feel it all the time. It is a reality so pervasive that just about every activity in a woman's life is dictated first and foremost by considerations of safety and security.

You are not safe alone outside your home. You're not safe inside your house when alone. You are safe only in a few very confined settings that so order a woman's life and dictate her lifestyle choice.

Rape is frightening not because it exceptional. Rape is frightening because our callousness and insensitivity has made it so banal.

At another level, our discourse hides the banality of rape by implying that normal men will never consider rape. That's a lie. Rape begins with pinching, groping, lewd talk, ogling and a variety of other devices used to invade a woman's private space. True, not all of this ends in rape.

But the threat of physical harm, of filth being forced on you, is ever present in all such incidents. They are so pervasive, and so invasive to women, that most women have internalised them. They have become a part of being a woman.

And women who have internalised the brutality of this reality are the worst enemies of women because they help propagate a narrative that women provoke rape, or its lesser avatars, by not conforming to established, safe, stereotypes.

Monsters are beyond human control. Once you attribute rape to monsters you have effectively evaded your responsibility to do something about it. If monsters rape, then it's a part of life and you have got to live with it. The best you can do is take responsibility for your own life and make such choices that minimise the probability of a monstrous attack by monsters.

And so subtly, men, society, the State shirk their responsibility and pass it on the women themselves. If women are responsible for their own security, then if something goes wrong, they are to blame. Hence, our perverse narrative on rape that blames the victim instead of the criminal rapist.

When the State and society cannot deter rape, we have no choice but to adopt the perverse, false and deceptive narrative of the weak that says it up to the woman to avoid rape.

Such narrative is the practical thing to adopt in the woman's own interest, for her own safety. Ergo if she doesn't accept this narrative she becomes a fair target because she wants 'it.' And if she does get raped she is ipso facto guilty.

A husband may divorce her. Her family may disown her. She is ineligible to marry. There were, and are, movies that showed a woman marching off to the river to commit suicide. Why? Because she failed the ultimate test of womanhood, the mandatory art and craft of avoiding rape, and so has lost her right to life.

That may have been symbolism. But hey, hypocrisy apart, think about it. What does society and families do to rehabilitate a raped woman?

I have not seen such deep and valid attempts to change the established narrative on rape before. Something has at last woken up the conservatives to that fact that conservation is meaningful and benign only when something is worth conserving in the first place. And the established narrative on rape needs to be shredded from the beginning to the end. So in a way I am hopeful as never before.

The empathy that the vocal, opinion-making class now feels for the 23-year-old student in Delhi, bravely fighting for her life, has kindled something. But is it enough?

Rape is about power. On one hand it is about brute personal power at the individual level that enables a male to overpower a woman. On the other hand, it is about the power of society that crafts a discourse that condones the rapist in his aberrant behaviour.

Fighting rape as a crime is a very small part of the changes required in our discourse to deter and eliminate rape in its more pervasive forms. We are under-policed, helplines don't exist, and where they exist they don't work, courts delay cases, witnesses compromise, victims forgive, often under intense pressure from family to accept money rather than send the rapist to prison, and lastly because generally nobody cares enough.

You cannot bring about these changes overnight. And they won't happen with a few candlelight marches by the young. These are necessary, important, but not empowering enough.

The upper echelon of our middle class that makes opinion in the country is still largely wrapped up in itself. It has absorbed new ideas of equality before the law, rule of law, democracy and personal freedoms as education has spread. And it has used these empowering concepts quite effectively to demand a fair share of the power and goodies of development from a rather predatory ruling class. That is as it should be.

However, while this section of the middle class has got a better deal, it hasn't quite grabbed power, or empowered itself enough, to set the agenda. Getting a good deal is not the same as empowering yourself to set the agenda before society.

It must ponder why that hasn't happened even after 65 years of a freewheeling chaotic democracy.

My sense it that our vocal middle class hasn't quite grasped the fact that true power comes to you from those below you and cannot be conferred on you by those above you. Our middle class agitates to demand a better deal for itself. But this middle class is only 20 per cent of the people.

Does the middle class also demand a better deal for the 75 per cent others below them?

Does it demand more subsidies for BPL families as vociferously as it demands cheaper petrol and diesel for itself? The latter are four times the former in size!You know the answer.

And so the middle class is a powerful supplicant for favours from the truly powerful, but not empowered. To empower itself, it must empower those below it.

Consider the Delhi rape protests. How many can you organise, for how long, over how many days? Too few to make the deep changes needed in our discourse. Because we may talk of rape in general, but everybody in power knows you are putting yourself in the shoes of that unfortunate 23-year-old student, something you already are, or aspire to be.

The identification with the victim is easy, immediate and complete. That gestalt, 'Oh my God that could be me but for...' fully resolves almost instantly to make you the victim. And so you are out there to change things. But your concern is not enough, nor your protest.

It would be trite for me to say the poor girl in the rural and small town badlands that get raped everyday doesn't really move us beyond tokenism. That is not my point, valid or not. But imagine if you had shown the same concern for the Dalit girl in the village who is raped and then murdered.

It is too distant, yes. Details are sketchy, yes. Nobody cares, yes. But suppose we did get over the inertia and did organise a march on Parliament making the Dalit girl the issue. The protest may evoke the same callous response from authorities in Delhi. But think of what would happen in the small town and villages.

You would, over time, find thousands of echoes of your protest there. Like zombies suddenly made aware and imbued with life, hundreds of thousands of women with brooms would march in their districts in your support. And that would light a holy fire in which true reform is forged.

If we are to set the agenda and usher in change, we have to empower those below us. They can amplify our voice many thousands of times over anything we can organise by ourselves. But more importantly, such wide empathy for the poor, hapless Dalit girl cuts the roots of power that politicians use over us. It ends their mai-baap franchise over them.

Rather than beg remote indifferent politicians, they know their voice finds support among us.

Change will only come when we recognise the true source of power in a democracy and learn to empower others in order to empower ourselves. We must learn to fight for others, as we would like others to fight for us.

Image: Women pose with knives, distributed by the Shiv Sena, in Mumbai. The party handed out kitchen knives and chilli powder to women in Mumbai following the gang rape of a student in Delhi. 

Photograph: Reuters

Sonali Ranade