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The shamefully archaic conversation on rape

November 30, 2013 12:31 IST
Beware the ‘educated’ man who thinks he is on women’s side, says Vikram Johri
 
One reason rape has traditionally not been discussed openly in India is the sense that it is something dirty, out of bounds for polite conversation, something that must not breach the perimeter of genteel society. This is part of the same culture that pushes women’s issues underground, stemming from a mentality that looks at women as either “devi” or slut. So pervasive is this influence that even writing about sexual violence, either physical or verbal, can take getting used to. One is worried more about the details sounding risqué than about cataloguing the crime.
 
Therefore, one is forced to concede that when it comes to women’s issues, the gulf between the “intellectual” man and the man on the street is not as deep as one would like. 
 
Listen to the conversations that are happening around you. In spite of the media focus on rape after the recent incidents, the conversation on rape continues to be so shamefully archaic. In India, at any rate, it is so easy to confuse literacy with education. The causal link between increased literacy and a change in attitudes is easily assumed. The only way out of a baleful social order, we are repeatedly told, is through the vaunted alleys of learning. Much stress is laid on its mind-expanding role. We often hear activists say that the politics of rape cannot be divorced from the lived reality of gender in India, and that unless more people are educated, no magnitude of protests is likely to change things on the ground. The truth is different.
 
When one brings up the support that the Shakti Mills rape victim received from her husband, even young, educated men come up with phrases like “That is so brave of him”. Insinuations about consent in the Tarun Tejpal case are bandied about. Women in today’s India can become lovers, but they are still, at best, accoutrements to men’s lives. Their presence is slotted into neat categories, premised on their willingness to switch from companion to wife to mother to ...  but always as the other.
 
It is as if the architecture of common sense is entirely male-dominated, and the woman, with her purported charms and chameleon-like sensuality, must locate herself on the fringes. After the Delhi protests and the recommendations of the Justice J S Verma committee, there was a moment when it seemed as though real change was in the offing. 
 
The victim’s name was not revealed in the papers and the traditional reporting format diverged considerably from the easy way it had hitherto accommodated patriarchy. No more would unfounded assumptions find their way into news reports. The narrator’s gaze would no longer automatically focus on the woman as the mother/sister, in which case she deserved to be protected, or the seductress, in which case the sly connotation was “just deserts”.
 
So far, so good. But recent incidents show us a more pernicious face of gender discrimination: one that slips through in spite of the presence of all the (suspect) markers of gender sensitivity, including education. My erstwhile boss, always one to vouch for women’s rights, would speak charitably about the issue now becoming part of drawing-room conversations.

Sexual chatter and innuendo directed at women in workplaces, on the streets, in colleges that have traditionally been par for the course, he would say, would no more be allowed. People are forced to reconsider their assumptions, he gushed, when the issue reaches critical mass, as it did after the December 16 gang rape in Delhi.  
 
Beware the “educated” man who thinks he is on women’s side. On one occasion, a student who was going to join an international airline as a stewardess asked the boss if she looked the part. In return, she was offered some blunt, offensive comments about her body, couched as praise for her “assets”.

When I learnt of this incident, my first instinct was to confront the boss. But experience told me that he would silkily distinguish his comments from his politics as the handiwork of a liberated, smooth-talking flirt. The student left for her job and the incident was forgotten. 
 
Which is the thing. How do we, as a society, raise our voices against a crime that is so vast and variegated? Where do we draw the line between acceptance and offence? Further, is there a mental barrier that some “liberated” men cross that convinces them that they are now “feminists” free to act in abysmal ways?

Must not one’s behaviour -- and the Tejpal case brings to light the shocking truth of this -- stand up to scrutiny time and time again and find no opportunity to hide behind politics and a misplaced self-assurance in the rightness of that politics?
Vikram Johri