Opinion

It is not women who get raped; it is men who rape

Tabish Khair | August 20, 2017 06:59 AM

Tabish Khair

 The only way to stop rapes is by not obstructing the agency of women

Let us get this straight: It is not women who get raped; it is men who rape.

Comments on rape get into the news in India (and elsewhere) once in a while — I suspect this is more for electoral reasons because rapes keep happening with as great a frequency even when politicians are not talking about it. That is so because what does not change is the ‘mindset’ regarding rape, which tends to put the blame on women. Many women do this too, because, alas, this what we have been mostly conditioned to do.

An American woman recently posted a photo on social media of her dog waiting patiently next to her table to be fed; the table also held a loaded plate of food for the woman. The dog was not jumping at the plate. It sat there, calm and contained, waiting. Even my dog, the woman noted, knows how to control himself. Why then should men be excused for not controlling themselves, she asked. 

It is this dominant mentality that, sometimes even in the act of loudly protesting against rape, ends up reinforcing the ‘mindset’. At the core of it is the shocking assumption that rape is something that happens to women — a bit like menstruation, but more bloody and painful. This puts the onus of the crime on women instead of the men who commit rape. The victim is held responsible, not the criminal.

Control of female bodies

This happens in many ways. The suggestion that female dress codes and behaviour ‘cause’ rape is one of them. I must add that this is not the case just in India; I have heard this dangerous argument in places like the U.S. and supposedly liberal Scandinavia too.

An American woman recently posted a photo on social media of her dog waiting patiently next to her table to be fed; the table also held a loaded plate of food for the woman. The dog was not jumping at the plate. It sat there, calm and contained, waiting. Even my dog, the woman noted, knows how to control himself. Why then should men be excused for not controlling themselves, she asked. While I find it disturbing to equate food with sexual appetite, as if our sexual partners are inert material to be simply consumed, the woman did have a point — though, as we shall see, a limited one.

The discourse on what a woman wore, or ate, or drank, or where she was, etc. is then turned by men (who claim to abhor rape) into a tighter surveillance of women’s bodies. This plays right into the hands of the ‘male’ rape mindset, which is basically about control. Rapes do not take place just because a man cannot ‘control’ himself, as the American woman supposed; they take place because he wants to control women. That is why during vicious wars some soldiers have tended to rape defeated and captured men too. Rape is about oppressive control and exploitative power; it annihilates its victims as equals and as human beings.

Rape is an extreme and extremely violent form of the control of female bodies and spaces, something that is generally practised by many men in ‘moderate’ and ‘peaceful’ versions every day of their lives — when they demand certain binding patterns of behaviour and duties from women. To say that rape should be prevented by controlling women in advance — dress conservatively, do not go out at night, no beer, don’t laugh aloud in public, etc. — is to lie. What this does is put women in their presumed place and reduce their choices, but that is what rape is also about in any case!

Most rapes take place because some men cannot accept the fact that women should have an equivalent space to dress, move, work, play, enjoy; they take place because some men cannot accept a ‘no’ by a woman. Throwing acid on a girl who does not show interest in the ‘Romeo’, or on a woman who rejects her lover, is part of this continuum of sexual assault.

Strengthening the male status quo

There is often an assumption that virginity has something to do with rape. This is not surprising in a country where leaders have gone on record equating an unmarried status with virginity. And this is as disturbing as the claim that married women ‘cannot be raped’ by their husbands. Actually, marital rape is a serious issue: by allowing it, we sanction the mentality that a given relationship — current husband or ex-boyfriend — can justify the rape of a woman. This strengthens the male status quo. We need to be very clear that any forced act of sex is rape, period.

Once when I wrote about the matter of women’s rights, I received angry emails from men who basically wanted to ‘protect’ women — by keeping them in ‘place’. This, again, is part of the problem: rapes will keep taking place as long as we define women as ‘things’ to be protected, cherished, taught, used, whatever. That is, as objects for men. The stress on totally abstaining from sex is as problematic in this context as the stress on women as sex objects. These are two sides of the same coin, from which the woman as a human agent (a person who thinks and acts) is largely missing.

The only way to stop rapes is by not obstructing the agency of women. This includes, above all, the agency to do with their own bodies what women wish in terms of dress, food, even, yes, if the person is an adult, sexuality. Rape is about refusing to let a woman say ‘no’ to a man. It cannot be stopped by forcing her to say ‘yes’ to some other men.

 

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