[Editor’s Note: Previously, we published an article that investigated issues of privacy and space that young love faces in a city like Mumbai and how such a thing might tie into a deeper problem with India’s sexual violence narrative. The parallels we drew there were only a beginning, in the hopes of building up an interest towards the topic before people with different levels of expertise took over. Today, we have Shreena Thakore, director and co-founder of No Country For Women, taking over to break down the current rape narrative that exists in our country. Hopefully, this first step towards changing it is by accepting its existence, so we urge all our readers to give this article their time.]
This article is the first in a series of articles that aims to explore and analyse rape culture in India. The problem of rape is not limited to the act of rape; it is situated within a larger social discourse on imbalances of gender, class, caste, religious and political identity. Everyday manifestations of these imbalances are often overlooked, misunderstood and trivialized, leading to a culture of silence that sanctions injustice. Effective solutions to rape demand a comprehensive understanding of rape that contextualizes it within existing sociocultural power structures. This series of articles will delve into a thorough examination and critique of rape culture as it pertains to Indian society.
The Myth Of The Impoverished Rapist
“It is the uneducated, illiterate men of the villages that rape the independent, urban girls of the cities.”
Growing up an upper-middle-class woman in India, I was taught to fear The Poor Man. I was told to eye auto drivers with suspicion and to avoid ‘dangerous’ neighbourhoods (where ‘dangerous’ was a euphemism for impoverished). I was taught that a lack of education translated to a lack of respect for women and that violence was characteristic of the lower class. I was constantly informed, time and again, that the rapist was rural, low-bred, economically downtrodden, uncivilized, “uncultured”.
My fear of The Poor Man was first cultivated when a 9-year-old me was asked to look away and walk briskly when faced with an approaching beggar. It was reinforced every single time I read a news article about an urban woman raped by a working-class man. It was reiterated with every comment I heard made in response to those news articles: “These men from the villages that have never seen city-bred girls, only they can commit such crimes.”
The issue of rape in India is deeply entrenched within the issue of class. There is a common cultural myth that co-relates the figure of a rapist with the socio-economically disadvantaged – The Poor Man is made The Poor Rapist. This myth is produced and perpetuated by the socio-economically privileged, who monopolize all modes of mass communication. Mainstream newspapers, magazines, TV shows, Bollywood - all common channels of information only circulate within certain strata of society - a stratum that can read and afford to buy a television set. These channels of information construct a figure of The Poor Man without his consent, authority or input; a figure that renders him the scapegoat for all social evil. The cultural hierarchy is preserved - the educated blames a lack of education for violence; the uneducated has neither language nor means to contest this. This unequal representation of voice and opinion propagates a false narrative that keeps current class power structures intact. The Poor Man is universally discussed and abhorred but never talked to.
Breaking the myth of The Poor Rapist is central to combating rape culture. Our solutions to a problem are dependent on our understanding of the problem. If our understanding of the problem of rape is confined to the manufactured rape narrative - that rape is committed by The Poor Man onto an urban upper-middle-class girl, because of the former’s lack of education and the latter’s moral degradation, then that is all that our solution-generating domain shall target.
Breaking the Rape Narrative
To debunk the rape narrative, we must first understand its construction. The rape narrative is largely formed by media artefacts that inform us about the “national situation”. Most media-documented rape cases feed directly into the rape narrative, creating the illusion that the rape narrative is the most common type of rape case. This is not true.
The Victim Figure
Urban upper-middle and upper-class victims tend to have greater access to resources such as lawyers, procedural information, and other forms of structural aid that ensure their cases get heard. The Shakti Mills case first created national waves because the victim was an upper-middle-class photojournalist with access to systemic resources to make her story visible - it was only after her case received significant popularity that a lower-class victim who had been similarly gang-raped at Shakti Mills stepped forward and was heard.
Similarly, the VIBGYOR incident of child rape was heavily publicized because of VIBGYOR’s status as an upper class school and the socio-economic prowess of the students’ families - it was only after VIBGYOR received heavy media publicity that similar child rape cases in schools across Bangalore and India happening at the same time were spoken about in media circles; even then, all these cases were constantly compared to VIBGYOR and thrived because of the VIBGYOR case’s structural pull. This is not to de-emphasize the gravity of any reported rape case, but rather to illustrate that media coverage is not equal among rape cases.
The Rapist Figure
Upper-middle class and upper-class violators tend to have enough systemic pull to aid in quieting and covering up their crimes. In the infamous Badaun case, the village residents were afraid of a lack of co-operation from the police, because the police authorities belonged to the same upper caste as the rapists. It is impossible to estimate how many cases go unheard because the rapist’s socio-economic background provides implicit systemic support. Similarly, it is not difficult to see how our cultural glorification of the institution of the family leads to the silence surrounding cases of incestual rape, incestual child rape and marital rape. A series of interviews conducted with the Delhi Police in 2012 revealed that in most reported rape cases, the accused persons were previously known to the victims. Incidents of rape within families go largely unreported for reasons of izzat and protecting the family honour. In a country where arranged marriage is the cultural norm, marital rape is not yet legally recognized while something as heinous as Rape by the Armed Forces is covered up by AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Protection Act).
Problems With This Rape Narrative
What gets spoken about in the media is a very tiny fragment of the picture. This tiny fragment shapes our whole understanding and dictates the way we respond to rape at both a personal and an institutional level.
The rape narrative feeds into existing class power structures. Our constant vilification of The Poor Man fosters a cultural elitism that furthers the social oppression of the lower class. Crimes committed by the Armed Forces and sexual assault instances taking place within the household are silenced and often even systemically sanctioned.
The rape narrative allows us to dissociate ourselves from the problem of rape. It creates a false Us vs Them dichotomy - by thinking the rapist figure is confined to a certain socio-economic class, we blind ourselves to the problems around us.
The rape narrative leads to ineffective solutions. We limit our discourse at “educating the lower class, not wearing short skirts and not staying out too late” resulting in solutions such as the Gurgaon 2012 ban on women working beyond 8 pm. Solutions like these do nothing to prevent rape in households (or rapes that happen before 8 pm) and, in fact, make the problem worse by keeping in place an unjust socio-economic structure: women are automatically disqualified from taking up certain jobs and their economic dependency is further cemented.
If we are to successfully tackle the problem of rape in India, The rape narrative and the myth of The Poor Rapist must be shattered and replaced by a more holistic, comprehensive understanding of the issue.
[No Country For Women is a national campaign to change the problematic attitude of a country toward half of its population. It fights problems of gender-based violence and discrimination through:
i. Education: conducting workshops in schools and colleges
ii. Conversation: distributing written and audio-visual material through social and mass media channels to spark informed conversations about social change
iii. Action: funding and promoting proposals for effective long-term solutions]