In March 2015, the controversial documentary on the 2012 Delhi Rape Case titled ‘India’s Daughter’ went viral on social media. In the film, one of the convicted rapists remorselessly states, “you can’t clap with one hand alone. A girl is also responsible for rape.” His thoughts seemed to resonate with most people in Haryana, as was seen in the documentary released by The Quint on the state’s shockingly prevalent rape culture a few months ago. There, everyone from an elderly man to an adolescent girl and young boy were seen re-iterating regressive sentiments and beliefs regarding women and it really isn’t all that surprising anymore when we read about it, but the scope and reality of it all, hearing it in their words was shocking all the same. It’s the same attitude from which the kind of evil we have been witnessing off late stems – in the form of an 8-year-old being brutally gang-raped over power and communal hatred or a rape survivor’s father being tortured and killed in police custody.
But even as the entire nation has erupted in outrage and debate, demanding probes, death penalties and attending protests, several more ghastly rapes have already happened across the country and brought to light that this problem is much more deep-rooted than most are willing to accept. These kind of situations throws up a lot of questions that are hard to face and answer – what were these people thinking? How can someone do something like this? Are we becoming numb to the growing violence against women? Has this become our new normal?
These are the kind of questions that gnawed at Madhumita Pandey too in early 2013, in light of the Nirbhaya case. While efforts were being made to reform the penal code and justice system, she went straight to the source, the perpetrators of such crimes.
“I think convicted rapists are in a unique position to give us answers to understand sexual offending better,” says the 27-year-old from New Delhi who will be graduating this year with a PhD in Criminology from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge and is currently a a lecturer in Criminology at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK.
Armed with a Masters in Clinical Psychology from Bangor University in North Wales, Madhumita took up criminology for it lies at the intersection of several subjects within social science. Her interest in understanding sexual violence against women, particularly rape in India is what led her to carry out interviews with 100 convicted rapists in Tihar Jail for her doctoral research thesis.
Socio-cultural influences, strong conditioning, inefficient systems, lack of education and casual sexism can also be called the perpetrators of abuse and other. However, there is more to this gruesome crime that has its roots deep in the country’s patriarchal mindset. What makes a rapist? What is their psyche? What do they feel after they are convicted?
We weren’t equipped to answer these ourselves so we interviewed Madhumita about her experience and findings. Needless to say, her perspectives brought out a huge gamut of insight, all of which we found to be crucial in understanding the perpetuation of rape culture in India. We need to recognise the problem to see its cause, only then can we seek a remedy and rid it from the source.
Here is what Madhumita had to say.
Homegrown: Take us through the process of your research and fieldwork? How long did it take and how challenging was it to get permission to interview the convicted rapists?
Madhumita Pandey: “If you undertake a rigorous academic inquiry, which is in line with the rules and regulations as well the ethics, I don’t think there is much that you need to worry about. It took some time but that’s understandable given the nature of my request. There were no push-backs from the authorities but they did ensure that all protocols were followed. I had already completed the ethics approval and a risk assessment from my university.
The Law Officer went through all the documentation and my permission very clearly stated what I was allowed/not allowed to do. They were very accommodating and welcoming and I can only hope that they use the findings in some way to develop workshops and training for the convicts.”
HG: What were the kind of assumptions you went in with? Did they change over the course of the interviews?
MP: “I went in thinking that it will be extremely difficult to talk to these men, they might take offence or behave rudely with me. I also thought that I might feel enraged after hearing their stories but one has to be objective when conducting interviews. My job as a researcher was not to determine whether they were telling the truth or find evidence for their crime - that’s the job of the criminal justice system. I had simply gone to explore their narratives in order to see how they made sense of their offending and how they presented their victims.
I must also add that they behaved well with me and were patient enough to sit through long interviews, wherein they were probed to answer several personal questions. Tihar Jail truly is a great example of a correctional facility aiming to rehabilitate the prisoners. Everyone I interacted with, both rape and murder convicts said nothing out of line to make me uncomfortable.”
HG: Could you share the key observations you made about toxic masculinity, rape culture, victim-shaming etc. during the course of these interviews? Were there any responses that stood out?
MP: “Generally speaking, multi-disciplinary research puts forward different motivations for rape which can stem from biological, cognitive/psychological, situational/ criminological and social areas. My work explored the socio-cultural influence and highlighted the themes of traditional gender roles as observed through the domestic division of labour, cultural archetypes of femininity and a toxic or distorted sense of masculinity to name a few.
There is no one answer for “why men rape” as rape is a complex crime. Every narrative is unique and highly subjective - some men in my sample were involved in a gang-rape, some knew their victims while some had raped a complete stranger. There are also different types of rapists, however, despite the differences in the nature of the crime, the underpinning commonality in everyone I spoke to was a sense of entitlement which further points towards male privilege in our society. There was acute victim - blaming which again is not unusual given the presence of widespread rape myths and other stereotypes in our society regarding women. Lastly, there was a severe lack of understanding of “consent”.
In my sample of only convicted rapists, most were uneducated and from rural backgrounds however this in no way suggests that rapes are only committed by uneducated men from struggling socio-economic backgrounds. It can very well be argued and even assumed that men from educated well-off urban backgrounds can find loopholes in the system and evade justice by getting good legal help or settling outside the court. This was recently evidenced by the various sexual harassment allegations from Hollywood where the rich and powerful had silenced the victims and evaded justice for many years. But yes, having said that, urbanization does bring exposure which can be useful in altering traditional mindsets and education of course plays a vital role in creating awareness, thus acting as a deterrent of such crimes.
Overall, I think the most important finding from my work is highlighting and reiterating that sexual violence takes place on a continuum. Because rape is on the far, more extreme end of the spectrum, we tend to pay more attention to it and consider it more severe. However, these acts of extreme violence occur because we tend to overlook the issues on the other side of the continuum such as everyday eve teasing, sexist jokes, degrading language against women, harassment - which are not even considered a threat at all and are more commonly accepted.
When aiming for long-term preventative measures, our focus should be on these ‘less threatening’ issues as they eventually lead up to extreme violence or build tolerance towards it. I strongly believe that we should direct our attention towards structural societal change that addresses the asymmetric power relationship between men and women in our country.”
HG: What were the kind of methods you followed and the challenges you faced to get the convicted rapists to open up to you?
MP: “Methods: Qualitative Interviewing- I used semi-structured open-ended questions. The participants also filled out two questionnaires: The Attitudes Towards Women Scale and The Multicultural Masculinity Ideology Scale.”
HG: How did your own identity of being a woman play into the interview?
MP: “Normally when women interview men, one can expect gendered performances however, it has been previously noted that male prisoners are more likely to disclose emotions to women than men and this was also evident in my data collection. Most men found the long interviews cathartic! It is important to remember though that one can never really find out whether the emotions expressed were for my benefit alone, to present a more sympathetic self- image or genuine emotions felt by them. There weren’t any flirtatious or inappropriate remarks made. They did however sometimes, looked visibly uncomfortable when I spoke to them about personal topics - especially those involving sex and sexuality.”
HG: According to you, what are the major issues that are perpetrating rape culture in India?
MP: “Rape in India is unique because of the diversity we see in our country - religious, political, cultural, geographical, economical and educational just to name a few. The population doesn’t help either. It becomes a mammoth task to underpin a universal pattern of sexual offending.
As far as major factors are concerned, I would have to say it is our deep-seated patriarchal ideologies- such as traditional notions of femininity, female honour, archaic gender and sexual norms etc. I remember people feeling outraged by what the Nirbhaya gang rapist and his lawyers said in the BBC Documentary India’s Daughter but for me the most striking narrative was of the young wife of one of the rapists who can be seen dressed in a saree with deep red ‘sindoor’ in her hair and a ‘bindi’ on her forehead - all symbolic of a married Indian women. She asks, “Am I not India’s daughter? Don’t I have the right to live?”. In response to her husband’s death sentence she adds, “A woman is protected by her husband. If he’s dead, who will protect her and for whom will she live?”, further highlighting the reliance of Indian women on their husbands, particularly those living in rural communities, who lack any sense of personal identity. It is important to educate and empower women while also ensuring that young men develop a healthy notion of masculinity.
Once again I must stress, it is more important to make systematical structural changes that address everyday normalised misogynistic attitudes and behaviours than straight away jump to find an all-in-one solution for rape.”
HG: Did you feel any sense of guilt/remorse amongst the convicted rapists or a shift in the way they look at women?
MP: “Not all men convicted of rape took responsibility for their crimes or expressed a sense of remorse but there are two points to note here:
a) In order for a rapist to feel remorse and apologetic, he must first understand and accept that his actions were wrong. Since most men in my research sample did not identify their actions as wrong ( as many of them did not understand what consent meant) they did not feel like they had anything to apologise for. They said they are not guilty.
b) There are different ways in which remorse can be expressed. Some men outrightly said that they were repenting their actions while others said that they would not want anyone to do this to their sister or daughter, highlighting that at some level they did understand that their actions were wrong.”
HG: Do you feel that our jails are equipped to efficiently facilitate reformation?
MP: “I cannot speak for all jails but Tihar Jail does some fantastic work with the inmates in order to rehabilitate them. Whats missing in my opinion is a strategically curated rehabilitation programme that is directed towards changing the distorted thinking of sex offenders.
In the west, these are called Sex Offender Treatment Programmes (SOTP). I am not a fan of the word “Treatment” so I would personally like to see a Sex Offender Rehabilitation Training (SORT) programme run in India where group/individual sessions can be organised along with other activities to burst rape myths as well as to alter archaic attitudes towards women. I am currently working on developing a basic structure for such a programme but it is an arduous process and requires collaborative action from various fields.I support reformative justice over retributive and do not think that stricter punishment is the answer.”
HG: What’s next? Are you taking up any more such interesting projects in India?
MP: “There are several things in the pipeline, most important being publishing my findings in academic journals and then I am hoping to expand my research to other jails in India.
At present I am travelling in India with my colleague Dr. Sunita Toor to work on our Gender Based Violence Project that focuses on modern slavery in India. I am also conducting a session with senior police officers at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy in Hyderabad, which trains IPS officers.
I often give guest lectures whenever I am in India. Last year I visited the Department of Anthropology at Delhi University and later this year I will be visiting IIT Guwahati. I love interacting with post-graduate research students and faculty members. I want to build long-term partnerships with academic institutions in India so that we can create opportunities for research collaborations.”
Feature Image Courtesy: Madhumita Pandey
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