The Sunday Story We need to push back to a place and a point where sexual violence against anyone appalls us

The heart wrenching news of the passing away of the brave young woman who was brutally gang-raped by six young men in a moving bus on Delhi streets marks a tipping point. The protests across the country that have gone viral in recent days represent how we as a nation have arrived at a moment of transformation that many young people have provoked across the world in recent years. Mohammed Bouazizi of Tunisia, who sparked the Arab revolution; or Malala, the young Pakistani teenage social reformer shot by the Taliban; and the children massacred in Newton, whose death has sparked a major debate on guns, that until recently was considered unimaginable.

The woman’s brutal rape and murder provides the spark to bring the culture of destructive masculinity, and the pervasiveness of rape and sexual violence in our society to the front and centre of the political agenda. Such violence cannot be reduced to a social problem to be handed over only to women’s police cells or departments in charge of women and children’s affairs. Its eradication is central to our self worth and integrity as a nation.

The attacks on protesters by the police, and the egregious remarks of innumerable politicians, provide us with little confidence that a thoughtful formula for uprooting such violence will emerge from them. The fact that an apology is regarded as a sufficient response to some of the deeply sexist and offensive remarks that are falling from the mouths of parliamentarians, ministers and officials including those who are ostensibly speaking about women's empowerment, indicates the extent to which such deplorable attitudes towards women are both accepted as normal, and have become endemic. Such remarks and behaviour are indicative of how disconnected the political establishment is from the youth and citizenry of this country as well as how its players continue to regard themselves as demi-gods immune from self-reflection or self-critique. A focus on how we can produce a healthy and respectful sexuality in our society has hardly found mention in remarks by public officials across the political spectrum.

We need to push back to a place and a point where sexual violence against anyone — sexual or religious minorities, boys, girls and women – appals us. The question is how we get to this point. We cannot find solutions exclusively in more stringent laws and penalties, when the very people who may be applying and enforcing these laws see no reason to interrogate their own positions or mindsets.

It is time, time for us not only to be deeply dismayed by the horrific violence that this young Delhi woman and many others have experienced, but to view it as a moment for transformation. At the same time responses to the protests must not be reduced to an anti-men campaign, greater censorship or a call for women to dress and behave in ways that conform to stifling, conservative sexual norms. Nor should we believe that fixing the law or draconian measures are an answer to this violence. We must no longer be content with fatuous remarks that there are some women who are more deserving of protection than others, some who are less rapeable than others. We need to target sexism, not sex, to guarantee equality in the workplace as well as in the home. We can no longer accept a situation where consensual homosexual sex is criminalised, while heterosexual marital rape is condoned. These inequities do not stand up to any measure of human rights scrutiny and can no longer be cloaked under the ruse of “legitimate rape” or the bogey of “Indian cultural values.”

And while our politicians need to be made accountable for encouraging a culture of violence by permitting candidates with criminal records to run for and become Members of Parliament, the buck does not stop there. The judges who allow rape cases to either drag on or accept bribes in exchange for acquittals; parents who encourage and at times even applaud the display of aggressive masculinity amongst sons or abort female foetuses; husbands who abuse their wives and teach their sons and daughters that men are entitled to treat women as objects to be possessed as property instead of persons deserving of respect and recognition of their humanity, are all implicated in this culture of violence. It is an empirical fact that rape is committed by men, whether as part of the state machinery or as individuals, as an exercise of power against vulnerable sections of society. Yet the abysmally low conviction rate simply sends out a message that women lie about rape and that what happens to them falls within the realm of ordinary sex.

These events are not just “unfortunate events,” the result of “misunderstandings” or a “menace” to be eradicated. Such descriptions only reflect how we have become immune and desensitised to what should horrify our moral conscience. Until we are able to respect the bodily and sexual integrity of all women and all those marginalised groups who are the victims of this virulent form of destructive masculinity, we have no entitlement to call ourselves a modern or a civilised nation-state or brandish slogans of “Incredible India.” Regardless of the levels of economic growth and FDI, what is it all worth if in the end we have also developed an immunity to the horror of violence by burying our humanity and compassion.

(Ratna Kapur is Global Professor of Law, Jindal Global Law School)

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