The bogey of ‘Indian cultural values’ has stifled conversation on women’s sexual rights

The startling murder of Pallavi Purkayastha, a 25-year-old legal professional, at her central Mumbai apartment on August 9 by the security guard of her building is another reminder of the abysmal levels of violence experienced by Indian women 66 years after Independence.

Pallavi appears to have been murdered while resisting the guard’s efforts to rape her. While a number of laws have been enacted over the course of the past few decades to address sexual violence against women, the fact is that women continue to be subjected to levels of violence that should shock the conscience of a country that has entered the 21st century and makes bold claims to be a new superpower.

In a poll of 370 gender experts on how well women fared in G20 countries (g20women.trust.org.), India was ranked the worst country to be a woman while Canada was the best. Saudi Arabia ranked second worst. While such polls are invariably limited in terms of bias — who counts as an expert as well as how statistics may be compiled — it does not detract from the fact that there is a serious need to examine why such extreme levels of violence against women continue to be tolerated. In a country that claims to traditionally revere its women, why do the perpetrators of violence against women seem to enjoy levels of impunity not entertained in other liberal democracies? Part of the answer rests in how women continue to be denied subjectivity and are infantilised as well as the bogey of Indian cultural values, which are nothing more than Victorian sexual mores in drag.

In response to Pallavi’s murder, the National Commission for Women appealed to Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil to initiate steps to ensure the safety of women. The measures proposed included background checks of security guards, installation of CCTV cameras, intercoms, and security audits by cooperative housing societies in consultation with the local police. While these measures, if implemented, may provide a sense of better security, increase in surveillance techniques and strengthening of the security apparatus do little to address the disregard for women’s humanity in our society.

And such measures are often combined with an intensification of the moral surveillance of women’s lives, exemplified in the recent remarks of the Chairperson of the NCW that the violence was partly due to women blindly aping the West in terms of dress sense which was “eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen”.

While such perceptions are not new and have been expressed from time to time by politicians as well as senior police officials across the country, they are based on two false assumptions: that violence against a woman is the woman’s responsibility, and secondly, that Indians are not able to accommodate a woman’s right to bodily integrity and sexual autonomy.

While laws continue to be enacted ostensibly for the benefit of women, invariably, these laws focus on sexual wrongs rather than women’s sexual rights. Violence and a conservative sexual morality combine to treat women as subjects who need to be protected from sex, as vulnerable and incapable of informed consent around issues of sexual intimacy or to defend themselves. They also tend to produce an extremely unflattering portrayal of all Indian men as sexual predators. To only focus on sexual wrongs, where everyone from the media to the politician project themselves as experts, is to constantly erode the space for healthy conversations on sexual rights and the promotion of healthy human relationships. Even in universities, where the new Indian woman is claiming her space in India’s modernisation project, her freedom is curtailed by highly paternalistic and deeply problematic administrative rules that prohibit “public displays of affection” and penalise such displays together with obscene, lewd and lascivious behaviour.

The failure to distinguish between sexual violence and sexual rights stigmatises all sexual interactions and intimacies between adults, including consensual and respectful ones.

Sex and intimacy are cast as negative, degrading and indecent, something from which the good, decent Indian woman ought to be protected. The protectionism combines with a sex phobia that ensures sex remains in the closet. And any claims for sexual rights become bizarrely associated with something Western, decadent, hedonistic or deviant.

It is time for the media, educational institutions, and the political establishment to start treating the subject of sex and intimacy with more respect and maturity than has been the case thus far. Such a process would entail promoting a culture in the work place, educational institutions and civic society that promotes conversations around sexual rights, where sex and respect for sexual integrity and autonomy is regarded as a natural and healthy part of human relationships.

It is also incumbent on men to start holding men accountable for their behaviour towards women, and not because they are mothers, daughters, sisters or wives. Rather, such a move is necessary to de-stigmatise the Indian male whose gender credentials remain in tatters. It will also help to shift the focus away from a woman’s attire, her behaviour, marital status, or occupation, and ensure that consent and bodily integrity become the line along which sexual relationships and interactions are conducted. India will be independent only when Indian women’s independence and right to full subjectivity is guaranteed and genuinely respected.

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

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