The ‘Nirbhaya’ rape case has provoked extended public discussion on the issue of sexual violence in India. The feminist insight that sexual violence – both in public and private spaces – is a social problem, although voiced since the 1970s, is increasingly gaining public acknowledgment. In the wake of protests following the December 2012 incident, feminists and others involved in the women’s movement have renewed their efforts to grapple with this problem.

An oft-repeated feminist response to instances of sexual violence has been to say that there is no link between women’s clothing and sexual assault. Feminists also insist that this link should not be forged because it puts the responsibility squarely on women and not on the perpetrators of violence. Women’s rights groups have repeatedly emphasised the issue of consent in erotic exchanges between genders, and the importance of recognizing a woman’s right to refuse sex to both strangers and intimate others. This is best exemplified by the slogan ‘No means No’. Most recently, this argument has been reiterated by G. Arunima in a commentary in the Economic and Political Weekly titled “Every Woman's Right to Say ‘No’’’, in the context of the attempt at murder and subsequent suicide by a male student at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Many among those who have commented on the JNU incident have stressed the exceptionalism of the university space as a relatively safe zone for women, in addition to being more sensitive to issues of social inequality. That such an incident can happen in such a space seems to have shocked most commentators. To what extent this supposed exceptionalism of JNU and other such elite institutions is valid remains suspect and has been questioned by some writers. However, what the incident brings to the fore are two keys issues: 1. No space is immune to sexual violence. 2. More importantly, if the feminist notion ‘no means no’ does not have universal currency in these so-called exceptional spaces, then, to what extent does it have meaning outside these spaces?

Therefore, while we need to insistently harp on every woman’s right to refuse sexual advances, we must now also ask in what ways can activist efforts create conditions in which a woman’s ‘no’ will be respected. If one is to address this question, one needs to realize that sexual violence cannot be reduced without addressing issues of male sexuality. A persistent feminist intervention has been that we live in rape cultures which make sexual violence seem normal, everyday and tolerable. Let us recall the recent film Raanjhana in which the interactions between the male protagonist (Dhanush) and his female friend (Swara Bhaskar) is unthinkingly violent: His repeatedly slapping and manhandling her does not evoke any protest from either her or their peers. What needs to be stressed, then, is that this rape culture is maintained by valorising a certain form of masculinity and male sexual desire.

In rape cultures, behaving violently towards women and effeminate men becomes a way of proving normal masculinity and sexual prowess. While feminists have used this idea of rape culture to explain everyday gender based violence, it is important to understand that such conceptions do not inform those who violate. What feminists call the trivialisation of violence is simply the sheer absence of cultural training in men to categorize violence as violence – most men do not realize that groping, or even rape, is violence: it may be fun, naive, innocent, but not violent.

Hence, even as we claim women’s right to say ‘no’, we have to simultaneously address the ‘psychology of masculinity’ through which expressions of violence are understood as ‘normal’ manly behaviour. For women’s ‘no’ to be recognized on its own terms, one has to create cultural definitions of masculinity which do not see sexual access to women as a matter of entitlement. Hence, as we reiterate every woman's right to say ‘no’, we must, at the same time, devise ways to teach men this basic feminist understanding of violence.

The question is: how do we do this?

We suggest that struggles against gender based violence have to give serious attention to the ways in which sexual assault is built into the very fabric of men’s lives. In the past couple of decades, this task has been pursued by pro-feminist men’s groups that have interacted with boys and young men with the objective of recasting patriarchal masculinity. While these efforts continue to be extremely relevant to tackle male sexual violence, the imperatives of funding and the small number of such groups have limited the ambit of their reach to particular groups of men.

To acculturate boys and men into less violent forms of masculinity, one needs to work with the social institutions that shape their understanding of gender relations. One way of beginning this process is to think about ways in which one can introduce gender studies in the school curriculum. We suggest that the introduction of gender studies in the school curriculum may be an effective mode of addressing sexual violence, and less controversial than sex education; given that the term ‘sex’ itself alienates stakeholders in education. What we are suggesting is not simply a change in nomenclature, but an approach through which feminist notions of gender difference, gender inequality, and violence can provide templates for less violent forms of masculinity and less passive forms of femininity to young people. The idea is also to sensitize school students to ‘alternative’ sexualities and forms of intimacy.

In making this suggestion we find it relevant to remind ourselves of the long struggle of feminist scholars to introduce Women’s Studies in Indian universities, which are more malleable to change than is the school system. Given this history, we fully realize that a proposal to introduce gender studies at the school level is bound to meet a surge of protests and an avalanche of practical difficulties. Most schools away from urban centres of the country have one teacher teaching different subjects in the same classroom to different classes of students: for a teacher in a rural school, having students from Class 1 to Class 5 in one room, is an ordinary day at work. In such a scenario, how does one make place for another ‘subject’, that too one which has no obvious utilitarian value? Where does one find teachers to teach feminist ideas to school children? At what level does one introduce the study of gender?

This suggestion is one among many possible strategies, and addressing violence against women needs an overhaul of every social institution (particularly the family), and not just the education system. Nevertheless, feminists may have to confront the gap between asserting every woman’s right to say ‘no’ and the conditions which inhibit this ‘no’ from being heard. Unless we work towards popularizing feminist ideas among men, a woman's 'no' will always be read as a possible yes, because this misrecognition is intrinsic to the working of patriarchy.

Zaid Al Baset is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at St Xavier's College, Kolkata, and is pursuing his doctoral studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

Romit Chowdhury is a research student at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.

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