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The marital rape debate

Marriage in India is, among other things, a sexual contract, because it gives the man implied consent to sex in perpetuity. Illustration: Deepak Harichandran  

If, of all people, the Minister for Women and Child Development >Maneka Gandhi is unable to recognise the grievous danger in not making marital rape a criminal offence, it bodes ill for the future of women’s rights in India. But first, let’s try to understand marital rape. It occurs when a man imposes intercourse on his wife either by force, threat of force, or when the wife is unable to consent. And just as domestic violence has been made punishable by law, so should domestic sexual abuse, because rape is rape, regardless of whether it is committed by husband, father-in-law, uncle or stranger. Since the late 20th century, most of the developed world has criminalised marital rape but >India has still not.

Repeating almost verbatim the words of Minister of State for Home Affairs Haribhai Chaudhary in April 2015, Ms. Gandhi has said that ‘marital rape’ cannot apply in India because of factors like illiteracy, poverty, social customs, religious beliefs, and the “sanctity” of marriage. How are we to understand this? That it is okay for a man to sexually abuse his wife because they are poor? Because they are illiterate? Because their marriage is solemnised by a religious ritual? Invoking arguments of destitution, religious belief and social custom can result to justifying several regressive practices that have rightfully been thrown out by law.

In fact, it is because we are a country still terribly hobbled by ignorance and custom that it becomes even more important to provide legal protection for the woman. Usha, our domestic help, would come to work at least once a week with a black eye. When asked why she did not complain, she would say, ‘Husbands can hit their wives, ma. It’s the norm’. It’s the same ‘norm’ that allows the husbands of many Ushas to rape them, without protection, each time they come home drunk.

Marriage in India is, among other things, a sexual contract because it gives the man implied consent to sex in perpetuity. It reinforces the man’s “ownership” rights over the wife. This denies the woman any agency over her own body, its sexuality and its reproductive function. Refusing to criminalise marital rape is to accept that sexual coercion against a woman, so long as it is within a marriage, will be endorsed by both government and society. If women are to wrest control of their lives, they have to have the right to say no to their husbands without being socially penalised for it. The myth of the ‘wifely duty’ and the ‘conjugal right’ must end because marital sex, as all sex, must be with mutual consent and pleasure.

Societies such as India that condemn and penalise sex outside of marriage often force men into marital relationships only for free access to physical consummation, which puts women under incredible sexual threat. A few years ago, newspapers carried the story of a 26-year-old woman who returned from a Bangkok honeymoon with serious injuries after her husband forced violent sex on her. This is far more common than one would like to think, and I know of more than one woman who has endured similar sexual abuse in marriage with no legal recourse.

To say that the institution of marriage will be threatened by such a law is to either underestimate the very real affections, bonds and negotiations that hold good marriages together despite deep disagreements and differences, or to accept that sexual abuse and coercion is so common in marriages that no man dares risk such a law.

When society makes theft or murder a punishable offence, it does so not because everyone is a potential thief or murderer but to protect everyone from the few thieves and murderers. Are these laws misused? Of course they are, all of them, and with sickening frequency. But nobody is asking for them to be thrown out, are they?

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 5:02:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/woman-uninterrupted-the-marital-rape-debate/article8370439.ece

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