Rape, shame and the curse of patriarchy

Women are tag-marked as shameless transgressors for marrying without the consent of family, seeking divorce, asking for a share in ancestral property or refusing to cover hair, face, or body. Violence against women surges whenever the patriarchal status quo or the traditional mode is challenged.

January 19, 2013 10:23 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:17 pm IST

Shame is a powerful word because it is associated with something as pure and as forthright as the conscience. Nowadays, shame seems to be a small and insignificant word in the wake of the ghastly acts of savagery being committed against women. Are the men who brutally assaulted and raped the 23-year old physiotherapy student in Delhi feeling ashamed of what they have done? Or the only negative feeling that they have towards themselves relates to the regret of being caught?

Let me generalise the question and see if the answer changes. Do all men who whistle and wink at, grope, stalk, harass, molest and violate women ever feel ashamed of what they do? The answer is NO.

On the other hand, shame has been used against women as a double-edged sword. They are easily tag-marked as shameless transgressors for acts like marrying without the consent of family, seeking a divorce, asking for a share in ancestral property or refusing to cover hair, face, or body.

Also, they are forced to feel ashamed for the physical and sexual atrocities committed on them. More often than not, only women have to bear the brunt of shame. Since time immemorial, shame in the form of moral sanction has been an effective tool that the patriarchal society uses to control women, to limit their autonomy, their mobility and their choices.

Shame is directly linked to the utmost necessity for a victim of sexual violation, i.e., her rehabilitation in society. Her social acceptance would be complete only when society stops creating conditions under which she will feel guilty and ashamed for what was done to her. Those women parliamentarians who were themselves feeling ashamed and helpless after this incident were still very vocal in proclaiming that the scars on the soul of the victim would never go and she would remain a zinda lash for the rest of her life.

Instead of challenging society’s approach towards such victims, they ended up endorsing it. Such statements which reflect nothing but a pitiable social conditioning (and a covert political agenda) can only lead the victim further into depression. Whether the perpetrators go scot-free, get life-term or are hanged would definitely have a positive or negative impact on the deterrent value and on assuaging retribution but an actual positive transformation in the victim’s life would take place only when society is ready to embrace her with an open heart.

I am all for reforms. I would definitely jump on the bandwagon of police sensitisation and accountability, judicial expediency, fast track courts and justice, civil defence mechanisms, better surveillance through CCTV cameras and so on and so forth. But, in the glittering spree of ‘institution bashing’, I would not want to undermine the role of one of the most important social institutions, which has a tremendous capacity to subvert the biased construct of terms like shame and overturn the set norms, namely the family.

It was not in vain that Louis Althusser proclaimed family to be one of the most prominent Ideological State Apparatuses. The family is able to adapt to society by ensuring that the functions necessary for maintaining societal power structures are performed within it. Families do not socialise people into normative roles of man/woman, rather into gender specific roles. The terms of relationships in a family are taken for granted and the rigidly defined gender roles assigned within a family are hardly refuted.

Thus, families become repositories of exercising the functions of society and sustaining the power relations endorsed by it. The toys that girls are given, the way girls are encouraged to dress up and be like their mothers, the way they are told to be docile and submissive are all part of this socialisation. And hence, differentiation of gender also becomes differentiation of power and the principle of stratification and hierarchy in our society continues.

With this theory of socialisation at the back of one’s mind, the import of what Ram Singh, driver of the bus aboard which the December 16, 2012 gang rape took place, said about the incident is easily understandable. He categorically mentioned that it was the defiance of the victim that angered him the most. How dare she fight back, speak back and stand up to them? The deeply ingrained patriarchal mindset would automatically switch on the punishment button. And what is the biggest punishment for the females of our species? It is to shame her through sexual violation.

Violence against women surges whenever the patriarchal status quo or the traditional mode is challenged. It strikes with a severe backlash to kick women back in the space ordained by patriarchy for her. That is why it is important to understand that there is clear-cut power dynamics related with the very concept of rape.

A lot of debate ensued whether the rapists are perverted, mentally sick individuals or it is about proving who the boss is. The important factor in the crime of rape is that it is all-pervasive, and is done across class, caste, region, religion, cultures and countries. It is not just the sexual desire or lust but the will to subjugate and dominate the victim that leads to rape. It is an explicit manifestation of the power relations entrenched in our social fabric.

If gender justice ever breaks free of the shackles of being a fragile myth and if equality of women ever becomes an achievable goal, then home should be the starting point. Everything can’t be left to the state. After all, the ideal situation would not be when every girl/woman is accompanied/watched/protected by a police officer. The ideal society would be the one in which even without the fear of an administrative watchdog, men wholeheartedly want women to live and move around with as much freedom and liberty without unsolicited invasion on their integrity as they themselves do.

Such a change cannot be ordered through statutory laws; it has to evolve from the social fabric, from families, from individuals. We have to stop believing that this deplorable social condition, this family set-up is deterministic and inevitable.

Only when parents make their sons realise the importance of respecting the other sex and treating it on a par, when society stands up to support rape victims and ostracise the assaulters, when the social order, stratified by gender roles, stops seeing women as belonging only to the domestic realm, when men willingly share with women the public domain where one gets remuneration, property, power and control, will this battle be holistically won.

( The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of English, Lakshmi Bai College, Delhi University, and former president, Delhi University Students’ Union. Email: ragini_nayak@yahoo.co.in )

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