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Blog » What do we learn from each rape?

December 21, 2012


By Ishita Trivedi

There is no definition of ‘victim shaming’ (a term popularized by the SlutWalk movement) by a reliable source anywhere on the internet, so I will give you my own approximation: When the social mandate shifts the burden of proof, or more broadly speaking, the focus of a crime  from the perpetrator to the victim. Victim shaming is a blanket term for the cultural and social ethos that justifies rape provisory to the moral character of the victim.

The Indian media, as I have noted, has more or less handled the reporting of rapes with a high degree of sensitivity though the authorities have been infamously callous. The calls for death penalties and outrage against the Delhi government are within reason and stringent laws can serve as effective deterrents, but to get to the crux of the menace that is rape, we must measure the response of the general public. I am not referring to the voice bytes voicing outrage, which are usually generic notwithstanding their sincerity, but hardly tell us much about what perspective people take away from such unfortunate incidents.

The Indian Woman usually is a victim of two distinct forms of sexism both of which stem from a common need of the patriarchy- female obedience and sexual violence being its most heinous articulation. The first type, she is most likely to face from her peers and bad modern day advertising- objectification and commodification of her body, questions on her intellect and typecasting to control her sexuality. The other type is what she faces inside the walls of her house; this is the domain of the traditional patriarchy which focuses on the traditional roles of women, curbing their freedom to pursue ambitions etc.

In the case of the recent gang rape, the male friend of the victim reported the comments that led to their assault, “Ladke ke saath ghum ke aa rahi hai. Mazze leke aa rahi hai” (you were hanging out with a boy and having fun). Let’s cut to the rape case of a student of the prestigious National Law School, Bangalore. The victim, in this case, was also accompanied by a male friend. To prevent such incidents in the future the college authorities decided to introduce a 9 PM curfew. “The authorities, as well as some of my male peers justify this curfew believing it would be safer for us if we didn’t go out at all. The college administration also said incidents like these dent the reputation of the institute”, said a student on the condition of anonymity.

Both the rape cases are characterized by the common belief of the rapists that the girl in question was “morally loose”, because she as much as interacted with the other gender, which had qualified her, in their eyes, to be sexually exploited by them. This is not my conclusion by picking two cases in isolation; this is an increasingly conspicuous reality and an observed trend in gang rapes and lynching (think: woman accompanied by a male friend lynched in Gurgaon by a mob outside a night club). The actual incident of rape aside, the responses to rape too engender essentially the same need to control female behavior; the curfew in NLSIU is the implicit way of saying that had the woman not been doing what she was doing, she wouldn’t have been raped.

Victim blaming is so widely encountered in our society that it is no more seen as unacceptable or fallacious. Well meaning advice to not drink, dress a certain way, not venture out at night from elders/parents/authorities reiterates the same misguided world view over and over again: if you are harmed in any way, it remains your fault. Violation of an individual’s rights are being viewed as increasingly acceptable, the norm. So, how does a democracy manage to function in such a situation? If there’s social consensus that the onus to protect the right to your wellbeing lies only with you but not other members of the society, this is a belief so hugely disempowering that it has the power to disintegrate the social fabric of any nation.

The messages that our policies, laws, attitudes and responses to rape send across are regressive to say the least- forcing women to internalize the Madonna-Whore complex[1], making them believe that they are worthy of the treatment they get and even if they do manage to get legal justice, our unforgiving society will not let them off the hook for the time, place and the dress they were in.

[1] Madonna-Whore complex: The deep dichotomy in modern culture used to oppress women via a sexual double standard, establishing rigid categories for female sexual behavior while permitting sexual behavior to range from abstinence to promiscuity without similar disparaging social judgement.