It is time to debunk all the myths that have evolved around rape
It has become something of a pattern by now. A woman is brutally raped, or, as is increasingly common these days, gang-raped. News TV channels go on overdrive, having shouty debates in the studios about how outrageous these daily assaults on women are. Newspaper headlines blare their indignation and anger, with some of them even christening the victim so that they can launch a campaign in her name. The suspects are arrested and paraded before the media. A fast track court is set up to ensure speedy justice. The trial goes on and on until the case fades from the media and our memories. And then, another woman is raped or gang-raped, and we go through the whole sorry cycle again.
But while the details of every rape case may vary, the myths that swirl around rape remain the same. And no matter how much we try and dispel them, their hold on the public imagination remains as strong as ever.
First up, is the myth that the rape is somehow the woman's fault. Why was she out so late at night? Why did she go to such a secluded spot? Why was she wearing a short skirt/low-cut top? Why was she drinking liquor? Why did she agree to take a lift from a stranger? Why didn't she call her potential rapist 'Bhaiya' and ask for mercy? Why does she sleep around so much anyway? Why? Why? Why?
The questions pile up until the woman ends up feeling like a criminal rather than the victim of a crime. In one way or the other, she is accused of having 'asked for it'. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong clothes with the wrong people. It is her fault.
Only, it isn't. No matter what she may have worn, no matter how she may have behaved, no matter how late it was, and no matter how much alcohol was involved, the rape was not her fault. It never is. No woman ‘asks’ to be raped. No woman ever.
And while we are at it, no means no. That bears repeating. In fact, repeat that slowly after me. No. Means. No. And anyone who doesn't respect that is a rapist. It is his fault that the rape happened. He is the one who 'asked for it'. He is the criminal. He is the one who should be punished. And he is the one who should be shamed and ostracized by society.
The second myth is that cities, and some cities in particular, are more prone to breeding rapists than others. At the moment, Delhi is pilloried as being the rape capital of India, but given the rash of rapes being reported from Mumbai, the latest being the gang rape of a young photo-journalist, the crown of shame may well shift. In the meantime, we are all subjected to the asinine ‘Delhi vs Mumbai as rape capital’ storyline.
It seems absurd to me that this needs saying but say it we must: cities don't rape woman; men do. And not all men, either, just the rapists among them. And these rapists live everywhere: in sprawling metropolises, in sleepy mofussil towns, in dusty villages. It is not their location that determines their depravity but their warped minds.
If anything, the plight of women who live in small towns and villages is worse, because patriarchy and misogyny are even more entrenched in these areas. And if you are raped here, the chances are that the national media will never get to hear about it, the police will laugh in your face when you try to register a case, and if you do succeed in taking the matter to court, society will shame you and your family at every turn.
Oh yes, shame. That is the product of another myth: that when a woman is raped it is not just her body that is violated; her ‘honour’ is besmirched as well. The Hindi phrase used most often to describe rape says it all: “Uski izzat loot li” (Her honour was stolen.) But as rape survivor, Sohaila Abdulali, wrote so movingly, “I reject the notion that my virtue is located in my vagina.” The only person who loses honour in the act of rape is the rapist himself. And we need to tell every rape survivor that, over and over again.
But the most dangerous myth of all is that if a woman is raped then her life is over. That being raped is somehow worse than being murdered because her ‘izzat’ is worth so much more than her life. The truth is that just as a woman’s virtue is not located in her vagina and cannot be stolen from her by an act of forcible penetration, her life also cannot be reduced to one heinous crime that was committed against her body.
Rape may have been the worse thing to happen to her, but it is not the thing that will define her. Life will go on. The scars will heal, the memories will fade, she will find love, she will laugh, she will take pleasure in the sight of a beautiful sunset, she will raise a family, she will grow old. But most of all, she will learn to live again.
Because there is more to a woman than her vagina. And her life is worth a lot more than her so-called ‘honour’.