Growing up in India was filled with self-denial, self-negation, self-elimination. To exist was to be visible; to be visible was to be in danger. The problem of rape is not limited to the act of rape. Rape exists as an omnipresent figure – always there, always right around the corner. You live your entire life trying to avoid being raped; the possibility infiltrates your every thought, dictates your every decision. In response, you turn to eliminating the self. You dress so as to not draw attention, you speak only when necessary and you claw away at any semblance of sexual agency. Pleasure is bad. Pleasure is for the dogs who rape. Good girls sit at home, fully covered, ashamed of their bodies.
The problem of rape is not limited to the act of rape. An act of violence cannot be seen in isolation from the social systems within which it occurs. When you start asking the most basic questions – who committed the act? who was violated? how was it committed? why was it committed? where, what, when? – what emerges is a tangled web of class, caste, identity, politics, religion, law and social infrastructure.
Consider this: a girl, gang-raped by 15 men. Why? Not simply because the men were sexually frustrated, but because they wanted to punish her brother for a crime he committed. The sexual violation of the woman of the house as a way to punish her relatives, her family. Sexual violence as a way of social shaming. What questions does this pose about female sexuality? What questions does this pose about the relationship between family identity, family “respect” (or izzat) and the chastity of a woman? What questions does this pose about the role of women in the household?
Consider this: a woman, raped by a man. To be specific, a woman violently forced to engage in sexual activity by a man she met 2 days ago. Let us say these individuals are bound by institutions of law, religion and morality. Let us say this bond was a result of cultural normativity. Let us say two formerly unacquainted individuals partook in arranged marriage due to familial and social influences. Let us, in fact, talk about marital rape. In a country where marital rape is not legally recognized, what questions does this pose about the nature of consent? What questions does this pose about a woman’s sexual duty? What questions does this pose about the harsh purity of pre-marital life and the drastic shift that follows?
Consider this: a man, raped. By who, you ask? Another man? Can women even rape? Don’t all men want sex? Must rape necessarily include penetration? In these questions you find implicit gendered assumptions. That rape is an act of sexual violence is obvious, but that it is as much about power – gendered power – that we assume the act of rape to be a physical manifestation of a prescribed social gender dynamic is what we must come to terms with.
Rape is often portrayed by the media to be an act inflicted by a lower-class, uneducated, rural, sexually frustrated male onto either an innocent, undeserving girl or an urban, upper-class, short-skirt wearing amoral slut. All nuances are lost in the hype that follows. What is never called into question is the social forces themselves: we never speak of the interplays of class and caste and social infrastructure that accommodate and perpetuate such incidents.
The issue of rape is far more complex, far more intertwined within a complicated social network than dominant discourse chooses to acknowledge. If we are to understand rape, we must understand the social forces behind it. We must question what we mean by rape and what limitations this meaning imposes. We must question our predominant narratives, our assumptions, the psychology and personality-traits of the violators involved. We must question societal notions of consent, cultural norms, media artefacts. We must treat scenarios we currently marginalize with as much urgency as high-profile stories.
If we are to fight rape, we need to understand it. The problem of rape is not limited to the act of rape. The problem of rape cannot be seen in isolation from the social systems within which it occurs.
About the Authors
Shreena Thakore studies Computer Science and Comparative Literature at Brown University. She enjoys travelling, writing and ranting about things. She is only 5 feet tall and prides herself on her ability to comfortably fit in small boxes.
Ria Vaidya is a formal student of Neuroscience and an informal student of poetry at Brown University. Her other interests include education, travelling, Spongebob Squarepants, and nat