The Prime Minister of India has spoken! Modi’s diktat on rape came two weeks after two teenage girls were raped and lynched in a village in Uttar Pradesh. In his first speech to the Parliament, Modi surmised things not to do or say about rape. Here’s the precise list –
- Stop “politicising rape”;
- “Stop analysing the psychology of rape”;
- “Does it suit us to make comments on such incidents, can we not be quiet?”
And what was his rationale? “We are playing with the dignity of women”, he said and added more specifically, “The dignity of our mothers and our sisters must be protected.”
Clearly, Modi is concerned about ma and behen – the two most recurring images of womanhood in Indian culture, invoked from time to time in various contexts. Ma and behen are sacred and virginal, to be worshipped and protected but also to be used as insults to men as swear words and as violated bodies. Ma**** and behen**** are used freely among men as banter and rape of women in war and conflicts as well as in more local/family disputes is well known.
What then of those who are not mothers and sisters or those who refuse to define themselves in relation to men? Perhaps violation of those of us who are not men’s property doesn’t matter. Or maybe those of us who don’t belong to men don’t have any ‘dignity’ worth protecting to start with.
But it’s not just Modi. After the Delhi gang rape in December 2012, Sonia Gandhi, in a letter to Sheila Dikhshit, referred to the holy trinity of ma, behen and beti: “It’s a shame that these incidents recur with painful regularity and that our daughters, sisters, mothers are unsafe in the capital city.”
It is interesting, but not surprising, to note that the figure of the wife is absent from these exclamations by both Gandhi and Modi. Following the December 2012 gang rape, the Verma committee made a number of recommendations to amend anti-rape laws in the country. A lot of these were put into effect pretty quickly but one that was a sticking point was criminalisation of marital rape.
There has been strong opposition to punishing men for raping their wives centrally based on the premise that sexual consent is presumed in marriage. It’s never ma, behen, beti and biwi because the wife is not sacred and virginal – by marrying a man, she has agreed to all future sexual use and abuse.
Besides the exclusionary nature of Modi’s comments which suggest that there are only certain kind of bodies that are valued and worthy of being saved, the protectionist narrative is offensive too – who can save women from men but other men?
It doesn’t take much for “The dignity of our mothers and our sisters must be protected,” to become “Let’s lock up the women to protect them” (Gurgaon police actually tried to impose a curfew on women to prevent rape) and also “Let’s not talk to them about rape because what do they know?”
Modi’s attempt at silencing the conversation about rape (“…can we not be quiet?”) is to a certain extent understandable given the nonsense his ministers have been spouting, but it is also careless and dangerous. Victims of sexual violence have to fight odds, as it is, to speak out on and even report the crimes committed against them for fear of stigmatisation and ostracisation. Modi’s focus on dignity and keeping quiet further fuels the shaming of victims.
Modi’s comments might not be as politically incorrect as some of his colleagues’ have been lately but he still has the wrong end of the stick. The fight against sexual violence is not a fight for protection of that vague thing called women’s dignity or modesty, it is a fight for gender equality.