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An Indian woman is not considered to have the agency to say NO to sexual overtures, unless she ‘belongs’ to a man. This is a fatal flaw in how we perceive consent.
It was one of those fine conversations you have with your friend over tea; lingering on the season’s flavour, the food and the future, when my phone cover which read ‘Feminist as Fuck’ animated my listener and the talk abruptly drifted to feminism. The tête-à-tête ended soon with her leaving, but I was left thinking about something that had struck me on the course of our chat.
It was about consent; about how consent – the presence or lack of it – changes the dimension of an action and how, in our society, it remains an extremely inconvenient idea for people to comprehend.
The difference between sex and rape is consent, and the elusive part here is that the parties in question are irrelevant. A big chunk of Indians have absorbed the idea that it is rape only if the woman is a ‘sanskari Indian nari’, and that a foreigner in Goa or a prostitute in Red Street have no agency – that they do not have a right to cry “rape!” if someone forces themselves on them.
A prostitute is a woman who chooses to have sex with a person in return for money. And if she has not made that particular choice in a situation, you have no legitimate right to touch her. Maybe it stems from the importance we Indians put on the bodies of women, but we fail to understand that every individual has a mind and violation of someone’s mind is also harassment and a crime. We make this huge mistake of not recognizing sexual harassment when we see it.
Very recently, a Malayalam movie actress spoke her mind about a movie starring a superstar, that a certain scene in it was derogatory to women. And it is. The scene shows the actor grabbing a woman police officer by her belt even as he makes an obscene statement. The supporters of this actor have circulated a video where this particular scene has been placed side by side with the actress’s role in a movie where she gets intimate with someone, as if to say ‘this characterless woman is the one talking’. To somehow logically infer that the scene from movie is ‘not as bad’ compared to the actress’s role is a direct pointer to what is wrong in our society. There is a huge difference between someone exerting their chauvinism on screen and someone else enacting a love scene on the celluloid.
Marital rape is a cruel reality in India. According to a survey by the UN Population Fund in 2014 in seven states, more than 2/3rds of married women in India, aged between 15 to 49 have been beaten, raped or forced to provide sex and 1/3rd of the men admitted to having forced a sexual act on their wives. India is one of the 36 countries where marital rape is not a crime, despite the UN having repeatedly suggested to them to amend their archaic laws. The underlying reason for this is the culture of undermining the autonomy of women and the lack of concern for consent.
When asked if the government plans to criminalize marital rape, Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi said in a written statement that “It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament etc”. The patriarchy in our society is being underlined time and again, when women are denied their chances to make choices.
India is sadly being portrayed as a land of sexual predators on account of not just the number of rapes happening in our country but the behaviour of Indians online. Any free chat website will have about half or more of the members Indians, who would start a chat with ‘Hi, M/F? And post three sentences, they would send you a picture of their private parts – without any demand. I attribute this to suppressed sexual frustration, but to vent the same on unsuspecting women or girls by exercising a non-existent right is detestable.
Privacy and consent are two essential lessons that need to get integrated into our learning system. Respect for the individual, the essence of which is equality, of dilution of the gender role ideas, and the alleviation of feelings of entitlement for men are the crux of change.
In Christian weddings, the bride and the groom take the traditional “I do” vows. Trivial though it may seem, when the priest asks the girl, ‘Do you take so and so as your husband’, she is given the opportunity to accept or deny, say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. And this respect for consent is the cornerstone of every relationship. It is crucial we understand and respect this.