Thursday morning, I woke up and checked my Twitter feed & stumbled across an article titled ‘Concept of marital rape cannot be applied in India: Government’. None other than our Minister of Women & Children Development, Maneka Gandhi, released a written statement regarding criminalizing Marital Rape as an answer to a question earlier pitched in Rajya Sabha.
I was enraged — my #MaritalRape tweets are testimony to that rage. I got into conversations with people who held different viewpoints; some considered her stance correct while others took a diplomatic viewpoint of the whole affair. Neither of the two sets of people, however, could give reasonable explanations for their position – misuse of law, complications regarding its applicability in rural sector, lack of sexual education throughout the country were cited among others.
During these discussions, what I realized were the things that most people take for granted, whether its conditioned tradition or complacent privilege, needs to be questioned if one really wants to tackle this issue and here’s my attempt to question and explore the origin and continuity of such ideas in the 21st century — a century that has marked some significant changes where (wo)men have gone to space and back, where wo(men) have worked together to help people in war zones, where both genders have come together to work as people of the same species and yet, in the same century,one Thursday morning you wake up to read a statement invalidating the concept of consent if one is bound by a social contract called ‘marriage’.
Yes, consent is a concept. Rape is a crime. Do not mistake the two.
A question was raised in Rajya Sabha: ‘Whether the government plans to criminalize marital rape?’
To which Maneka Gandhi responded and her infamous written statement has been circulated widely across social media, invoking response from UNDP Chief Helen Clark who said ‘The issue is the consent of the women, and if it isn’t there, it is rape, which clearly’ defied the label ‘marital’ because to sensible minds a social contract label does not validate violence of any kind. Using ‘marriage’ as a defense against individual’s consent is undeniably the lowest kind of justification one can offer for such a heinous act as rape.
Ironically, the statement that is being circulated across social media is not written by the lady in question at
Last year in 2015, replying to a written question of DMK MP Kanimozhi in Rajya Sabha, the then Minister of State for Home, Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary said – THE EXACT SAME WORDS – that we’re attributing to Maneka Gandhi and criticizing or applauding her stance on the issue of Marital Rape.
Not even punctuation was changed in the official written statement by Maneka Gandhi. Years passed, ministers changed, activists’ protested, questions were raised, our honorable ministers still referred to spark notes version of last year’s responses and fed it again to the Upper House.
That says a lot about the thought process of Parliamentarians we elect and put our faith in. Is the issue of Marital Rape not even worthy of consideration, to be given a serious thought even though the number of women sexually assaulted by their husbands is 40 times the number compared to strangers? That only 1% of such cases get reported isn’t enough for a judicious critical thinking regarding the matter?
What justification can the Minister of Women and Child Development provide for resorting to last year’s parroted response as an answer to this extremely crucial question? Writer’s block is a valid excuse only if you’re dealing with arts, Ma’am, this is lived reality of millions of women in this country who’re told to suffer violence in silence because they’re trapped in this so-called social contract of tradition & values. This is not my India. This is a concept of India you’re trying to sell, one that doesn’t let women have control over their own minds, and their own bodies. As an adult, thinking woman, I can define my own tradition and values and I’d still call myself an Indian woman without falling in the trap of proving my nationalism, or religious values to others. And this is the privilege I’ve to be able to voice my opinion in this country which is not as regressive as some Parliamentarians make it look like. We’re a progressive society, we believe in the voice of dissent and we fight for what’s right and it doesn’t matter if the struggle is long, we’ll argue with reason till even those who’re underprivileged become part of this struggle. But I digress.
For the longest time, I wondered why don’t others also think and realize that it’s not the question of Indian traditional values but of consent, of human ethics which hold this framework of humanity/society together.
Why is Marital Rape a crime, and not a concept? What is consent and why do I need it?
If one traces the history of criminalization of marital rape, one doesn’t have to go too far. In most developed countries, marital rape was criminalized in this century. In developing countries such as India and underdeveloped nations, the struggle continues. But why the struggle you may ask? Religious scriptures provide support to this commonly held viewpoint that one must not fight against what’s only natural in a conjugal relationship and here I quote The Bible:
‘The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.
For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.
Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.’
1 Corinthians 7:3-5 (The Bible)
Christianity is a minority religion in India and yet I quote Bible for a reason because it sums up quite succinctly the idea of marital relationship and most people’s expectations also resonate with this viewpoint. The idea of ownership of another person in a conjugal relationship still runs true across religion/caste/class as liberal as one might pretend to be. If this is not applicable to you, give Buddhism a try. Coming back to case in point, the quote is important for a reason.
‘Except perhaps by mutual consent’ – The bestselling book of all time, The Bible, written in the era most of us have difficulty understanding, talks about conjugal rights that one can deprive oneself of by mutual consent.
Consent is one of the oldest concepts to have existed in our vocabulary and it is for a reason. Human civilization didn’t evolve due to threats and violence. We’ve come together so far because of the very idea of consent being applicable to almost every arena in human life.
Consent doesn’t only mean denial, consent includes acceptance as well. It’s a concept that lays down the foundation of parity in the best possible way.
Consent is YES. It’s not no, umm, hmm, silence, dead expression, assumed expression. Consent is yes. It’s clear. You know its consent when you get someone’s consent. You know when it’s forced as well. Then, it’s not called consent. Lack of consent is rape.
In India, during the debate on the Age of Consent Act in 1943, Dr. BR Ambedkar said
“It is impossible to read the writing of those who supported orthodoxy in their opposition to the Age of Consent Bill, without realizing the depth of the degradation to which the so-called leaders of the peoples had fallen… Could any sane man, could any man with a sense of shame, oppose so simple a measure? But it was opposed…”
One would imagine that being adults we respect each other’s idea of consent but you’d be terribly wrong. The UN Population Fund states that more than 2/3rds of married women in India, aged between 15 to 49 have been beaten, raped or forced to provide sex. These are statistics. Society that treats marriage as sacrament but devalues human life is not a civilized society and I’d like to think I’m part of a civilized society and one day we will acknowledge these crimes which occur almost on a daily basis at some nook or corner of this country but stay unacknowledged because they’re not deemed even a ‘crime’ as such.
People who respond to marital rape saying that women would abuse this law, if it is criminalized, I’ve just one question for you – do you not have enough faith in the Indian Judiciary?
Or is it the fear of being held responsible for your complacent attitudes, to be answerable, for your behavior? Any sensible person will never oppose a law that can save millions of lives. Because everyone deserves to live without fear, without judgments from society if they’re suffering in a suffocating marriage, and have the freedom to make that choice. Do not confuse orthodox conservative views with traditions, there is a reason they’re called fossil.
Hemingway once wrote ‘World is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ Maybe right now it doesn’t feel that way, but it’s our world and we need to fight to change it, one law at a time, and leave it a better place for the next generation.
The atuthor of this article is a post-graduate, privileged, hindu, unmarried, Indian woman who believes in gender parity, feminism, poetry and humanity among other things. Also, she #StandsWithJNU.