Shadow of Sexism and Misogyny Over Anti-Rape Bill

The anti-rape legislation that was supposed to be Parliament’s tribute to the Delhi December 16 braveheart was passed in India’s lower house on 19th March. Far from being a momentous and historic blow to patriarchy, however, the occasion only served to remind us what kind of patriarchal reaction we’re up against.

Only 200 out of 545 MPs remained in the house. The top leadership of the Congress party and the UPA coalition stayed away from the house. And the debate in the Lok Sabha – marked by open sexism, misogyny, and misinformation – could not have presented a greater contrast with the sober and painstaking process of learning from activists on the ground as well as international best practices, undertaken by the Justice Verma Committee.

Leading the charge was BJP MP Bhola Singh, whose idea of women’s rights meant invoking mythological examples to extol women as models of sacrifice and beauty. Meanwhile, he echoed the RSS chief and blamed westernization for rape! Then, there was Shailendra Kumar of the SP, who, yet again, blamed revealing clothes worn by film stars for rape, and even made a personal sexist dig at his colleague Jayaprada, a former actress. And JD(U) MP Sharad Yadav declared that stalking was a form of courtship (‘Which of us men has never stalked a girl? Girls do not respond till you stalk them for a while’) and a law against stalking would end up putting lovers in jail. Sharad Yadav also made knowing remarks about even the MPs in the house would be stirred by songs like ‘Shaila ki jawani’ (“We are men, after all”), to be greeted by smiles and sniggers by many MPs. He said that if such laws were passed, fewer women would be hired at work, and SP leader Mulayam Singh, who did not speak in the house, said that if such laws were passed, coeducational schools would have be shut down! Laloo Yadav took the opportunity to display homophobia and declare that Parliament should have challenged the Delhi HC verdict decriminalizing homosexuality.

Can we dismiss deplorable aberrations that we can ignore as fringe elements? Not so, because these are the voices and opinions that managed to influence the Bill: getting the age of consent raised to 18, the first offence of stalking made a bailable and non-cognisable offense; reducing the proposed punishment for acid-throwing; making sure that only women could be victims of rape (rather than all persons as proposed by the women’s groups). With even the Law Minister of the country subscribing to the bogey of ‘false complaints,’ it is hardly surprising that this notion prevailed, leading to dilution of the law against stalking. Acid attacks, murders and rapes are often preceded by stalking; making stalking bailable will mean that when a woman files a complaint against the stalker, he will not be arrested immediately and will remain at large to carry out his threats of acid attacks or murder.

And even in the process of drafting the Bill, it is patriarchal forces that ensured the rejection of Justice Verma’s recommendations that the marital rape exemption be deleted, the principle of command responsibility in case of rapes by armed forces or police be recognized, AFSPA amended and reviewed, and molestation no longer described as ‘outraging a woman’s modesty.’

The situation was such that a huge part of the struggle was to keep the legislation from doing damage to women’s autonomy and rights! The ordinance, for instance, had made the accused in the rape law gender neutral, allowing women to be accused by men of rape; it had introduced ‘punishment for false complaints’ into the sexual assault laws; and raised the age of consent to 18. It is thanks to the vociferous protests and efforts of the ongoing movement that the Bill approved by Cabinet corrected these extremely harmful provisions, but very soon, the age of consent was again raised to 18 in the Bill passed by the Lok Sabha.

The debate over age of consent was a classic case of misleading and mischievous propaganda by patriarchal forces. The age of consent had been 16 for the past 3 decades since 1983. The Government, without any serious consultation or debate, first raised this to 18 in the Prevention of Child Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) a few months back and the ordinance a month ago, overruling the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee. It was not only the women’s movement that objected to this change: at least two court judgements in the past few months appealed for age of consent to be retained at 16, with judges pleading that they were having to convict young boys for rape, even when the girl declared in court that it was a consensual relationship. And when the women’s groups prevailed on the Government to keep age of consent at 16 in the Bill, a huge media storm was manufactured over the supposed ‘lowering of the age of consent to 16,’ which was interpreted, laughably, as ‘license for teen sex.’ Eventually, this campaign of misinformation and moral policing carried the day, and the age of consent was raised to 18.

So, whatever is positive and progressive in the new legislation was achieved by the movement in spite of the patriarchal forces of the Government and Parliament. These include: jail-time of 6 months to 1 year for police officers who fail to file FIRs in sexual violence cases; prior sanction provision will not extend to police officers, MPs and MLAs accused of rape; and sexual violence during communal or sectarian violence or by a person in uniform will carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment; stalking, voyeurism, disrobing and acid-attacks have been codified as crimes. We may recall that not long before December 16th last year, the Home Ministry had rejected most such recommendations made by the women’s groups, and the Government’s ordinance too had avoided incorporating many of these provisions. It is clear, therefore, that it is only the pressure of the movement that forced an obviously reluctant Government and Parliament to enact some of the long-pending amendments into the rape/sexual violence laws.

The people’s movement against sexual violence will continue and grow. We will not rest till we change the offensive laws that legitimize marital rape, protect rapists in Army uniform, criminalise homosexual relationships, and preach feminine ‘modesty’, allow those charge-sheeted for rape to contest elections, and fail to allow for severe punishment for rapists of dalit women!

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