Rape and Rakhi: Patriarchal-Communal Narratives

(This article first appeared on Kafila, August 11, 2014)

Even as the communal cauldron in UP is kept on the boil, there is news that the RSS has launched a campaign to tie Rakhis to lakhs of Hindu men, asking them to pledge to protect their sisters from Muslim men and “love jehad.” The VHP has been running a helpline urging Hindus to approach them “if your daughter is being harassed by Muslim boys.” And a khap panchayat in Muzaffarnagar has imposed a ban on mobile phones and jeans for girls, claiming that these result in ‘eve-teasing’.

Woven into the above events is an old, familiar theme – that of patriarchal restrictions packaged as ‘protection’. In the wake of the anti-rape movement that followed December 16 2012, the streets of Delhi and many other parts of India had resounded with the voices of women declaring ‘Don’t take away our freedoms in the name of ‘protection’ – protect our right to fearless, fullest freedom instead’. Those women had raised their voice demanding freedom from sexual violence – and also freedom from rape culture that advices women to dress decently to avoid rape; and freedom from the khap panchayats, freedom even from the restrictions imposed by one’s own fathers and brothers.

The RSS leader S Gurumurthy has just made it very clear what he and his ideology think of such women. He has called them ‘shameless’, as opposed to the ‘shy’ women who, according to him, represent Indian culture. And in a sense, he is right. Those women on the streets were indeed seeking to be ‘shame-less’: they wanted to be free of the special burden of shame, of ‘sharam-haya’, that women are expected to bear in our society. They were declaring that there is no shame in seeking pleasure, risk, adventure, freedom; that there is no shame even in being the victim of rape; and that in fact, shame should be allocated to those who are violent to women and deny women equality.

We can’t comfort ourselves with the notion that the RSS merely delivers obsolete lectures advising women to be ‘shy rather than shameless.’ The RSS strives to discipline wayward and shameless women. Any random internet search with the keywords ‘Bajrang Dal’, ‘ABVP’, and ‘Valentine’s Day’ will come up with news items, year after year, where these outfits ritually harass and humiliate lovers on Valentine’s Day, often getting them to forcibly tie the ‘Rakhi’ to declare each other as brother and sister. Babu Bajrangi, the RSS leader from Gujarat who was convicted for communal violence at Naroda Patiya in 2002, boasts of having abducted thousands of young women from his Kadwa Patel caste, who eloped to marry Muslim or Christian men or men from other castes. Describing daughters as ‘a live bomb that can erupt at any time’, Bajrangi said “Come, and let’s unite to save bombs... (Girls) have to marry within our own community. (When they) fall in love ...run off and get married…(we) bring them back and convince them that they are ruining their future. They stay with me for a while and then return to their parents.” (Frontline, Dec 16-29 2006). It is important to remember that the same Bajrangi, ardent guardian of daughters, boasted on tape of having slit a pregnant Muslim woman’s belly open in 2002 (ek woh pregnant thi, usko to humne chir diya, ...they shouldn’t even be allowed to breed … Whoever they are, women, children, whoever… Nothing to be done with them but cut them down) (‘After Killing Them, I Felt Like Maharana Pratap’, Transcript of Babu Bajrangi tape, Tehelka, September 1, 2007)

In the many discussions with hundreds of young women and men during that movement, many young men, too, spoke of what it means to love and care for their sisters; and how that love is distinct from the wielding of power over their sisters. The strands of love and power, both, are interwoven in the Rakhi or Rakshabandhan. The ‘bandhan’ symbolizes the affectionate bond between sister and brother. But its symbolism is also replete with the patriarchal power conferred on brothers to be their sisters’ keepers and guardians. ‘Bandhan’ also conveys the sense of restrictive bindings; and the patriarchal Indian family expects brothers to keep sisters in a firm ‘bandhan’ in the name of their ‘raksha’ (protection). Brothers are expected to keep their sisters under surveillance, and there is tremendous social sanction for their role in preventing the sister from pursuing love affairs with the man from the ‘wrong’ caste or community. Rakhi, then, has all the elements available ready-to-hand, suitable for the communal campaign of the RSS that calls on Hindu men to protect Hindu women from Muslim men.

The common sense understanding of ‘rape’ also lends itself easily to the RSS narrative. ‘Rape’, after all, is all too often construed as ‘sex with the forbidden woman’ rather than a violation of women’s autonomy and bodily integrity. The recent research by Rukmini S of The Hindu, on rape trials in Delhi, found that some 40% of rape charges were filed by parents of girls who had eloped consensually with a boy, very often from another caste or community. In these instances, ironically, the girl experienced violence – abduction, confinement, beatings – at the hands of her own family, rather than at the hands of the alleged ‘rapist’. And the violence may be at the hands of the State too. Policemen routinely abet the family’s violence towards such women. And in one instance studied by Pratiksha Baxi in her recent book Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India, a woman who had eloped to marry by choice, was jailed for abetting her own rape and abduction.

Not only in the Delhi and its neighbouring regions and states, but in states all across India, such violence in the custody of the family often leads to murder – of the daughter as well as of her lover/husband. Such murders also enjoy social sanction – to the extent that they are termed ‘honour’ killings.

In most Indian cultures, across castes and communities, the young adult woman is viewed as a ward, an asset (paraya dhan – wealth that belongs to another) kept in trust for a future owner, that must be handed over sexually un-violated and ‘innocent’ to her husband. Therefore the daughter/sister is loved, adored, in her natal family, but hedged about by anxiety about her chastity, innocence, and sexual purity. And the Rakshabandhan, then, has the sister willingly, lovingly, making her brother the custodian of her chastity, and the avenger of its loss. The loss of ‘chastity’ – whether the sexual encounter is consensual or not – is equated with rape and the loss of ‘honour’. Uma Chakravarti (Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, 2003, pp 35-36) remarks how “obsessive concern with policing female sexuality” is a stubborn feature across caste groups, with women’s free choice of partners being widely seen as “disruptive of the whole social order.” (Chakravarti, pp152-53)

So, here we have a scenario where a woman’s choice to love a man from another caste or religion is routinely branded as rape, receiving the horror and moral outrage evoked by rape. But there is very little outrage, and great social and political tolerance for the violence meted out to women – by their parents, brothers, community leaders and khap panchayats – who exercise their choice in matters of sex, love, and marriage. In Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and the whole of Western UP, this cultural field is a fertile one for the RSS and BJP to sow the seeds of communal violence. And they have done so, systematically and blatantly. The most well-recorded instance of this is Amit Shah’s speech at Bijnor during the Lok Sabha polls, where he referred to Muslims as “a community that violates the honour of sisters and daughters.” (For a video link to the speech clip and a detailed analysis of it, see ‘His Master’s Voice - Amit Shah’s speeches in UP belie the promise of a new BJP’, Mukul Kesavan, Telegraph, April 10, 2014 http://www.telegraphindia.com/1140410/jsp/opinion/story_18171718.jsp#.U-ZwMmOdQrY)

As it is, the prevailing khap-style patriarchy makes it difficult for a woman of any community, to admit to a sexual relationship with a man of another community. In a substantial number of cases, parents and communities coerce women into renouncing these relationships, and even into accepting the parental narrative of rape. With the ongoing toxic communal campaign added to this mix, has it remained possible for a Hindu woman to admit to love, elopement, marriage, or pregnancy with a Muslim man? Or have the narratives of abduction, rape and forced conversion swallowed up the women’s own experience and narrative? The experience of marriage proving to be a pretext for sexual exploitation is a familiar one; the case in Rajasthan in which BJP Cabinet Minister Nihalchand Meghwal is among the accused, is after all a similar one. But in the communally charged climate of Western UP, if the rapist, or the husband who colludes in rape, happens to be Muslim while the wife is of Hindu origin, has it remained possible for a woman to speak of such an experience without her voice being overtaken by communal narratives?

How to restore women’s own experience – of rape as violated autonomy and dignity, as well as of violence meted out by family and community to break a self-choice marriage – to the narrative of gender violence, displacing the political narratives that threaten to overwhelm it and render it invisible? How to reclaim the brother-sister bond, and rescue it from the patriarchal and now increasingly communal culture in which it is framed? Perhaps a beginning can be made if brothers and sisters tie the ‘Rakhi’ to each other, pledging to defend each other’s freedoms and choices.

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