A few days ago in the posh suburb of Bandra, Mumbai, a young Spanish woman of 27 was raped by a burglar who broke into her house in the middle of the night. She was alone in the flat at the time, and her cries for help went unheard until too late.
The police arrested a man named “Badshah” Ansari for this crime a day later. In a city that has long prided itself on being safe for women, everyone was shocked by the brazenness of the rape. But then doubts began to surface.
The Times of India ran a story quoting the accused man’s family. Here is some of what it said: “‘Police have fixed him in this case. On that night, he was with me. He brought me home from my parents’ house and we chatted outside our home till late in the night and then went to sleep. He was with me for the entire night, there’s no question of him going to Bandra’, said Ansari’s wife Haseena, caressing their eight-month-old daughter.
‘For the last five years, whenever there is a robbery, police from all over the city come and pick him up, detain him and sometimes arrest him and then release him. He steals, but I don’t believe he would rape anybody’, said Ansari’s mother Nisar.
Earlier, some sources said, when the police had come calling, the family had said he wasn’t home on Sunday night.”
Badshah Ansari, aka Chor Badshah, reportedly has 28 police cases against him. He is a habitual criminal who was last caught barely 10 days ago when he broke and entered actor Dino Morea’s house, also in Bandra, and made off with belongings including a cell phone. The cell phone tracker gave him away and he was arrested, but released on bail.
It would appear that he went on to commit another burglary. And rape. The victim has identified him in an identification parade.
The incident and reactions to it brought to mind a couple of recent articles in Hindustan Times. Professor Abhijit Banerjee, a renowned economist from MIT, wrote a piece that took off from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s comment on rape being somehow linked to public displays of intimacy.
He made this case linking rape to sexual jealousy, and sexual jealousy to what he called unequal access to sex:
“There are few forces more powerful than sexual desire and few forms of inequality more palpable than inequality of access to sex: all the rich guys, to a first approximation, get all the pretty girls, at least if pretty is what Bollywood (or Hollywood) tells us it should be.
Having that inequality being thrown at your face, day in and day out, by a language of the body that leaves little to the imagination, cannot possibly be pleasant if you happen to be on the wrong side of that divide.
None of this should be read as a defence of rape – I cannot imagine that there can be one – or even as a criticism of the shift in sexual mores. I am happy that we have a less repressed society than the one I (and Banerjee) grew up in. But it highlights the fact that there are more forms of inequality to worry about than just money.
What are we doing as a society to reduce inequality of access to sex?”
The economist then went on to suggest that unequal access to sex was partly due to the inability of poor people to afford houses of their own.
This, of course, drew stinging rebukes from women around the world, especially feminists. It resulted in many heated debates on Facebook and Twitter, and another article in HT by two academics – gender studies professor Srimati Basu and English professor Brinda Bose – who had this to say:
“There are many problems here to make us gape and froth. But the central one is this: the currency of this social access, the transactional object, the commodity being flung around, is women. Women’s control of their sexuality, their right to bodily integrity and their rights to mobility and public spaces are notably absent in this equation. In perceiving the public sphere entirely as a zone of male competition, Banerjee’s argument replicates the idea that rape is correlated to uncontrollable male urges – a physical and psychological given, with a ‘men will be men’ sigh of resignation – and its removal must therefore be dependent upon finding more legitimate, socially-acceptable means of satiating them.”
The two ladies pointed out several examples, such as rapes by the military and rapes of Dalits that, “underline the use of rape as a deliberate demonstration of male power for female humiliation”.
But this article is not only about rape, or indeed, writings in the media on rape. It is also about the perceptual lenses through which people view events and issues, including rape. There is a famous quote, usually attributed to Anaïs Nin, which captures this: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”.
Look back to where this story started. When you first read about the rape, you were probably shocked, especially if you are a woman, and more so if you live in Mumbai. However, when the bit about the arrest of Badshah Ansari came, you may have started experiencing some doubts about whether the police had got the right man. If you are of statist or Hindu Right-wing bent of mind you’d probably put aside doubt to trust that the police had their man. If you are of Leftist or Islamist or generally anti-government bent of mind, you’d probably suspect the police had the wrong man. After all, he is a married man, with a little baby, and the police do have a bad reputation for picking up the wrong people – especially when they happen to be poor as well as Muslim.
Your biases would have decided what you believed even though you read the exact same story. Such biases colour views of experts at least as much as they do those of laypersons.
So, for example, in the article by Abhijit Banerjee, the bias is towards a purely economic understanding of the world. The good professor, with compassion for the economically disadvantaged, has gone on to look at sex as a commodity that is unevenly distributed. In doing so, he has made some of the mistakes that Basu and Bose pointed out in their rejoinder. He has also made several other errors.
For one thing, access to sex does not seem to me to be in direct proportion to economic standing. Banerjee seems to forget that there are women as well as men in any given economic class. Poor people in India seem to be having a lot of sex regardless of their housing situations, if the country’s population is any measure of it. Banerjee also misrepresents Bollywood, which has traditionally shown the rich girl running off with the poor guy – it’s almost a formula. So it is not true that popular culture here always depicts the rich guys making off with the pretty girls, though that image has indeed become more common of late.
What he is right about, however, is that there are other forms of inequality than just money. People can be unequal in social standing (think caste) or physical, mental and emotional qualities, and patently are.
So, for example, while gender is a continuum rather than two discrete states of male and female, it is true that there are attributes, principally physical, that are associated more with one sex than the other. For example, women have breasts, men have penises, and so on. Of course there are some men who have breasts, and there are some who feel they are women but have penises, but they are rare.
The physical difference between men and women is evidently a real one. Moreover, the male sexual urge does seem to operate in a different way than the female. Therefore, there are scant reports of women forcing themselves on men, but many of men raping women. The rapes are not necessarily done to demonstrate power, as Basu and Bose seem to suggest in their denouncement of Banerjee. They are probably done because, take away the restraining hands of law, faith and social decorum, and the beasts that reside deep in men assert themselves in those whose internal checks are flawed. Such men then do what they feel the urge to do. It is a physical and psychological thing. And this is not to say “men will be men”, but to say, “men can be animals”.
This is what appears to have happened to in the case of Badshah Ansari, the burglar. His fear of law was already diminished from his long life of crime. He was used to breaking the law. When he found himself alone with a young woman, it seems he didn’t care he had a wife and a child at home. Nor did fear of being judged by some god stop him. There was no one watching, and he presumably did not expect to get caught.
So he appears to have gone ahead and raped her. He probably wasn’t sexually deprived, or seeking to establish male domination. He was just a man with scant regard for law who couldn’t resist a primitive urge.
Feminists like Basu and Bose might say it was his “male sense of entitlement to non-consensual sex that is the crux of the problem”. An economist may seek an explanation in his “relative deprivation”. After all, he is not rich, and his wife is perhaps not posh or pretty, so he may not be deprived in absolute terms but he might consider himself deprived in relative terms.
If you look at the world through feminist lenses, it will look one way. Through economist lenses, another. Through saffron glasses, it will appear one way. Through red glasses, another. Through green, a third. Blue, a fourth. And so on. The objects you are looking at may remain same, but the perception will vary.
The best way to look at the world, in my view, is through a number of lenses, or through none at all. I generally find that Rightists and Leftists, feminists and economists, all have a portion of the truth.
I just wish more people would examine their perceptual lenses. And, perhaps, try changing them from time to time.
The writer is Consulting Editor of The Asian Age, Mumbai. The views expressed in the article are his own.
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