A Tradition Of Rape

The concept of “sex by consent” will always remain blurred as long as arranged marriages continue in India.

WrittenBy:Nirupama Sekhri
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As rape is currently being discussed as a primary area of concern in India, it is a judicious time to step back and look at what is considered “sex by consent” in India. I think this is a very pertinent question to explore and discuss because sex by consent implies a certain power, control and choice by an individual – and rape divests the individual of all three.

So what is sex by consent in India? The majority of women, rather girls, are married “off” by their parents or families to boys they hardly know. Even in the more “progressive” cases where the boy and girl are allowed to get to know each other, the decision is taken not by the girl or boy. This, I think, has some very important implications.

First, that sex with a person who is almost a stranger is not uncommon and is implicitly accepted. It is not the person but the context that makes the person sex-worthy. I will not have sex with a stranger, but make him wear a connubial turban (or whatever local wedding gear), take the seven rounds around the sacred fire and sex between us is sanctioned! Therefore, when families, or even the police, encourage a girl to marry her rapist it has a cultural basis and endorsement – don’t view him as a rapist but your husband, and voila the defilement is deified, the ruin transformed into respect, and both the lives are sorted out.

Second – this is a point that intrigues me, sometimes humorously, but usually with sadness – what if the girl doesn’t want to have sex, or what if the boy doesn’t? But, there they are, from the very first celebrated “suhaag raat” (the nuptial night), both forced into consummation, eagerly awaited by both the families, with questions of pregnancy starting from almost the first week. There is very little space for the girl to say, “no…please, not tonight, not like this, not again”.

Third, if the girl is unhappy, doesn’t enjoy the sex they are having, or is being forced, who does she tell? Usually – no one. Her parents and family have invested a lot in this liaison. She would feel guilty to jeopardise that, as well as her family’s and her own “respect” in society. Her gentle hints, hesitant murmurs of concern, complaint, to her mother, aunt, in-laws will usually be soothed by, “It’ll be ok, have a child and it’ll be fine”. So, what would be considered rape in many societies is accepted as a “normal” course of filial events.

Unless there is a major shift away from this arranged marriage by the family, unless this very important social, religious and cultural tradition is challenged and overhauled, we cannot expect meaningful debates on rape in India. Women need first to reclaim their bodies and establish their power and choice over them. This is particularly important among the educated, economically independent women of India. They need to realise that there is a direct connection between women abdicating their power of consent for sex to their parents, and men perceiving women as powerless, at the mercy of the man – to do as he likes with her.

Urban, educated boys and girls “following tradition” as they call it proudly, may be protected from its worst consequence. But boys and girls in poorer, lesser educated spaces usually bear the brunt of this “tradition”, with boys being forced into this macho, aggressive role of “taker” and girls in the passive, suffering role of “givers”.

The situation in India is exacerbated by the conflict of the two ends of wealth and poverty, not because it’s changing at the top and remaining the same at the bottom but because it is not changing at the top in sufficiently significant ways. The matrimonial ads are testimonial to this. Highly educated boys and girls, men and women, with “modern outlooks but traditional values” are waiting for their parents to catch the right match.

Leading ladies, like Karisma Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit, will perform lewd dances on screen but then subscribe coyly to this grand Indian tradition of the arranged marriage. Being skimpily dressed is my choice, but having sex is not – that choice is my parents’.

Of course the obvious answer to this is a defiant, it’s our choice – I want a PhD from Harvard and also want my parents to choose a spouse for me. Then it should be clearly understood that it comes with consequences – of things staying status quo or worsening – of rapes continuing at the heart-breaking rate we are reading about every day in the newspapers. Because arranged marriages are about women relinquishing power and control over their bodies to someone else, and about men having to assume that power – to use or abuse.

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