Recently in the news: a father in New Delhi, India surrendered to the police because he tortured and then proceeded to murder the man who allegedly raped his 14-year-old daughter; he took matters into his own hands, as opposed to leaving the alleged rapist to pay for his actions according to the legal system of India. The reason might (or might not) surprise you; the father was concerned with tarnishing his family’s honor. It turns out, that this idea of honor is very important in India. Honor determines societal status, and rape is a symbolic demonstration of power that can make or break it (Gangoli,113). This is a motif strung throughout the history of India; from ancient texts, such as the Valmiki Ramayana to news listings on CNN. Because of the prominence of rape in India, I would like to look at what causes it to happen, why it happens, and how it continues to happen.
The judicial system of India defines rape as a gender specific crime in which men can only be perpetrators and women can only be victims (Gangoli,103). There are several factors that constitute this crime:
“If defined sexual acts occur against the victim’s will, occur without the victim’s consent, or when her consent has been obtained by putting her in fear of death or harm. If they occur with her consent, when at the time of giving such consent she was intoxicated, or suffering from unsoundness of mind and unable to understand the nature and consequences of that to which she has given consent, and (or) occur when she is under 16 years of age” (Flavia,53).
With the exception of defining a rapist as only male, and a victim as only female, this law sounds a lot like the one put in place by our United States government. Yet, rape in India is about twice as common than in the U.S. (Gangoli,101).
In my opinion, the issue of honor is deeply dividing. It separates the upper class, upper caste women whose sexuality is controlled by their families, from poor, low-caste women who are independent in matters of marriage, divorce, and cohabitation; women of low-caste are continuously seen as dishonorable, causing women of such status to have a higher chance of being raped, and a very unlikely chance of winning a prosecution against their rapist in a court of law. There is a clear patriarchal notion of women that is conveyed here; if a woman does not belong to a man, the damage is less, however if a woman does belong to a man, the measure of damage increases significantly. This is because women who have been raped are seen as damaged property that had once belonged to a man. This ‘property damage’ is symbolic of a loss or incompetence of power; and thus, when one man loses power, another gains power. Because of this, rape in India is thought of as a crime of passion; being that the motive is for one man to show supreme power over another man (Barua, 80).
While class and caste impact women, there are other logistical factors as well. Overall, the prosecution of rape cases tends to fail because the victim is unable to prove or convince the court that she did not consent to sexual intercourse. In addition, the legal system requires that a victim’s sexual history is used during a sexual assault trial; and it is almost always used against the plaintiff. The facts here suggest that the concern with defining rape as a legal offense was to regulate the sexuality of women, not her bodily integrity (Ghosh, 250). Because of this notion, in a court of law, alleged rapists are being proven innocent, even when guilty.
Demonstration of power is historically how men obtain high societal status; often by dominating other males (which constitutes stealing a man’s most prized possession). This idea is demonstrated in the Ramayana when Ravana kid-naps Sita (Buck,133). By doing so, Ravana exemplifies his power over Rama, leaving him feeling vulnerable, and eventually questioning his own honor (Hess, 18). The act of kidnapping is powerful here because it catalyzes the questioning of a woman’s honor by the man that she belongs to; such as what we see when Rama rejects Sita out of the fear of losing honor and respect.(Kishwar,290).
Overall, honor and rape are connected in a way that deeply reflects Hindu cultural values. This idea of honor is important in India because it is seen as a straight and narrow path to high social status. If a woman is raped, it is considered to be an act that takes away her honor and that of the man that she belongs to; essentially dishonoring a woman is equivalent to dishonoring a man as well (Bhattacharjee,15). The Ramayana is an appropriate source to refer to here; after Rama wins the battle and Sita is returned to him, Rama rejects Sita because she spent time with another man; meaning that she could not possibly be pure. Sita is rejected because Rama fears tarnishing his honor (Buck,390). This is the case because a woman is viewed as a male’s prized possession. When a woman is raped, a man’s possession is taken from them; and being the protectorate of their possession, they should be able to take care of it and maintain it. The inability to be powerful enough to do so is seen as embarrassing, and thus, there is a loss of honor and power that occurs here. Overall, it is the ideals of a woman’s purity and sexuality, honor of the family, and of the community, that makes them targets for rape (Bhattacharjee,16). Thus, most women are sexually assaulted with the intention to tarnish these values.
It is obvious that the male gendered need for high standing societal status has had serious negative effects on Hindu women in India. This issue is one that will be hard to fix, as it’s ideals are ingrained in the fundamental ideas and understandings of generations of Hindu Indians; so, could Hindu society remain functional if the people chose to leave behind such intrinsic values? Or, will women continue to remain in the cross-fires of battling men, serve as property, and continue to suffer for the sake of a man’s honor and for the sake of cultural ideals?
- Agnes, Flavia. “Sexuality, Ideology, and Legal Reform” in A Unique Crime: Understanding Rape in India (Ed. Swati Bhattacharjee, Golabazar Kolkata, Amina Biswas 2008), pp 53-78.
- Barua, Arunabha. Rape and Consent: “A Socio-Legal Perspective” in A Unique Crime: Understanding Rape in India (Ed. Swati Bhattacharjee, Golabazar Kolkata, Amina Biswas 2008), pp 79-91.
- Bhattacharjee, Swati. “Introduction” in A Unique Crime: Understanding Rape in India (Ed. Swati Bhattacharjee, Golabazar Kolkata, Amina Biswas, 2008), pp 9-52.
- Buck, William. The Ramayana: Valmiki’s Ramayana (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp 1-432.
- Gangoli, Geetanjali. Internatinal Approaches to Rape. ed.Nicole Westmarland (Policy Press, 2011), pp 100-125.
- Ghosh, Saswati. “Why Did You Go There? Gender and the Public Place” in A Unique Crime: Understanding Rape in India (Ed. Swati Bhattacharjee, Golabazar Kolkata, Amina Biswas 2008), pp 240-259.
- Hess, Linda. Rejecting Sita: Indian Responses to the Ideal Man’s Cruel Treatment of His Ideal Wife in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol 67. No. 1 (Mar. 1999), pp. 1-32.
- Kishwar, Madhu “Yes to Sita, No to Ram: The Continuing Hold of Sita on Popular Imagination in India,” in Questioning Ramayanas: A South Asian Tradition, ed. Paula Richman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), pp 285-308.
- Unknown Artist. Ravana Abducts Sita, folio from the Ramayana. 1775. Himichal Pradesh, Kangra. New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art 78.256.3.