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It’s not “banter”

Tarun_tejjpal_goa_360x270_tt2Arti Dhar

I am grateful to my former class fellow Ms Arti Dhar for writing this article which talks about a very serious issue of sexual harassment. She has drawn attention to the way society trivializes many “less obvious” forms of sexual misconduct by men and in doing so augments the prevalent misogynistic cultureHer focus is on the spree of recent cases including the Tejpal case.   Regards Raza Habib Raja

A woman overhears a male friend talk about her breasts with a group of his friends – describing them, ranking them, sexualizing them. He calls it banter. Another man shares intimate, private photos of his former girlfriend with friends without her knowledge. It’s another instance of just a joke; just “guy banter.” A seventeen year old girl tries to ward off her older cousin’s hands groping her buttocks. Yet again, it’s just familial banter. A woman shares a few drinks with a colleague in a bar. A little while later, she is trying to dissuade him from kissing her, grabbing her. For him, it’s just friendly banter. And finally, a male boss forcibly performs oral sex and finger penetrates his young female colleague in an elevator. His reaction: it was just banter.

The women in the first four stories are my friends and countless other women who have had similar experiences. The woman in the last scenario is the victim of Tarun Tejpal, founder and former editor-in-chief of Tehelka, a news organization that in many ways pioneered investigative journalism in India. Tehelka is known for its groundbreaking exposes on cricket match-fixing, corrupt government officials, and the role of extreme right-wing Hindu political parties in the 2002 Gujarat riots. At its helm has been Tejpal, once regarded as India’s most feted journalist. And ironically a man known for championing the feminist cause.

I am by no means equating the degrees of criminality in the five stories. I am, nonetheless, suggesting that all five men are responsible for perpetuating a highly misogynistic culture in India.

The men in the first two stories are a very familiar sight. After all, lewd and demeaning chit-chat about women’s bodies is a ubiquitous topic of conversation for many men. And yes, these chit-chats often include fantasies of sexual violence.

Words are powerful. And in this context, they carry cultural assumptions and normalize unequal power relations between men and women. So let me be clear: Misogynistic language and objectification of women’s bodies breeds a culture that renders women vulnerable to assault, be it verbal or physical. It is the first step, but a step nonetheless, in a scale that can easily spiral downwards towards sexual assault. In India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes. So yes, I am sick and tired of men, and women, who time and again defend every sexist innuendo, every chauvinistic act as “banter.”

This is why Tarun Tejpal’s excuse of “drunken banter” for raping his colleague strikes a deep chord. In our society, sexual crimes committed by men, ranging from verbal to physical, often tend to be explained away as “mistakes” or “momentary indiscretions.” This is what Tejpal attempted to do as well. In his emails to the victim and managing editor of Tehelka, Tejpal used various trivializing terms to describe the rape, including “sexual liaison,” “light-hearted bantering,” “a moment of insanity,” and “an awful misreading of the situation.”

In contrast, the victim’s email portrays a determined man who raped her on two consecutive days despite her pleas against it while reminding her of the unequal power dynamic between them. This is especially striking because it is often said that rape is rarely about sex. It is, as articulated by the journalist in a recent statement as well, usually about power, privilege, and entitlement.

Simone de Beauvoir argues that that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” De Beauvoir distinguishes between sex and gender and dismisses the essentialist assumption that physiology determines women’s social existence. Instead, as Judith Butler further extrapolates, gender identity should be understood as an “active process of embodying certain cultural and historical possibilities.” Within this context, it is easier to understand how women’s bodies become sites of patriarchal power and why sexual violence is not limited to only certain sections of society. A pervasive patriarchy does not discriminate based on age, geography, socioeconomic class or intellectual class. That is why stories of horror emerging from India range from Manorama who was raped and mutilated by soldiers in Assam in 2004, and Soni Sori, an Adivasi school teacher who suffered custodial rape in rural Chhatisgarh in 2011, to Jyoti Singh Pandey, a young medical student gang raped and murdered by a group of working-class men in a Delhi bus in 2012, and a journalist who was raped by an ‘intellectually enlightened’ editor of a leading newspaper in 2013.

De Beauvoir’s writings also help us resist the orientalist temptation of reducing India’s epidemic of sexual violence to simply an “Indian cultural problem,” whereby men, brown men to be more specific, still treat women barbarically and have no idea of women’s rights or equality.  The United States’ statistics on sexual violence are dismal. Yet, we do not diminish them to a level where the cause is simply the “American culture.”

The root of widespread sexual violence is not an inherent cultural problem.  Instead, they are a result of prolonged institutional failures – both educational and law-enforcement. A recent U.N. study in Asia delved into why men rape. One of the questions they asked the rapists was “why?” Disturbingly, their top reasons ranged from “recreation” to “a sense of sexual entitlement.” This behavior, this sort of thinking can be and has to be prevented. Trivialization of everyday misogynistic banter needs to be restrained. It is critical that boys and girls from a very young age learn and talk about sex and gender, about power and sexual relationships. Another important institutional reform necessary is in law enforcement. Rape victims in India have to experience an outdated and insensitive justice system – be it the hostile police, shoddy medical care or delayed prosecutions. It is essential to create processes that make it easier for women to come out and hold their perpetrators accountable.

As we approach the one year death anniversary of Nirbhaya, we see glimmers of hope. The young Tehelka journalist who chose to speak out is a glimmer of hope. The young Dalit school girl who refused to withdraw rape allegations against a higher-caste boy in a Haryana village, despite intimidation, is a glimmer of hope. Redefining of rape laws to include harassment and stalking is a glimmer of hope. Vishakha Guidelines that finally addresses workplace sexual violence is a glimmer of hope. Another very important glimmer of hope is “Be That Guy,” a new campaign that is trying to reimagine what we have come to understand as “masculinity.” It encourages men to challenge a misogynistic masculinity. For example, objectifying women, “scoring” with women, or concealing emotions do not make you more of a “man.”

While the young journalist and the Haryana school girl give us hope, we still have a long way to go. The fact still remains that only a dismal 4 out of 10 rapes are reported in India. Marital rape is yet to be recognized as “rape.” Everyday discourse on women is far from acceptable. There has to be a greater momentum to the movement that seems to have begun, albeit slowly. We as a society need to stop reacting only when rape occurs. If we are serious about eradicating misogyny in India, we need to start reacting to a whole range of acts that enable rape. This is the only way new societal and cultural norms can be established.

Feminism has never been a movement against a specific group, a specific oppressor. It has, instead, been a movement against a deeply entrenched set of beliefs that exist in every society. At its very essence, feminism is about equality – that women be treated as men’s intellectual, moral, and legal equals. Therefore, noticing everyday sexism or sexist “banter” and challenging it is as important as supporting a friend or a complete stranger who is an assault survivor. It’s not merely about condemning an incident of rape reported in the media. It’s an everyday commitment.

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20 Responses to "It’s not “banter”"

  1. Imtiaz Pakistan Safari iPhone says:

    Extremly well written. It is not a normal run of the mill article rather it is very well researched and articulated.

  2. Sharmeen Zia Pakistan Mozilla Windows says:

    Hits the nail on the head. It is so shameful the way society dismisses so much as just a “joke” where in reality it is merely contributing to an already entrenched mindset. The following paragraph is brilliant

    ” Words are powerful. And in this context, they carry cultural assumptions and normalize unequal power relations between men and women. So let me be clear: Misogynistic language and objectification of women’s bodies breeds a culture that renders women vulnerable to assault, be it verbal or physical. It is the first step, but a step nonetheless, in a scale that can easily spiral downwards towards sexual assault. In India, a woman is raped every 20 minutes. So yes, I am sick and tired of men, and women, who time and again defend every sexist innuendo, every chauvinistic act as “banter.”

  3. Afzal Pakistan Internet Explorer Windows says:

    It is a brilliant piece. Although it has highlighted cases in India but one can easily find parallels in my own country. I am in 50s and yet I have seen men of my age cracking jokes in the office ( which are audible also) with respect to women.
    The author makes a pertinent point that it is not just a very volatile crime such as rape which should be noticed rather our focus should also be on less volatile but equally dangerous sexist jokes and remarks which contribute towards promoting violence against women.

  4. Mohan United Arab Emirates Google Chrome Windows says:

    ” At its helm has been Tejpal, once regarded as India’s most feted journalist. And ironically a man known for championing the feminist cause.”
    This is the reason everyone, except self proclaimed secularists/liberals, are very angry with him

  5. dawn Germany Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Those who try to hurt hindus in India will be led by their bad karma to do such things.

    Hindus have been hurt over the past many centuries by muslims and other imperialists and hence anyone who hurts them anymore will be landing in trouble.

  6. PMA United States Google Chrome Windows says:

    Narendra Modi’s call to ‘debate’ Kashmir status
    India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi, addresses supporters during a rally in Jammu, India, Sunday, Dec.1, 2013.
    Narendra Modi is the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate for next year’s election. Media in India are discussing the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s call for a “debate” on the special status given to Indian-administered Kashmir.

    Mr Modi recently said there was a need to assess the benefits of Article 370 of the Indian constitution. The article grants special autonomous status to Indian-administered Kashmir. The BJP has traditionally opposed the special status given to Kashmir Valley, but Mr Modi’s remarks signal a possible “dilution” in the party’s stand.

    “The BJP’s stated position all along has been to scrap the provision so Mr Modi’s remarks have created speculation that the party may be having a rethink on the subject,” the Hindustan Times says.

    The Indian Express wonders if the BJP leader is “moderating his party’s position on Article 370, or reiterating it”? “It is possible that Mr Modi’s offer of a ‘debate’ on Article 370 was not intended as an open question, after all, but to reassert the party’s position on the article as one that undermines the organic unity of India, and to foreclose the other view,” it further says.

    The BJP later said there was no change in its stand on the issue. The Asian Age also feels Mr Modi has not taken a different line. “While he sought to give the impression that he wanted to initiate a debate on whether this provision should remain or go, he also pointed to what he considered the downside of continuing with this clause that enabled the smooth integration of the former princely state with the Indian Union. Mr Modi made it clear, therefore, which side of the debate he was on,” the paper says.

    The Times of India, however, sees Mr Modi’s call for a debate as “a much more sensible and desirable position” compared to his party’s opposition to the Article 370.

  7. Mohan United Arab Emirates Google Chrome Windows says:

    Pakistan keenly watching Modi’s campaign with high hopes of better trade relations [
    KARACHI: Pakistan is closely watching the high-decibel campaign for India’s general elections, and Narendra Modi has surprisingly emerged as the favourite candidate for many across the border who want peace and trade with India.

    A cross section of people ET spoke to in Pakistan recalled AB Vajpayee’s historic bus journey to Lahore and believe that a Modi-led government in India may augur well for Indo-Pak ties. They believe that Modi, who boosted trade and investment in Gujarat, may also push
    to Indo-Pak trade
    “There may be a perception that BJP is extremist and against Pakistan. But when they were in power, they made Indo-Pak relations a priority. We are hopeful that Modi would take Vajpayee Sahab’s initiative further,” said Kishwer Zehra, member of National Assembly of Pakistan. Politicians, businessmen, activists, academicians, and editors in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi resonated this sentiment.

    Read more at:

  8. Vijay Goel India Internet Explorer Windows says:

    I for one am 1000% against any form of female harassment or violence against women but am 100% in favour of friendly banter, some flirting, Nok Jhok all leading to Romance literature and adding color to all our lives. And by God’s grace that for every one person believing or practising the former there are at least 1000 persons practising the latter. God has made this world where for every thing of beauty there is always something which can turn that beauty into an abhorring ugliness. The more well adjusted a person the more balanced he is. while rightly strongly opposing any kind of stalking or troubling women with unwanted attention we should also allow some space for the sparkling and energising mixing of sexes with a hint of sexuality thrown in. The society is so structured that it is usually the male who has to make the first advance and then left to interpret the innuendos and double speak of the female. the females resort to the subterfuge because they are not sure of the male’s intentions and God forbid if they have some respect for the man a real game of hide and seek results where the man is not sure whether it is respect,or just courteous behaviour or some liking also thrown in. I have no idea what happened between Tarun Tejpal and his assistant and would not like to make a judgment. But what could happen in one minute of lift ride. I hope the veil is lifted so that a rational judjment can be made.
    In the end I would just like to add one quotation, “The women would be the most delightful creatures in this world if in falling into their arms one did not fall into their hands.”

  9. kaalchakra United States Google Chrome  GT-N8013 Build/JZO54K) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/31.0.1650.59 Safari/537.36 says:

    Goel Sahib, Tejpal has done tremendous service to the Congress by going after tha BJP leaders. Quite a shame really that fanatical right-wing forces have gotten to him based on very little evidence.

  10. Vijay Goel India Internet Explorer Windows says:

    My dear Kaal Sahib for once why can’t we forget politics for a while and have some light hearted (We cannot have a serious debate on a subject which has been mysterious for thousands of years)debate on Man Women relationship.

  11. Mohan United Arab Emirates Google Chrome Windows says:

    Tehelka is a classic example of how an ‘ORGAN’ can bring down an ORGANisation

  12. Vijay Goel India Internet Explorer Windows says:

    Well Mohan chitchor don’t forget Sita brought down lanka, Draupadi brought down the Kaurav empire and her an Organ Standing up for its rights (Forgive the pun LOL) has only brought down an organisation.

  13. Tajender United States Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Sita was an ancient Indian woman who was a slave of men. To gain her freedom, Brahmin Sita seduced Ravan. Islam made all women free for the first time in history.

    These problems would not exist if women followed Allah’s commands. No sexual harassment exists in Saudi Arabia. All three of my wives are very happy and inshallah they will welcome their fourth sister soon. I strongly support women’s freedom and rights in India.

  14. MAGGU India Chrome for iOS iPad says:

    That’s KAAL writing under tajender’s nom de guerre

  15. Tajender United States Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    LOL…yes…I was missing my friend. I hope he returns soon. PTH, I am sure we will all agree, is so boring without him. :(

  16. heavy_petting United States Google Chrome Windows says:

    Gandhi said (as Saad reminded us), hate the sin but kiss the ass of the sinner. People should give a break to Tejpal who may have been just the sinner (if you believe in the right wing conspiracy against him).

  17. romain United States Google Chrome Windows says:


    You guys are are precisely what this author had in mind while writing this article. Needless to say I am sorry to see all this banter.

    Please keep it up!!!

  18. Elen Nepal Google Chrome Windows says:

    Great article, I agree with most points. However, you say: “The United States’ statistics on sexual violence are dismal. Yet, we do not diminish them to a level where the cause is simply the “American culture.” Unfortunately a lot of people, particularly in South Asia and other non-Western places, DO state that these things are a product of American, or Western (not that the two are synonymous) culture.

  19. AKB Pakistan Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Is anybody missing Maggu or is it just me??

  20. bata European Union Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I go to see every day a few web sites and sites to read articles or
    reviews, but this weblog provides quality based

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