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 culture. Her 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.