Sunday, 6 January 2013

Rape and the Ideology of the Religious Right

In these days when we are flooded with reports of rape and other savage attacks against women in India, we thought people would stop, at least for the time being, blaming the women themselves for atrocities committed against them. But we were wrong.

Barely a few hours after the ashes of the Delhi rape victim (it is unfortunate that we still have to call her like this - without a name) were scattered over the river Ganges, the leaders of RSS, BJP and other right-wing outfits have come out with their true colours. 

Vibha Rao, a prominent leader of BJP in Chattisgarh, as well as, ironically, the chairperson of Chattisgarh State Women Commission, had the audacity to claim that “women are equally responsible” for sexual offences committed against them.  According to her, influenced by western culture women are displaying their bodies, and are indulging in obscene activities thereby sending wrong signals to men. She also cites proliferation of the internet and women’s ignorance of Hindu epics as the reasons for sexual offences committed against women. According to her the incidence of rapes reported from tribal districts of Chatisgarh, however, are not rape proper but consensual sex - because tribal women are entering into live-in relationship. But Ms Rao has no comment to make about tribal women being raped by vigilante gang members in Chattisgarh as the issue is ‘sub judice’! (The Hindu, January 5, 2013, Chennai). [Ms Vibha Rao has later denied making these statements and claimed that The Hindu had misquoted her. Rebutting the denial, The Hindu has now uploaded audio excerpts of the entire interview conducted in Hindi]

Another BJP leader, Kailash Vijayargiya, a Minister in Madhya Pradesh government, said: “Only when Sitaji crossed the ‘Lakshman rekha’, she was kidnapped by Ravan…If Sitaji [woman] crosses the ‘Lakshman rekha’, then Sitaharan [abduction] is bound to take place as Ravans are out there”. (TheHindu, January 5, 2013, Chennai).

Mohan Bhagwat, chief of RSS which epitomizes the ideology of the entire Hindutwa Sangh Parivar, has another take on rapes against women: “Crimes against women happening in urban India are shameful.  But such crimes won’t happen in Bharat or the rural areas. You go to villages and forests and there will be no such incidents” (The Hindu, January 5, 2013, Chennai). He also wants the women to be confined to their home looking after the needs of their husbands.

Let us leave aside for the moment the continuing demonizing of Ravana, which the legendary Dravidian leader EV Ramaswamy would have found repulsive. Let us instead ask a few questions to these guardians of the ancient culture of Bharat:

  1. Was Sitaji influenced by ‘western culture’ and was she sending ‘wrong signals’ to Ravana through her inappropriate dress?
  2. Is the traditional ‘sari’ an appropriate dress for women to wear or should they now be draped in tent-like purdah that is imposed by Taliban on women in Afghanistan and tribal districts of Pakistan to get foolproof protection against rape?
  3. How does Mohan Bhagwat explain the innumerable cases of rape of Dalit women by upper caste men reported from villages across the length and breadth of Bharat?
  4. Were the hundreds of women and girls who were savagely raped and murdered in Gujarat in 2002 and in Delhi in 1984 were provocatively dressed in western outfits tempting the Sanatan Hindus to no end?
  5. Is the remote village in Orissa, where Sister Mina Barwa, the Christian nun, was raped by 40 men five years back, part of Bharat or India?
  6. Were these rapists and murderers and their instigators insufficiently tutored in Hindu epics? Or are they over-tutored?
In the context of the savagery committed against the young woman in Delhi, many overlook the fact that in many cases of rape the perpetrators are not strangers but those who are known to the victims - including close relatives. Indian Express (January 01, 2013, New Delhi) reports that “according to data from Delhi Police, out of the 665 rapes reported in 2012, 189 were committed by family members or relatives”. Many of the victims of rape are minors.

One should be a mental retard to claim that these young girls tempted their relatives with obscene gestures. Then why is Ms Vibha Rao, a professional chairing an important Commission set up to protect the rights of women, blaming the victims? Is it  because she wants to shield the BJP government in Chattisgarh, which has been accused of protecting the members of Salwa Judam allegedly involved in a number of cases of violence against tribal women in the state? Or was she trying to augment her political career by making the right noise acceptable to the Sangh Parivar? Or is it because due to her long-term association with the Hindu right-wing, Ms Vibha Rao has imbibed the patriarchal ethical values of the party she represents - the very same values of Hindutva that inspire the volunteers of Sri Ram Sena, who imposes moral policing in Mangalore and other parts of Karnataka.

But the data provided by the Delhi Police, I am sure, definitely does not include those rapes which are sanctified by religion and society, where the parents and heads of caste and religions force girls to marry against their willingness. These should also be treated as rape - especially when the girls are of very young age (even if they have just crossed the age limit prescribed by the law) - and punitive action should be initiated against the perpetrators – including parents. Most of the time the girls are forced into such marriages ‘to protect the honour’ of the family and even their caste. This is done to prevent the girls from marrying a person belonging to a group that is outside the limits prescribed by their caste and clan. In such cases the leaders of the Caste-Panchayat too get involved and they force the family to prevent such marriages from taking place. If not complied with the directions of the caste/clan leaders, their family is excommunicated – which is a terrible outcome for a family living in a village. If this is not enough, the caste leaders resort to violence too. [] This is the real story of Bharat proper, which the RSS chief has eulogized in his speech.

If you think this happens only in remote villages where the diktats of clan leaders prevail, you are mistaken. In Kerala, the ‘most progressive’ states in India, for instance, the caste/clan leaders do not call the shots any more in the sense that they do not unleash violence against the family or formally outcast them. However, the clannish mentality has permeated amongst the members of the castes to such a level that they need not require any such diktats. They obey the clan rules on their own. The victims are, of course, as usual, the girls.

I had a close experience of this hold of caste among the 'progressive Keralites' when one of the girls known to me fell in love with a boy belonging to a different caste (rather, sub-caste). The girl was 20 years old, just out of college. The boy (a college lecturer) belonged to a caste which the family of the girl’s father considered nominally inferior to their caste. With the help provided by the modern electronic gadgets (though not Internet – one of the targets of Ms Vibha Rao), their love blossomed. Like most lovers, they hid it from the family in the initial days. But when this was ultimately disclosed, there was a riot in the family. The girl was asked to stop this ‘unequal relationship’. There of course was an age gap of 10 years between the girl and the boy. But that was not the main irritant as far as her family was concerned – that was conveniently brought in only to justify, only for rationalizing, their caste/clan based prejudices. Since the girl was not willing, for whatever reason, to marry somebody without the cooperation of her parents, she gave up. But, fortunately, she was adamant on one thing. She would not marry anybody else soon – even to placate the clannish sentiments of her parents. She wanted to continue her higher education – no further questions to be asked. On this, she stood her ground. She continued her education according to her wishes. [True, this option is still not available to many girls in other parts of India. Kerala, in that sense, can still be proud of its progressive heritage].

About a century old progressive movements in Kerala however has not yet succeeded in removing the deep rooted caste prejudices in Kerala. If it is slowly losing its strangle hold over the masses, it is primarily because of the rapid urbanization taking place in the state - the very urbanization which the RSS chief now blames for violence against women.

A recent court order

Yet, everything is not gloomy. For instance, a recent order by Judge Kamini Lau of a Sessions Court in Delhi gives us hope. We quote the report filed by the correspondent of The Hindu (January 2, 2013) on this important judgement:

Jiby Kattakayam

Dismissing an anticipatory bail application moved by a maulvi, accused of forcing a young Muslim girl into a wedding with a married man who allegedly raped her subsequently, a sessions court here has slammed the cleric’s attempt to take refuge in religious tenets to justify his act.

While the prosecution said the maulvi forcibly performed the nikah, the maulvi claimed that the Shariah permitted a Muslim to keep four wives at a time and that the girl consented to the marriage.

However, Additional Sessions Judge Kamini Lau noted that the girl had not signed the marriage certificate. Her parents were not present, nor were there any witnesses. Further, the girl escaped from the man, who allegedly raped her after serving her intoxicants, the same day. The maulvi getting a stamp paper for the girl to sign purportedly consenting to the marriage was prima facie a “cover-up operation” on his part for indemnity from legal consequences and awareness of his committing an illegal act, the judge said.

Majesty of law prevails

On the Maulvi taking recourse to Shariah to justify polygamy, Ms. Lau said: “The Indian legal system provides sufficient space for religious freedom but whenever any such regressive religious practice come into conflict with the rights of the citizens as enshrined in the Indian Constitution, it becomes obligatory for courts to ensure that it is the majesty of law and the constitutional mandate which prevail.”

The judge also noted the maulvi’s failure to get the consent of the first wife of the man and to ascertain if he was capable of financially supporting both wives and their children. Ms. Lau said: “Jurists are unanimous that in Islamic societies polygamous marriages are permitted but only in certain circumstances, that is primarily in situations where a man's death has left his widows with no means or support… Polygamy is neither mandatory nor encouraged but merely permitted. The Koran’s conditional endorsement stresses that self-interest or sexual desire should not be the reason for entering into a polygamous marriage. It is a practice associated with the social duty of Islamic men to protect the social and financial standing of widows and orphans in their community.”

On the responsibilities of clerics, the judge said: “It is equally the duty of the religious heads, priests, maulvis and all those involved in propagating religion to ensure that the religious texts are progressively interpreted and to confirm that it is only those beneficial practices which are in the best interest of all sections of humanity which are encouraged and observed. However, it pains me to observe that instead, some of these religious heads/priests like the accused are often found to be indulging [in] and encouraging practices which are derogatory and regressive to women (particularly those belonging to the poor sections) which they do with impunity by seeking the cover of religion.”

The judge added: “Any person who is found indulging in such activities which are a moral, social and legal wrong and who exploits a woman by taking refuge in religion has to be taken to task.”


Not only Hindu right-wing, every religion is opposed to freedom of women. Jamaat-e-Islami has also made similar remarks as the ones expressed by Hindutvavaadis. See this news in IBN live:

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