Trigger Warning: mentions of sexual assault, violence against women, casteism, and sexism.
Manisha Valmiki, a 19-year-old Dalit woman, was allegedly raped by four upper-caste men on September 14, in Hathras district of Uttar Pradesh.
She was grievously injured and had multiple fractures and injuries. She lay in the normal ward of a hospital for more than a week and was later shifted to the ICU. She was then taken to Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital. She breathed her last on September 29, Tuesday, after fighting for her life for two weeks.
Without the consent or presence of her family, the police cremated her body on September 30 at 2:30 AM. Her attackers have been arrested and a fast-track court has been set up to hear the case.
Rape culture is not just about sexual violence itself, but about cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, shame victims, and demand that women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault. Rape culture pressures women to sacrifice their freedoms and opportunities to stay safe because it puts the burden of safety on women’s shoulders, and blames them when they don’t succeed.
It would seem like an obvious point that rape should be prevented by punishing rapists and making India safer for women. Traditionalists tend to argue that the right response to rape is to restrict women’s freedom, for example, by forbidding them from the social spaces that traditionalists believe lead to rape.
A BJP MLA from UP’s Ballia on October 3, Saturday said that it’s the duty of all mothers and fathers to imbibe good values in their daughters and bring them up in cultured environments to stop incidents of rape. This is a prime example of the conservative social mindset, which immediately blames the victims.The regressive narrative goes as follows—why was she improperly dressed? Why was she in the wrong place at the wrong time? And so on.
Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju, in a social media post condemning the incident, stated sex to be a ‘natural urge in men’ and claimed unemployment as the lead cause of rising rape cases in the country.
Unemployment doesn’t impair a man’s ability to differentiate right from wrong. His post portrayed men as animals whose urges, if not satisfied, justifiably would force themselves on non-consenting women. Rather than denouncing such men, he seems to have shifted the burden of blame from the rapist to other societal problems.
Such stereotypical, false beliefs that justify sexual aggression and trivialize the seriousness of sexual violence have a negative impact on survivors, serving as a silencing function for those who wish to share their narrative.
Why do the castes of the victim and rapists matter?
A lot of us in urban India are distanced from the realities of the caste system in our society. While every woman in India is a victim of the patriarchy, Dalit women’s struggles are further compounded by the caste hierarchies that exist in Indian society. Data from the 2016 National Crime Records Bureau suggest that about 4 Dalit women are raped every day — this number is likely to be far higher because most crimes against Dalit women go unreported and don’t figure in the official data.
In the incident that happened at Hathras, the four accused were all ‘upper’ caste men. The power they held in their village because of their caste and gender allowed them to commit the act with complete impunity. Sexual violence, in such instances, is used not just because the criminals want to satisfy their sexual urges, but as a means to assert their dominance in society. Victims often do not report these crimes due to fear of backlash from the rest of the village which is controlled by upper caste people. Even in the rare cases where they do report the crime, the state institutions are often complicit. The police often do not lodge complaints either because they themselves belong to upper castes, or they fear that the villagers would retaliate against them. The local courts too are biased in favour of the upper caste men, meaning that the verdicts take a really long time, and the accused are often set free.
The castes of the victims and the rapists thus play a crucial role in perpetuating the cycles of violence against these women.
Unless we recognise the role that caste plays in gendered violence, we will never be able to change the situation. Looking at sexual assault purely through the lens of gender doesn’t just ignore the reality of the issue, but also prevents us from solving the underlying cause of the problem.
What is the way forward?
The incident in Hathras has caused outrage all over the country with numerous protests demanding justice for the victim. While these protests play a significant role in creating awareness about the incident, and in holding those in power accountable, it’s important to make sure that this case isn’t seen in isolation. What happened in Hathras is a consequence of the rape culture and caste hierarchies that have been ingrained in our society.
The problems with the rape culture in India are extremely complicated and it would be dishonest to claim that one article can detail the solutions to it. However, a good place to start would be to accept that most of these problems are deeply rooted in our culture.
Ending the rape culture in India means not just punishing criminals but also changing the societal perception of how women must be treated. It involves educating men about consent instead of telling women to cover up when they step out, and calling out problematic behavior in everyday interactions. Most importantly it comes with an understanding of the ways in which other factors like caste and class further influence the gender hierarchy.
Not only do we need laws and legislation but we also need to redefine masculinity and start an open conversation about sex education and consent. The journey towards making India a safer country for women starts with us. It’s our duty to educate those who need it.
Written by Abha Deo and Sudarshan Sivakumar for MTTN
Edited by Rushil Dalal for MTTN
Featured image from thequint.com