An incident of public assault and violence (being called vigilantism), in which an activist beat a man for allegedly "raping" a woman and forcing her to undergo an abortion, came to light recently. There are several things wrong with this story, and I realize that as a male member of the human race pointing them out, I might have already prejudiced some readers, but I hope that they will hear me out. Two caveats that I wish to issue at the outset. One, the only facts I know are those that have been reported, and my conclusions are subject to them. Two, I give Ms. Desai the benefit of the doubt, and presume that her intentions were bona fide, and not only to garner publicity.
[T]he man and woman in question had a sexual relationship... The Bombay High Court has made it clear that consensual sex between adults cannot be called rape.
Before proceeding further, I also wish to point out that I support Ms. Desai's recent attempts at winning women the right to enter places of worship. Her approach even in that instance was criticized by some, but there is no question that it was a necessary protest against a social injustice, and a radical step towards reform. In this most recent incident, though, she seems to have perhaps unwittingly fought for the perpetuation of a regressive idea. To top it off, there can be no ambiguity about the unacceptability of her methods here. Neither the means nor the ends can be supported.
What horrifies me first and foremost about this story is to hear that a charge of rape has been levelled against the man. There seems to be no dispute about the fact that the man and woman in question had a sexual relationship for almost a year and a half. The Bombay High Court has made it very clear that consensual sex between adults cannot be called rape. Rape is a very serious offence and not a charge to make lightly against someone. Just because the woman feels angry or cheated, sex in which she was a willing participant does not become rape.
Let us be very clear. Sex can be consensual even without marriage, and non-consensual even with the certificate.
As much as one might sympathize with the emotional state of the woman, knowing as we do how society views such issues, levelling false allegations of rape is unconscionable for more reasons than one. She is hurting the cause of the many women and men who are actually battling every day against an already cynical and prejudiced system, to ensure that this unpardonable crime sees punishment.
As the Bombay High Court had then held, the woman had the right to say no, to both the sex and the abortion. She did not.
A word on the man in question is necessary here. His side of the story is not represented. We do not know whether it was a relationship which fell apart, or he was the predator that Ms. Desai seems to be making him out to be. From her perspective, certainly, he seems to lack both decency and character. Such is the state of these issues that one cannot but be prejudiced against the man to begin with, and I would beg his pardon if I am wrong.
Given this perception, I am surprised Ms. Desai thinks that the woman will benefit from marrying him, especially when he is unwilling. Does the woman have no life or future to look forward to other than to be married to someone with whom she will likely never be happy? But I imagine the heart wants what it wants. Under any circumstances, however, he cannot be called a rapist and should not be subjected to such a devastating allegation.
To my mind, this incident is in an insidious way upholding primitive notions of chastity that bind women in India.
There are also deeper rooted issues at play, which impact the larger movement to ensure equal rights for women. The first is that of sexual liberation. Sex is its own purpose. To imply that sex was had only in exchange for promises of marriage, and that this consent was voided when he reneged on the promise, makes it a transaction. It demeans the right of every woman to be a master of her body, and to own her desires in the way a man does. A woman is not a vendor for a man, but an equal participant and partner in the act.
To my mind, this incident is in an insidious way upholding primitive notions of chastity that bind women in India. Let us be very clear. Sex can be consensual even without marriage, and non-consensual even with the certificate. I reiterate that the pressures on this woman as a member of an unjust society are understandable, but as an activist fighting for the rights of women, Ms. Desai should be helping her stand, head held high in front of people, owning her choices, and changing perceptions of women as hapless recipients of men's sexual advances. Instead, what she is doing is tacitly accepting that perpetual victims that they are, women should be provided with muscle.
And finally the method. This attack was in essence, no different from the public assaults that seek to shame women for being unchaste, except that in this case it happened to a man. Should we applaud this just because of the gender of the victim? When we talk about gender equality, are we saying that men should be subjected to the atrocities that women currently have to bear? There are already enough naysayers out there who refuse to hear the side of women, because they feel that feminism is a conspiracy to subjugate men. Ridiculous pejoratives (such as "feminazi") are being used far too regularly to discredit what is a critical movement for human progress. From the standpoint of numerous men like me, who are at least now looking to actually stand shoulder to shoulder with women, it is already difficult enough to constantly refute them. In one reprehensible 16-second video and her mistaken zeal to help one woman, Ms. Desai has done significant damage to the cause of all women and men.