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Feminist Apologists And Marital Rape

07/05/2015 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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An Indian bride who has her hand decorated waits for a ceremony to begin during a mass wedding organized by a social organization for a hundred couple from the economically weaker sections of the society in New Delhi, India, Sunday, June 15, 2014. Mass weddings are organized by social organizations primarily to help families who cannot afford the high ceremony costs as well as the elaborate dowry that is customary in many communities. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

The refusal by the government to accept marital rape as a criminal act , and to protect those who commit such a heinous crime behind some spurious notion of marriage as sacred, is to embrace the mentality of a colonial past that regarded some people as less entitled to humanity than others. Let's be clear. This stand has nothing to do with Indian cultural values. It has everything to do with a conviction that some people are simply lesser humans or non-humans, while others are superior.

We need to confront the simple fact that women in India continue to be treated legally as lesser humans and that this status is mediated by religious, caste, class and sexual preference. As feminists, human rights and social justice advocates, we have invariably been confronted with challenges from our western feminist counterparts, the international media and international human rights groups with questions such as "why are Indian women treated so badly?" or ` given the levels of violence against women in India is it safe to travel alone?" or "What's wrong with Indian men?"

"At what point do we overcome a past where the mere mention of sexual rights and women's rights in the intimate space, and demand for equal respect of all family members, immediately aligns us with the "evil" West?"

In all these instances, being acutely conscious of the racism and cultural stereotypes that inform such questions and remarks, we have this intense desire to push back with responses such as, "Well we elected a female Indian Prime Minister four decades ago, what about you?" or "In relative terms the rates of violence or rape against Indian women are no worse than elsewhere in the world" or "The murder of women in intimate relationships through gun violence in the US is higher than 'death by culture' of women in India." While each of these statements may be factually accurate, none of them even begin to address the fundamental problem of gender inequality in the private sphere in our own society.

india weddings

If India is one of the 38 countries remaining in the world that refuses to remove the marital rape exception and goes further than most in justifying it as integral to the marriage contract. The abysmal number of women elected to the highest political office elsewhere in the world is of little relevance when confronting this fact. We have to challenge the assertion that marriage is a sacred cultural institution, and expose how such a claim harbours and sanctions violence against women. The argument about culture is bogus -- Nepal, which is self-described as a Hindu kingdom, has made marital rape a crime, and is much further ahead of India in legal terms when it comes to sexual rights and women's equality more generally. Their "culture" does not seem to have crumbled under the weight of inclusivity.

"Support for the rights of the LGBT community and the demand for women's rights within marriage and the private sphere are perfectly compatible with a culture and history of revolution that threw off the colonial yoke."

At what point do we overcome a past where the mere mention of sexual rights and women's rights in the intimate space, and demand for equal respect of all family members, immediately aligns us with the "evil" West or as being anti-national or part of some white Imperial feminist conspiracy? I suggest that it is time to embrace sexual rights as integral to a version of Indian culture that respects intimate relations, and repudiate the charge that it is anti-national to do so.

Support for the rights of the LGBT community and the demand for equality, or women's rights to full human status within marriage and the private sphere, are perfectly compatible with a culture and history of revolution that threw off the colonial yoke. It is perfectly consistent to be in favour of the right to sexual autonomy and also to be a good Hindu (Muslim, Sikh etc) and patriot, just as it is perfectly consistent to be gay and embrace one's religious identity and be Indian. We need to occupy the space that renders such claims as anti-national or threatening, and embrace them as part of an inclusive culture and national identity. Any other stand not only endorses the racist and sexist mindset of a colonial past, it renders the very identity of the nation as well as Indian culture as something over which only a few have a monopoly.

Feminists and other progressive groups must stop asserting their nationalist credentials for fear of being considered anti-Indian. When they do so they sacrifice the revolutionary sensibility that is a part of feminism as well as integral to India's anti-colonial past. Feminism then becomes an architect of a conservative, sexual politics and moral police, rather than a liberatory force. Indeed it is an approach that ends up reinforcing the attitude of some male politicians and their egregious stands on women's rights.

"It is time to condemn all laws born in the crucible of the colonial encounter that consciously intended to establish a hierarchy between those who counted and those who did not."

Every time we polish our nationalist credentials in the international press and global circuits of power in which we debate issues of Indian women's rights, we take another step backward into the colonial era and justify, albeit inadvertently, the continued existence of laws that were designed to exclude a certain segment of humanity from the enjoyment of equal rights. The law that exempts marital rape belongs to this history.

It is time to condemn all laws born in the crucible of the colonial encounter that consciously intended to establish a hierarchy between those who counted and those who did not; those who were legible and human and those who were not. Indian women and men were part of this hierarchy in the past, and accorded a place at the bottom rung of the human chain. It is time to challenge these practices that are now trumpeted as part of Indian cultural values, as not only execrable, but as part of a continuing colonial mindset. We have to be able to counter the caricatures of India and Indian culture in the global and international circuit, without at the same time becoming feminist apologists for right wing conservative forces that are intent on embracing a colonial cultural past that keeps Indian women exactly where they are -- as unequal and less human.

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