Trigger warning: Mentions of rape, sexual assault, victim blaming
Rape culture is a social phenomenon where rape is prevalent in a certain setting and sexual violence is normalised and even excused by the media, politics, culture, and society. Characteristics of rape culture include blaming the victim, normalising male predatory behaviour through weak excuses such as “boys will be boys”, justifying toxic masculinity, sexualising female bodies, and objectifying them in the name of entertainment and humour.
India’s culture is intrinsically patriarchal in nature and that is the reality that we live in. Our history is tarnished with instances of many horrific crimes against women, that to our failure, still continue in monstrous magnitudes. To state a few appalling instances, a woman who was driving home with her children at night, was attacked by a group of men and raped at gunpoint. To make an already dreadful situation worse, Lahore’s Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Umar Shaikh, who was the chief investigator for the case said, “Our women should not be allowed to travel like this at 12 at night,” in a news channel interview on T.V. He further stated that the survivor should have been accompanied by a man. This rightfully and understandably led to national outrage.
Such cases make us wonder why it is that so many people are quick to find ways to place the onus on a woman and hold her accountable for the atrocities committed against her. Why is it that there is this thriving narrative that a woman would be safer if she were accompanied by a man? What is this really telling us? Is this saying that a woman seems less like easy prey if there is a man present to protect her from harm?
If so, this cannot be true as there have been multiple cases where women have been assaulted when in the company of men or even in public.
Harrowing instances such as that of the ‘Nirbhaya case’, that happened in 2012 testify that male presence does not make a woman safer from violence. In this particular case, the victim was accompanied by a male companion and he too was physically assaulted. In another instance, a woman was raped in broad daylight on a busy pavement in the southern city of Vishakhapatnam. Some individuals took videos, and others called the police, but nobody helped the survivor.
This really makes us fear bystander and public apathy towards violence against women. The company that a woman keeps or does not keep might not make her more or less safe. What would make her safe is when assaulters stop assaulting her.
We often see how in the case of different gender based violence against women, the first line of questioning is regarding what the woman could have done wrong to warrant such behaviour towards her. This sort of crude mindset used to rationalise violence against a woman is not only practiced by households or communities, but also by influential politicians and law enforcement officials.
Such a view was expressed by the Karnataka state Minister for Women and Child Welfare, C.C. Patil, when he mentioned that working women “ought to know how much skin to cover when leaving such workplaces.” Mr. Patil later resigned after he, along with some of his colleagues were caught watching pornography during a state legislative assembly session.
This is simply another way to blame a woman for assault, by policing her body and decisions. Popular questions under this category would include “what was she wearing?”, “were her clothes tight?” and more. In rape culture, women are told how to dress to avoid being catcalled or slut-shamed, as showing any skin is considered to be a sign of ‘asking for it‘ or ‘inviting trouble’.
Influential individuals such as Umar Shaikh and C.C. Patil occupy powerful posts and have the privilege of having a platform to communicate with society at large. So, the danger in people like them making these comments is that not only does it place blame on victims, which in itself is damaging, but it also leads to others adopting similar views.
Such sanctions from people in positions of power normalise rape culture and victim-blaming, adding logs to the fire of an already blazing patriarchal culture of discrimination and violence. Not to mention that people in such authoritative designations are the ones creating and executing laws, and are considered influential in the media as well as the community.
Patriarchal values tend to make men behave with impunity as they believe that it is their right and privilege to be violent towards women and other marginalised genders, states Altamash Khan, a gender studies expert who works with the non-profit organisation ‘Men Against Violence and Abuse’.
The primary problem that fuels rape culture is the unchecked, gendered entitlement men enjoy in patriarchal societies. What begins as the sexualisation of everyday activities, rape jokes dismissed as ‘harmless fun‘, locker room humour, and the normalisation of male predatory behaviour escalates into a social system where crimes arising from the imbalance of gender privilege become reasons to further shame and blame victims.
Rape culture must be investigated and can only be tackled through education, open conversations, legislation, and executive decisions that have a strong, discerning gender lens. The focus must be on protecting victims and holding offenders accountable. Rape tells us nothing about the character or morals of the victims, but rather everything about the perpetrator.
This is what society as a whole needs to keep in mind when we discuss and refer to rape. We cannot move away from rape culture as long as we protect offenders and shame victims and survivors.
Featured Illustration: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India