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Rape a crime of bodily integrity and consent

Srimati Basu and Brinda Bose respond to Abhijit Banerjee

8 November 2012

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[Posted below is an article by the economist Abhijit Banerjee which is followed by a critical response by feminist scholars Srimati Basu and Brinda Bose]

Hindustan Times

t’s time to get real

Abhijit Banerjee

October 30, 2012

The first time I felt the full force of sexual jealousy, I was a gangly 14-year-old watching my crush of the month lean over to take a bite of her boyfriend’s ice-lolly. I have no memory of what she looked like, but I can still feel the sheer intimacy of the gesture (I was, I think, too innocent
to read obscenity into it) taking my breath away for just long enough that a kite circling overhead could swoop down to snatch the sandwich from my temporarily limp hands.

I don’t always agree with Mamata Banerjee but I don’t see what’s so bizarre (as the headline of the India Blooms news story reporting on her statement insists) about her suggestion that the recent rash of rapes in India has something to do with public displays of intimacy far more graphic than the one that so upset me. There are few forces more powerful than sexual desire and few forms of inequality more palpable than inequality of access to sex: all the rich guys, to a first approximation, get all the pretty girls, at least if pretty is what Bollywood (or Hollywood) tells us it should be.

Having that inequality being thrown at your face, day in and day out, by a language of the body that leaves little to the imagination, cannot possibly be pleasant if you happen to be on the wrong side of that divide.

None of this should be read as a defence of rape — I cannot imagine that there can be one — or even as a criticism of the shift in sexual mores. I am happy that we have a less repressed society than the one I (and Banerjee) grew up in. But it highlights the fact that there are more forms of inequality to worry about than just money.

What are we doing as a society to reduce inequality of access to sex? I don’t mean publicly provided brothels — though those are not unknown in history — but just the right to a normal conjugal life. If you are poor in urban India or even middle class and 25, you have be very lucky to have a room of your own in the family home, let alone a separate apartment that you can call your own. I remember walking home from our mutual adda one evening some 30 years ago in Kolkata with an acquaintance who lived somewhere in the neighbourhood, feeling slightly puzzled when he stopped on the way to have one more cup of tea before he went home. It was late, past dinner time so I, naively, asked, “Tea this late?’. He hesitated for a moment and then explained — he goes home after everyone else has eaten because there is no place to sit or sleep till they have all had dinner and gone to bed and the dining area is vacated. He was substantially older than me, perhaps 25 and had some kind of job, but clearly there was no way he could afford to get married — where would they sit together, where would they sleep?

Every evening millions of young men like him all over India stand at the street corners or huddle in tea-stalls till it is time for them to occupy their sleeping spot in the one or two tiny rooms that their family occupies. They watch their coevals go by with their wives or girlfriends, holding hands or cuddling, fortunate because their parents were rich enough that they had a place to go to and be intimate with each other. Do they think of sex and how impossible it is for them to get married? Probably.

A lot of this inequality, at least in our urban areas, is a direct result of our policies. We pay lip service to low-income urban housing, but do nothing about it beyond insisting that tiny pockets of high income neighbourhoods get set aside for smaller and cheaper flats, which are usually just too lucrative to end up with the genuinely poor. At the same time we make sure that most houses can be no taller than a few storeys in a fruitless pursuit of some idealised garden city (is Defence Colony in Delhi a garden city or the world’s most expensive slum?). We don’t build enough roads, and our urban public transport, with some notable exceptions, makes sure that commuting is a nightmare.

All of this conspires to keep the land values in central cities absurdly high and our poor huddled in their hovels. No political party in India lobbies for high-rises because every one of them has a stake in keeping those land prices in the stratosphere — in my old neighbourhood in Kolkata, the municipal councillor (who is from Banerjee’s party), is reputed to get a share of anything that gets built.

None of this, I must repeat, has anything to do with condoning rape. When the khap panchayats talk about getting everyone married at 16, they want to “solve” the problem of sexual desire (not how they put it, but that’s what they are talking about), as they always have, by putting “society’s” interests above that of young women (and men). But that does not mean we do not have a problem.

Abhijit Banerjee is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics and Director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT

Hindustan Times

A risky formulation

Srimati Basu and Brinda Bose

November 05, 2012

Consider the following moment of unequal exchange, as narrated in noted economist Abhijit Banerjee’s article It’s time to get real (Poverty Line, October 30), in sympathy with a fellow Banerjee’s (Mamata) suggestion that the recent rash of rapes in India is to do with an increase in public
displays of affection among our youth: a deprived boy looks on in envy as the object of his lust is claimed by a boy richer in social assets (or better at courting). His “sexual jealousy” is awakened, satiable only by an act of violence in which he can grab the object for himself. A benevolent State, interested in questions of development and social justice, can easily crush this incipient violence if it commits itself to providing “equal social access” for all its male citizens — which apparently translates into access to a room of his own for every young man over 25, so that he can marry and have a sexually-fulfilled conjugal life, and not have to gape and froth at his “coevals go[ing] by with their wives and girlfriends, holding hands or cuddling”.

There are many problems here to make us gape and froth. But the central one is this: the currency of this social access, the transactional object, the commodity being flung around, is women. Women’s control of their sexuality, their right to bodily integrity and their rights to mobility and public spaces are notably absent in this equation. In perceiving the public sphere entirely as a zone of male competition, Banerjee’s argument replicates the idea that rape is correlated to uncontrollable male urges — a physical and psychological given, with a ‘men will be men’ sigh of resignation — and its removal must therefore be dependent upon finding more legitimate, socially-acceptable means of satiating them.

This dangerous formulation relies on an entrenched sense of male entitlement to women’s bodies as empty (or irrelevant) vessels waiting to satisfy male sexual desires. Urbanisation, modernity, or women’s sexual confidence and assertiveness become justifications for men’s refusal to wait for consent before displaying, and slaying, their lust.

One could entertain this line of argument if the terrain of rape in India supported these factors. The touchstone of Indian rape legislation, Mathura’s rape, is a stark reminder of caste-based privilege, of the complicity of State custodians like the police in violence against women, of courts’ determining of rapists’ guilt by the sexual history of the female victim. Every other grisly account, including rapes by the military in the North-east, the gangrape in a West Bengal train earlier this year, rapes of Dalit women by landlords in retaliation against their voting pattern or the use of sexual violence in genocidal riots, to name a few examples, underlines the use of rape as a deliberate demonstration of male power for female humiliation. Judicial opinions of rape claims, in contradiction of the law, have often considered the rapists’ state of mind (for example, ‘the bewildered and/or monstrous rural man unaware of urban sexual codes’), or ordered reparation by marrying off the rapist to the victim, still seemingly with no awareness at all of women’s consent.

Rape also gets coded as a matter of family honour, the ‘besmirching’ of a woman’s name more shameful than the mental and physical violence she suffers. Marital rape, on the other hand, is not considered punishable, and family sexual abuse is almost always unreported, meaning that these ubiquitous private spaces of rape (conjugal beds, homes, families) are invisible to the law. By condoning the West Bengal chief minister’s bizarre (yes, we endorse this adjective which he refutes) analysis that public displays of affection incite rape in roving men who alas do not have lovelies dripping over their arms, and by suggesting that the solution to rape lies in the State providing low-cost housing so that all young men can relieve their rampant lust behind closed conjugal doors, Banerjee shockingly refuses to recognise the reality of domestic sexual violence, and spuriously suggests that married men do not rape, inside or outside the home.

Yes, some men have more privileged sexual access than others, based on caste, class, profession or indeed social skills; but that misses the nature of rape as a crime of bodily integrity and consent. Indeed we are sympathetic to Banerjee’s arguing for equitable access to space across classes, but we would rather like to think of this space as fostering an exciting social and sexual life rather than enforcing a claustrophobic conjugality to keep men off rapacious roads.

The image of the lonely deprived boy ogling the unavailable woman and then raping her goes too far down the garden path to argue for equitable housing, we think — for, unlike housing, health, sanitation or work, there is no such thing as men’s right to equal sexual access to women. In fact, efforts are on to create a gender-neutral definition of rape for the legislature: to think of rape simultaneously as a gendered crime and as a crime that goes beyond gender roles.

So it is the male sense of entitlement to non-consensual sex that is the crux of the problem, and not the presence of women as obscure objects of desire for them, who then need to be trundled off to marital bedrooms for everybody’s peace and fulfillment.

Srimati Basu teaches in the departments of gender and women’s studies and anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Brinda Bose teaches in the department of English at the University of Delhi.


The above articles from The Hindustan Times are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use