India’s politicians have missed a chance to make history twice. The first was a cowardly refusal (save a few individual murmurs) to legislate on the rights of the homosexual community to live as equal citizens, leaving it to the judiciary to intervene. And the second is in declining to make marital rape a criminal offence. In both cases, the absence of courage has been legitimised by that convenient, if rare, thing—an all-party consensus.
First, a parliamentary panel represented by a cross-section of parties declared that the family system would come “under great stress” if marital rape were to be recognised. And now the government has informed the court that the very admission of non-consensual sex in a marriage is to “destabilise it”.
In other words, the institution of marriage is being used as a shroud of silence thrown over the graves of dead relationships. Our politicians would have us use a cosmetic brush to dress up the wounds of abuse and broken trust, instead of the medical amputation that such injury demands.
Worse, marriage as a male entitlement to sex—with or without the woman’s willing participation—is being pitched as a peculiarly Indian value. The government affidavit argues that to accept the idea of marital rape is to follow western countries blindly.
So, forget sex for pleasure; in our proudly ‘non-western’ way we want women to ‘provide’ sex as a familial duty or suck it up and suffer the consequences silently. While our politicians claim to be placing a premium on marriage, it’s actually a premium on sex and a man’s right to demand it at will. No wonder, even judges have sometimes advocated that a rapist marry his survivor; marriage is apparently a respectable cover for sexual crime!
How we judge women (and men) who argue otherwise is revealing. In the last edition of THE WEEK, one of the descriptions used by a writer for women who demand justice for marital rape was that old cliche—‘Feminazi’. The insinuation is that the marital rape debate is being driven by batty old shrews. That this gross caricature of a phrase is given respectability—sometimes by other women—is an indicator of how resistant we remain to the idea of sexual equality between men and women.
We are clearly unaware of our own hypocrisies as well.
How can we laud a movie like Pink and applaud Amitabh Bachchan for the truism, ‘no means no’, when we are not willing to provide that very freedom to women in a marriage? Under the law, even married teens between the ages of 15 and 18 don’t have the legal right to seek punishment if they are raped, except under the broader domestic violence clauses.
How can we celebrate the end of triple talaq—I certainly do—without demanding an end to the normalising of rape within a relationship? Much has been made of non-verbal consent and the mixed messaging that heterosexual chemistry is built on. That’s just nonsense; the right to say no is the autonomy to exit the sexual act at any stage.
How can we want a Uniform Civil Code driven by rights over religion, but not grant women agency in steering their own sexuality? Are we not aware that more than 90 per cent of women who experience abuse do so at the hands of men they know?
How can we support the idea of an intrusive state getting in the way of consenting adults by applying section 377, but keep the state outside the bedroom when there is a violation of body and soul?
A marriage without sex is a good ground for divorce. A marriage where the woman chooses not to have sex cannot be a ground for rape. That we even need to say this is shameful. That we make divorce laws so needlessly complicated, but panic at the thought of a law on marital rape captures our complicated, inconsistent and insensitive responses.
There have been far too many dangerous normalisations of sexual violence. The book Fifty Shades of Grey was one such, using female fantasy as an excuse for abuse. This is, in fact, a pretty black and white no-brainer. Marriage is not a licence to rape.