It is easy to imagine that no one in their right mind would defend marital rape, or plead for granting a general amnesty by treating it as a special kind of socially approved rape. And yet, while refusing to criminalise marital rape, Minister of State for Home Affairs Haribhai Chaudhary rolled out a list of reasons that made it permissible: “level of education/ illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament.”
His statement is problematic because, instead of viewing marital rape as a widespread social problem, Chaudhary pandered to a certain middle-class imagination by demonising the poor, infantilising religious beliefs and arguing that marriage as a sacrament is so pervasive that it sanctions marital rape as a social transaction.
Not many people seem to be outraged with how convenient and easy it has become to criminalise the poor, and associate violence and sexual violation with the illiterate masses. Domestic violence and rape are generally cast in society as things which happen to 'other people', without any attempt to address the dark and shameful things that occur in the sanitised lives of the rich and the middle class.
Further, by saying “that marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied” to India, the government is not merely doing a disservice to women, but it is also portraying Indian men in the worst possible light before the world.
The government was so worried about the documentary film India’s Daughter and the image of the 'Indian man' that would get circulated that it banned its screening across the country and yet, it has no qualms in declaring that addressing marital rape is an un-Indian thing to do. In effect, by dragging the idea of India into this argument, Chaudhary has portrayed rape (more specifically marital rape) as a national pastime.
The culture-specific approach is one step short of publicly declaring: Rape is a classical Indian marriage tradition. One really hopes that the government does not fall into this “it is Indian culture” or “we are different” trap and make itself an object of ridicule. Sorry, raping your wife is not the same thing as eating with your hands.
The other widespread idea that is gaining ground among rape apologists and male chauvinists is the fear-mongering that a possible legal provision criminalising marital rape stands to be misused. While it reflects a complete mistrust and trivialising approach towards the judicial process, it has also been the knee-jerk reaction to any law that protects the victims of abusive social practices.
The regular, rallying call to scrap the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, spearheaded by fanatic caste Hindu organisations and political parties, is based on the allegation that its provisions are misused. But what they want, in effect, is to rob the only legal safeguards that protect the civil rights of dalit and adivasi people. Neither has the Dowry Prohibition Act, or Section 498A, been spared by the so-called men’s rights groups.
Previous governments have pleaded that efforts to criminalise marital rape would put the family system under stress. Voices in social media are already constructing this as a “feminist conspiracy” to destroy the institution of marriage. But it is anybody’s guess that the law criminalising marital rape is not going to come out of thin air, without the work of feminists in pushing for it.
Just as marital rape is deemed acceptable today, less than 100 years ago, child marriage was considered normal in our society. But we have made progress. Our law today recognises that it is criminal to burn your wife alive and also take a child bride, and some day, soon enough, our struggle will ensure that men don't get away with raping their wives.
Kandasamy is a poet, writer, translator and activist.