Nirbhaya – Why rape?

by Gabriella Sonabend

One year to this day. She was brutally gang raped on a bus in Delhi and subsequently died. Thousands took to the streets in protest, campaigned to change the rape laws. She became the face of a struggle for change, a martyr – but what has changed?

Nirbhaya was not the only woman or indeed person to be raped that night, across India women, children and even men of all caste backgrounds are being sexually abused on a daily basis. Five minutes in a slum in Varanasi can make that quickly evident. Sexually repressed groups of males, forbidden contact with women until marriage, walk the streets in large groups with glaring eyes that tell all in seconds.

Being here has made me realise that it is not as simple as changing a law, there must be an entire mentality change. Rape is not an act of sexual desire; it is an act of frustration and urgency for power. Here we live in a society where although males are preferred and are dominant they have no true power or control, it is simply an illusion. How do we begin to dissect this issue, at what point do potential aggressors become so powerless and frustrated that they are led to behave in such a demoralising manner (towards themselves and their victims), at what point do these men lose their power – their power of self-determination and choice?

It is easy to see from living in Varanasi that the concept of self-determination is virtually non-existent here. From the day a boy is born until the day he dies he is part of a lineage, he takes his place in a hierarchy, he is his mother’s prince but he must obey her command, he must marry the wife she chooses, he must live in his mother’s house for his entire life, whilst he is a boy he may run around and play but he has no contact with females, he goes to a single sex school and is forbidden to be alone with a woman until he is married. This is a society, which favours the male and as a result female babies are frequently aborted or ‘die’ after birth. Consequently, the population is no longer balanced; the number of males greatly outweighs females. This means that not every man will be able to marry and some men will go their whole adult lives having never touched or been friends with a woman (aside from their mothers). I have seen these men around Varanasi, they salivate at the sight of a white woman (because they believe we are prostitutes) they use us for their most inane fantasies (for example the man who masturbated on the truck carrying a corpse as he stared at me in the rickshaw behind). What they learn of foreign women is what they find in pornography, they imagine in the West that every woman is running around freely giving herself to any man who desires her; they are extremely envious of this, this adds to their frustration.

On top of this, although women are second class citizens compared to men and daughters are seen as a burden, (dowry worries begin at birth), the women of India are resilient fighters who are used to doing the tasks their male counterparts are incapable of, they run the house, they work, they keep the family together and in a strange way they are the boss. This adds to the confusion of the young Indian male who is told his is superior but is still bossed around by his mother. So the male becomes further frustrated, he walks around like a pack animal, (in Varanasi packs of men can be found on every street at every hour of the day), they can’t touch women so they hold each other’s hands for intimacy and friendship and in the dark it is well known that many fulfil each other’s sexual needs. Add in the fact that gay sex has just been re-criminalised, (giving gay Indian’s a shame complex), add in the matter of caste (which breeds jealously, insecurity, self-loathing etc)… So how does the Indian male live this paradoxical existence? When does he reach breaking point and need to lash out and assert himself and who does he attack?

He attacks the female, because the female is weak, the female is lesser and so by this logic the female deserves to be punished. He attacks children for the same reasons. He uses rape as his method because it is his most naturally violent tool, it is his most purely destructive and creative method of dominance and torture.

The point I am building begins to emerge as a messy whole. For sexual violence to stop in India the role and status of the male must be reconsidered from every angle.