Women: Property or Human Beings?On March 12, 2023 by Rithika Fernandez
Reading the newspapers daily is an integral part of a morning experience. Breakfast, tea, family and the crossword puzzle while reading through the news are what you expect to get.
What I did not expect to become a part of my daily routine was the kind of news I encountered. Day after day, I’d see yet another headline about rape. While the details of each case might vary, there is no dearth of such cases in our country.
And yet, how is it that these same cases pop up day after day, for years on end? To understand this better, looking into the history of rape as a crime and the laws that lie in place to prevent it or/and punish it will be helpful.
Rape as a crime has a long and fraught history. It first originated as an aspect of property laws, where women were seen as the property of the men in their lives. It has since shifted to a sexual crime and a crime against bodily autonomy.
It is also important to note the history of rape as an act of war. Rape has been seen as and continues to be seen as an act of war, a weapon and means of humiliation. There are countless cases of the same happening. Within India, one can look back at the riots and bloodshed post-Partition.
More recently, one only needs to look at the rise of communal tensions within the country and the way rape has been used in the same. Women’s bodies are always seen as the site of a family’s honour, and while it may be cloaked in the language of respect, it is rooted in the view that women are men’s most precious objects and property.
Rape is used as a weapon not to harm the woman in question. Its primary objective is to attack the honour of the family and community to which she belongs, and the usage of the word belong is very intentional. Women’s rights are non-negotiable and they have full and complete rights over their own bodies, but is this only on paper? How much of this is reflected in laws and the way courts treat such cases and women?
Let us look at the problem of marital rape. This has been a keenly followed issue, as many women’s rights groups and NGOs have been working towards the criminalization of marital rape. Rape is defined as forcing someone to have sex when they are unwilling, using violence or threatening behaviour.
This action is a crime. However, the same action, when performed with the sanction of marriage, is not. It is interesting to note that in response to the PIL (Public Interest Litigation) filed in the Delhi High Court, one of the justices was against criminalising marital rape because “forced sex with a husband does not provoke the same sense of violation as forced sex with a stranger.” Why? What changes here? This is because socially, men are seen to have the right to have sex with their wives, no matter how unwilling they might be. This is because ultimately, women’s bodies are still seen as the property of the men in their lives.
The attitude people have to women’s bodies, clothing and behaviour, in general, is also important. To have been raped, or assaulted, one has to be a ‘good victim’. This is someone who shows proper remorse and outrage, who dresses modestly, who protests just the right amount, and who seems sufficiently sad afterwards.
There have been cases where the claim of assault or rape has been dismissed, or the accused acquitted because the victim did not seem like ‘enough of a victim’. There seems to be a baseless connection drawn between the way a woman dresses and the legitimacy of her claim. Women are also made to feel responsible for their own assault. Very often, people say, ‘
Oh, she was asking for it,’ based on how a woman dresses, whether she drinks, whether she smokes and whether she has friends of the opposite sex among other things. While she did not in fact ‘ask for it’, what makes people so entitled to decide what happens in a woman’s life? Yet again, this can be traced back to the idea of women as property.
Many people, be they judges, friends or family, feel entitled to tell women, victims, even the terms of forgiveness they should set. Many courts have dismissed rape charges if the rapist agrees to marry his victim. One court acquitted a rape case on the condition that the victim ties a ‘rakhi’, a bracelet symbolising a sibling relationship, for her rapist.
This shows an entitlement to dictating and controlling every aspect of a woman’s life, with a callous disregard for the trauma she may have, or the suffering she has gone through. Forget the right over her body, she barely has the right to her own life. While in theory, a woman has rights over her body, in practice, she cannot even choose her own clothes without fear for her life.
To change this, education and deep-seated social change are the only way forward. Awareness and actively combating thought processes that promote thinking of women as property are the only way to move forward with this, and while this is a slow process, it is the only one that promises lasting results.
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