By Ruchi Chaudhury
“So…Indian rapes. What do you think?”
This question is often and randomly dropped at my feet in London. It comes out of nowhere. We could be talking about why Sichuan Chinese cuisine is delicious when it is suddenly brought up. Everybody pauses to look at me intently, as they all want to know about the rapes in India.
The question is frequent at university. People in the student halls feverishly leaned in to demand – “So tell us about the rapes that happen!” At a Fresher’s Week consent workshop, I brought up the issue of toxic masculinity to discuss rape culture. As you do. A young white man pointed at me as a matter of fact and remarked all-knowingly, “Yeah, you of course have greater insight, because of what happens in India”.
At the Notting Hill Carnival, I bonded with a group of musicians after their gig, and we shared stories about our passions. One of the women was keen to know what my research interests were, and I told her they were about exploring the negotiations of intimacy and sexual fantasy among urban Indians. Her eyes grew wide with wonder.
I was thrilled that she wanted to know more, and so I babbled on,“’Cause, you know, my subjects are middle-class Indians from big cities.”. She nodded knowingly. I went on,“And their concepts of desire are born from the social class they belong to, and are yet so varied…”.
She couldn’t wait any longer to drop this one on me,“This is so interesting…especially now that sooo much is happening!”
I immediately thought that the woman was referring to the current political climate, where the government clashed with youth and women’s groups because of their conservative positions on sexual and gender roles! I thought I had found an ally. Instead she remarked, her facial expression contorting with pity, “You know, like the rapes and all.”
In all the interactions, whenever ‘rape’ is brought up, it does not feel like an honest question posed, or a problem that people yearn to discuss. It is not asked. Rather, it is stated to me. The people involved then feel like an interview panel, where one interviewer hurls a complex topic at you, saying, “discuss!” and the others just watch. As I begin to answer, I notice people’s eyes on me. Eyes thirsting to see how I tackle the question, so they can either get their answers about rapes in India or note how Indian women talk about rapes in India.
What does one mean by ‘rapes in India’? Does the person asking the question mean to enquire how rape, as a universal phenomenon and an outcome of social power dynamics, materialises in Indian society? I think not. It is because of the way the question is posed – “So tell us about the rapes that happen!”.
‘Rape in India’ signifies a stereotyped crystallisation of Indian society as one where rape is endemic, and is the country’s foremost and primary distinguishing feature.
Before discussing the fossilised imagery of India with ‘rape’, let us briefly discuss the popular imagination of rape and its meaning in Indian society.
Rape culture and rape is prolific in Indian society and most Indians are aware of that. It is an issue extensively covered by the local media and is much discussed within different social circles. However, coverage of rapes or rapists by news outlets within the country reflects the power relations between various classes, castes, genders and religious identities. Incidents of rape like marital or kin-based rape, same-sex rape, the systemic rapes and assault of lower-caste and Dalit women by upper-caste males are a sad reality but, more often than not, do not arouse countrywide sentiments as intensely as when urban upper or middle-class women are raped by lower caste or Muslim men. The former cases often, sadly, do not receive extensive news coverage, much less induce much political outrage. They mostly go unreported or unnoticed byy the Indian public conscience, simply because ‘rape’ in popular upper-class imagination is exported to male ‘low-lifes’ or ‘cheapsters’ outside one’s home.
However, constantly being asked to explain ‘Indian rape’ by white Westerners brings to light a different set of politics. It involves essentialising a person or a culture through a white man’s perspective – a perspective that is unmeshed with unequal colonial history and race relations.
Western media outlets extensively report the occurrences of daily and savage rapes in India. It is one of the staple issues about the Indian subcontinent that receives coverage internationally. The story about the ‘holy man’ Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who was recently convicted for having methodically raped his female disciples for years, almost broke the Indian and western media.
As reports about this ‘fake guru’ began to pour in from all sides, with offences like mass castrations, money laundering and murder making the list, it was his sexual exploits that expectedly received the most concentrated coverage by the western media.
Not only that, but all of India’s oh-so-daft religiosity was repeatedly hinted at. BBC News foxily introduced Ram Rahim as ““Rockstar Baba”” to UK audiences, spoon-feeding them irony in double quotes about the laughable and ludicrous case of this god-forsaken, “flamboyant Indian spiritual leader whose rape conviction has sparked violent protests”. As horrific and real as the incidents are, the obsessive reportage reeks of a voyeuristic preoccupation with issues that evoke the historical white man’s perspective of the brown man’s barbaric and sexual predatory nature.
Agents of colonialism and Orientalism, as colonial law archives and academic deconstructions will tell you, were foremost proponents of the ideas that pitted the ‘brown man’ as sexually deviant and innately savage, and the women as oppressed flaccid bodies that begged liberation from the brown man’s clasp.
The repeated fervent enquiries about rapes in India are an outcome of this imagination. Extensive media coverage in the UK of white female tourists assaulted or raped by native Indian men fuel these stereotypes. India is imagined as this sanctuary of sexual perversion where lecherous men prowl to prey on unsuspecting women.
Moreover, (and this is what I find most alarming) it leads people to not think of rape as a dangerously common and prolific violation that can occur in all social-cultural circumstances. It makes people assume – even people in India – that it only happens in India or countries like it in the non-white Global South.
True, rape and abuse is an endemic problem in numerous social matrixes and layers in Indian society. It is also true that most Indians are in denial of this culture of structural sexual abuse. But so are the people that are quick to point fingers at Indians when reflecting about its gross sexual violations. They are in denial about the pervasive and normalised rape cultures that are internalised and perpetuated by ordinary people across the world.
Sociological research on sororities and fraternities in U.S. colleges as well as U.K. universities, reveal a regularised culture of campus rape. Most of the time, young men accused of rape or coercing consent out of female peers, do not believe they did anything wrong. They are unable to accept that their acts count as rape. Why? Because their understanding of rape as a phenomenon is circumscribed to “when a guy jumps out of the bushes and sexually forces himself onto a girl”. Since their alleged assaults on female peers were committed inside private bedrooms, the accused did not consider them as rape.
A recent example of a naïvely externalised perspective on rape is when famous designer Donna Karan spoke out in support of discredited Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein who has been accused of rape and sexual harassment of female actors and employees in the industry for over three decades. Apart from making appalling observations about how those women accusing him were “asking for it” because they dressed skimpily, Karan went on to explain what real abuse is. “Obviously, the treatment of women all over the world is always something that has had to be identified. Certainly, in the country of Haiti, where I work, in Africa, in the developing world, it’s been a hard time for women.”.
This is a classic example of an externalised perception of rape in Western society. The narrative of sexual violation is very easily paired with categories like the ‘developing world’ of non-white peoples, or as colonial accounts brazenly depicted – the sexually primitive and ‘barbaric’ populations. Rape as a universally occurring structural problem does not enjoy enough currency. Karan finds it hard to accept that systemic sexual violation of women occurs at the hands of powerful white producers in the prosperous, sexually emancipated and predominantly white movie industry of Hollywood. According to her, the real trouble is faced by women in Africa at the hands of African men.
Yes, sexual violation and rape in India or Haiti is very real, but to look at these countries, people, or cultures uniformly through the lens that incessantly underlines ‘Oppression!’ ‘Violation!’ ‘Rape!’ is misplaced, naïve and racist.
My visible Indian-ness immediately announces girl-from-rape-land-where-rapes-happen to those that have processed and essentialised India in their minds as rape-land. When I want to talk about my interest in exploring questions of intimacy, they think, “girl from rape-land!”. When I tell people about my project on different narrations of sexual desire, they ponder, “she must know all about rape!”. And when I narrate personal accounts of sexual abuse at the hands of both men and women, they do not want to think about how it’s a relatable universal problem where unequal structures of power and ludicrous gender roles propagate cultures of silence and shame – instead they go, “ah there it is – RAPE!”.
The ripples of this narrative and subsequent imaginations of cultures are felt by us all and in different ways – whether it’s a South Asian young man that gets pigeonholed by others as ‘the creepy Indian guy’, or young women that are watched intently by intrigued peers who ‘really want to know’ what it is like to be a woman in ‘India’.
But the truth is, they’ve made up their minds before I even attempt an answer.
Ruchi Chaudhury is a show creator and presenter at SOAS Radio, London. Her show Sex, Shame & Urban India combines academic research and satire to highlight various aspects of sexual cultures in Indian cities. Ruchi is interested in using new media platforms to mainstream the stories of disadvantaged gender, sexual and class minorities in the Global South.
Landing image: Anupam Kher, Shaheen Khan. Still from Bend it Like Beckham