Much before Abhijit Banerjee became a household name, he had written an article attributing the prevalence of rape, to the public display of intimacy and reduced access to sex by men of a particular section of the society. However, his analysis fails to hold up to scrutiny. In his article, he had implied that sexual violence is uncommon among the more comfortable sections of the society. What Banerjee’s stance misses is the differential position in a gender-based hierarchy, which is probably the most important aspect of sexual violence.
This power hierarchy is a direct result of the patriarchal norms that govern sexual division of labour within Indian households. The idea whereby females are responsible for household and caregiving activities while males are breadwinners, seeks to seclude women from public domains primarily in a bid to maintain absolute control over their sexuality. Such norms are not only replicated in other spheres of life, like the existence and persistence of a labour market segregated on the basis of gender, but also play a crucial role in the reinforcement of the subordinate position of women in households in particular and in the society in general.
Power and control over women
Practices of male bias in accordance to patriarchal norms come at the cost of absolute or partial disempowerment of females. Gender discrimination within families directs the more important resources of education and health towards males and justifies their “right” to inflict violence on women. The adverse impacts of these practices are observed throughout the country in the form of high number of missing women, and high incidences of domestic violence against females. The difference in position in the hierarchy of power is seen at the household level. The control exercised on women is evident from the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS-II) 2011-12 data, where at least 74 per cent of women reported that they need their husband’s permission to go to the local health centre, their relatives’ and friends’ houses, or travel alone by bus or train.
Furthermore, 57.5 per cent women reported that they require permission from their husbands to even go to the local grocery store. When we look into the various aspects of the decision making processes, we see that while 51 per cent of women said that their husbands have the most say in decisions about their work, 73 per cent said the same for decisions regarding the number of children to be had.
The observed differences in power between husbands and wives comes across as unsurprising when we see that 62 per cent of the women respondents in IHDS-II data reported having no say in choosing their husbands. The severity in the imbalanced intra-household dynamics can be appreciated more when we note that 44 per cent respondents said that it was common for men in their community to beat up their wives if they leave the house without prior permission. It is also culturally justifiable to treat one’s wife as a property, such that marital rape is typically used as an instrument for exerting the husbands’ control and venting of their frustration. Further, the Supreme court has refused to call marital rape a crime, with the former Chief Justice of India stating that criminalising it would dismantle the “family values” of Indian culture. This points at the legitimisation of an extreme control mechanism employed by husbands on their wives.
Society seeks to control not only the women of their households but also other women who step into public domain. This is observed in increasing incidences of eve-teasing, cat-calling, groping, stalking, and rape. Women, who step outside in public, are deemed immoral by patriarchal standards because society views it as a failure of their families to ‘keep’ them within household premises. Accordingly, it is their “responsibility” to “punish” these women for their indignation. While the punishment is yielded by the “stronger” sex, both the perpetrators and the rape apologists resort to the common event of victim blaming, where sexual violence is rationalised as justified instruments of controlling women, “immoral” women in particular. Arguments like, the woman was out late at night, she was drunk, she was dressed inappropriately, she was without a male companion, and many more, are commonplace. This dominant sentiment of victim blaming not only robs women off their autonomy, coercing them to be entirely dependent on the “protection” of their male kin, but also punishes them for violating the much glorified norms of our society. This sentiment has been commonly voiced by many powerful politicians in our country. Recently, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand stated his opposition to women wearing ripped jeans.
The patriarchal norms have, therefore, endowed men with larger social capital, and consequently have made them beneficiaries of the perpetuation of the system. This has resulted in them occupying a higher and privileged position in the power hierarchy, compared to women.
Sexual violence and its many intersectionalities
The larger result of this differentiated power position in the society and men’s urge to flex their position of authority is manifested, in the most extreme cases, in the form of sexual violence. Even if we are to accept Abhijit Banerjee’s reasoning that reduced access to sex is a key determinant of continuation of sexual violence, it stands to reason that the privilege that men have in exercising their strength and dominance to vent their sexual frustration is accorded to them by their more powerful position in the society.
Power hierarchy is not restricted to solely the domain of gender. The subordinate position that women are relegated to is aggravated when gender intersects with their other identities like caste, class, religion, and ethnicity. Accordingly, while a woman can be sexually assaulted by a man of the same class, caste, religion and ethnicity, the control and power exercised over the former is two-fold when they belong to different categories. Consequently, if an upper caste man sexually assaults a lower caste woman, it is erroneous to ignore the caste dimension of the crime. Similarly, a situation where a man perpetrates his domestic maid, is an instance of exercising power accorded by both his privileged gender and class position.
A consequence of such violence is that in a large number of situations, these cases are not reported. This is also a result of the status quo which favours upper caste, upper class, Hindu males. Furthermore, even when these situations are reported, being an upper caste man and possessing the social capital that comes along with it, it is highly likely that he will be acquitted for his crime(s), since our society perpetuates the Manusmriti ideology of exploitation of women and lower castes by considering them as “untouchables”. In the Hathras rape case, the police refused to lodge a complaint by the lower caste women’s family against men from the upper, Thakur caste. The administration kept denying the incidence of rape, although evidences pointed otherwise. An event was held in a BJP MLA’s house in support of the accused in this case.
In its default situation, the state, the judiciary and the associated harbingers of justice are naturally aligned against people from disadvantaged caste, religion and class. Similar capital works in the favour of a Hindu man who assaults a Muslim woman, given that Hinduism is the majoritarian religion of the country, as we saw in the abduction, rape and murder of an 8 year old in Kathua as this crime was committed by the Hindus to “drive out Muslim tribes from the tehsils.” The support garnered by the accused in this case came primarily from saviors of Hinduism in India: BJP ministers also took part in a rally in defence of the accused in the Kathua rape case. An upper class man has significant potential to divert his resources to prove his “innocence”. In fact, one survivor who had accused BJP leader Chinmayanand of rape, had been arrested.
Sexual violence is not limited to only men from upper the strata of the society violating women belonging to the lower strata. Often, the case reverses when the power associated with being a male in a patriarchal society takes precedence. However, in these cases, the perpetrators are more likely to be punished, because they do not have the necessary capital to get away with their crimes. The bias in the judiciary is apparent, when easy “justice” is provided, through encounters, death sentences and life imprisonments. This was seen in the Priyanka Reddy case, where the accused were hastily encountered by the police. Similarly, Dhananjoy was hanged even though there was not enough evidence against him. A prime reason that the court passed this ultimate judgement of execution was because he could not afford capable lawyers. In contrast, the judicial system tends to favour the most privileged section of the society, and in yet another display of their powerful position, upper class, upper caste and Hindu men escape their heinous crimes.
It is disappointing to note the implications of Abhijit Banerjee’s comments, but what is probably more problematic and concerning here is the attempt to ignore the role of social norms and reduce incidences of sexual violence to mere economic situations. However, it may not be surprising that such comments come from a student of a subject whose starting point is a rational gender-blind, history-blind, self-interested individual. Banerjee’s prescription against sexual violence is building roads and providing affordable housing. One wonders how affordable housing will address the issues of rape when so often the perpetrator is a person within the household. Analyses of these kinds fail to identify the origin of exertion of control and power of men over women, and the many existing intersectionalities. Consequently, any “solution” put forward with such understanding of the society is incomplete and superficial.
(Annesha Mukherjee is a PhD Research Scholar at Centre for Development Studies (JNU), Kerala. Satyaki Dasgupta is a PhD student at Colorado State University, Colorado. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine)