Where are the offenders in our discussion about rape?

It’s high time that our conversations on rape shift from the women to the men who are guilty of raping - focused on their actions and motivations that lead up to the crime

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: IANS)

Divyaa Poonam Gupta

The two cases on rape of girls and women from Dalit community that recently made it to the national headlines - Hathras rape incident last year and the recent rape and cremation of 9-year-old girl in Delhi- got visibilised only after a few days of protests by Dalit and women’s organisations, and the brutality of the issue, that is, the death of the victim through immolation, played the role of a catalyst in their sensationalisation.

In fact, the reporting of both the cases was highly victim-centric, too focused on the details of the event, and spent more time in covering the actions of politicians rather than focusing on the perpetrators of the crimes.

According to NCRB’s data, men rape 87 women (out of these, 10 are from the Dalit community) and 71 children in a day in India. But how many of these incidents make it to the front pages or prime time news coverages?

BBC reporter and author Joanna Jolly did an analysis of reporting on rape by India’s four leading English newspapers (which also set a tone for public discourse on issues in the country) and observed that only those cases are more likely to get reported that check their list of being a PLU, i.e. “people like us”. Hence, it is natural that only those stories will find a space in the news columns where the identity of the victim is similar to the people who actually read those English newspapers.

Incidents that lacked PLU and/or extreme forms of violence have rarely invited any sustained media attention. For example - women from Dalit communities are disproportionately raped by upper-caste men, face more hurdles in getting justice at every step in the system, and yet, these hardly receive any regular coverage in the mainstream media.

Even in the Hathras case, post the death of the victim, various media outlets had blatantly diverted the story around her “character” and her “love affair” with the accused. In other words - they started finding ways to justify the crime.

This kind of shift in the public debate towards examination of victim’s responsibility for the incident is common in the cases where she survives the rape and fights for justice. Like in the recent case of gangrape of two 14-year-old girls in Goa, the entire conversation got centred around the statement of Goa’s chief minister. Netizens were busy assigning degrees of blame to the survivors’ parents, contributing in the formation of a public discourse that was based on shaming the survivors and their parents for the act.

Another major factor is the extent of harm experienced by the victim. Only exceptionally violent rape crimes get reported by the media, or as Jolly posited “has now become a benchmark for reporting of new rape cases in India”. This means that it has to be more than just rape for people to feel the pain of the victim - intense physical assault, the death of the victim, or when the victim is not known to the offender (which constitutes merely 10% of the total cases on rape according to NCRB report).

Despite the pervasiveness of rape crimes in India, only a few of them invite public outrage. The backlash experienced during the #MeToo campaign proved that people continue to subconsciously legitimize rape and sexual harassment as a punishment for “socially unacceptable behaviours” of girls and women. That is why, despite concerted attempts by the women’s movement in these last few years, public discourse on rape, which is mostly influenced by the media and political leaders, continues to be centred around extremely brutal cases of rape of privileged women, hides the identity of the offenders, and relies on excruciating details about the victim and her involvement in the act.

Where are the offenders, their stories, and their motivations? Where are those factors that underlie sexual violence?

Masking everyday instances of sexual violence behind the face of a dehumanized monster, or omitting them from the discussions altogether, takes away the chance to create a sustained discussion on how gender and caste power hierarchies socialise men to feel a sense of entitlement towards the bodies of all women.

Undoubtedly, Indian political leaders have often given statements that magnify and validate suppressed public opinions on women’s fault in cases of sexual harassment. We have a history of absurd rape-related comments by both male and female politicians, wherein women and girls have been criticized for going out late at night, using cell phones, wearing “inappropriate” clothes, eating chowmein, being “dented and painted”, and so on.

Passivity of the perpetrators: The headlines in most of the news reports about rape incidents are written in a passive voice, with the girl/woman being the subjects of the statement, and not those men who have been accused of committing the crime. The absence of the offender from headlines or their passivity in the article result in a situation where the reader is left to paint the picture of the offender on their own. This picture is an often distorted, dehumanized, and an unrelatable figure, and takes away the role of everyday experiences of gender power relations between men and women that lead to various degrees and forms of sexual violence.

Changing the narrative: We often see a dichotomy in public discussions on the issue - either the case is sensationalised in a manner that focuses entirely on victim’s life, digging the details on what she did that led to her assault, or in the cases where she is helpless, the accused are branded as out of the world, hypermasculine “monsters” who have to be hanged.

Both of these are problematic as they fail to highlight the systemic factors that condition men to feel entitled to a woman’s body and those subtler forms of sexual violence that most women face every day due to this strong sense of male entitlement. They skip discussions on unequal power relations between men and women within the confines of marriage and intimate relationships. They don’t portray a healthy image of women’s freedom that is being threatened by the pervasive terror of male presence in public places.

It’s high time that our conversations on rape shift from the women to those men who are raping - focused on their actions and motivations that lead up to the crime, struggles of women in accessing justice, and how can it be changed to ensure prevention through a sustained discussion and fair legal access to women. This can happen with an inclusion of more gender-sensitive reporters in the space of media.

(Divyaa Poonam Gupta is a Development professional with an extensive experience of working on gender related issues. Views are personal)

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Published: 28 Aug 2021, 6:00 PM