Rape: It’s not all about patriarchy

Does the outpouring of anger and grief after some of the high-profile rape crimes in recent months signal a social awakening? Can a death sentence for the rapists bring closure to the families of victims? Will the ongoing chorus of outrage lead to actual action resulting in reductions in such crimes?   

The answer to the first question is arguably “yes”. The answer to the second is “maybe”. And the answer to the last, unfortunately, is “no”.

Bangladesh’s struggle with rape has of late moved to the centre stage of public concerns thanks to the rise in rape crimes, bringing forth some troubling questions: why is the country failing to check these crimes? Why does a society that, justly, prides itself on strong family values continue to tolerate widespread violence against women? The recent outrage suggests a deeper public engagement with these issues but it also lays bare our inflexible approach to understanding rape, which is still considered a “women’s issue” in which men are by design complicit. This is the only allowable truth about rape in our society.

Recently, I was reading an article that claimed that patriarchy, which underpins the male-dominated power dynamics in society, is singularly responsible for rape and other forms of sexual violence. Rape, in that sense, is an asexual act—“it’s not about sex, it’s about power.” Power over the weaker sex, that is. Proponents of this school of thought tend to view any argument contradicting it as rape apologia. Of course, men remain the primary instigators of physical assault, which is a result of the imbalance of power between the victim and the perpetrator, but is it reasonable to support a blanket condemnation of men? More importantly, does this patriarchy-centred rape narrative capture the total picture?

According to American writer and rape survivor Charlotte Shane July, the contention that rape should be regarded as an “asexual act” has done nothing to remedy this. “Insisting that no rape is ever ‘about’ sex but is rather about an individual man acting on a patriarchal mandate to sow terror by exercising ‘power’ does a disservice to us all.” The point of this argument is that bringing “exclusive” focus to patriarchy takes our attention away from other possible reasons that may exist. How would you, for example, explain the recent gang-rape of a male adult in Gazipur after his failure to pay extortion money? How would you explain the rape of a girl by her father? How would you contextualise sexual harassment by a female perpetrator? What about paedophilia, a psychiatric disorder that is documented in both men and women? Are these crimes and medical conditions also reflections of an ulterior motive to exercise male power? Clearly, there are more layers to peel off this metaphorical onion than just one (patriarchal mandate).

Some years ago, a Reddit thread soliciting stories of sexual assaults came up with startling confessions that offered a profound insight into the minds of rapists. While comments in the conversation thread would at times seem disgusting, they do help you realise that rape is every bit as complex as murder or other violent and non-sexual crimes. The motivations cited by the assailants who shared their stories are many: some talked about getting “mixed message” from their partners, some talked about peer pressure, some thought women were objects for the taking, others blamed it on their biology. Some blamed bad parenting. Some also blamed the internet and bad influences such as pornographic material.

The stories of these men (and women), and the many other motivations that have been known to exist, contradict the conventional feminist notion of patriarchy being responsible for all sex crimes. They also illustrate why, to address the rape epidemic in Bangladesh, it is imperative that we undertake broader research into what’s causing it. Of course, patriarchy, misogyny and other personal motivations are only part of the problem—the other part has to do with external factors including the unique social setting from which rapists emerge.

An analysis of most of the reported cases of rape in recent years would shine a light on a young demographic that is poor, vulnerable, poorly educated, semi-skilled, and high on drugs living in a country that has an awful track record of drug abuse, human rights violations, political unrest, etc. Some of the blame for the rising rape crimes also goes to our criminal justice system: too few judges and policemen, shoddy investigations, questionable trials, low conviction rates. We cannot expect our anti-rape campaign to succeed without recognising the role that these factors play in the making of a criminal—and a rapist. Unfortunately, there is simply not enough debate on this in our existing rape discourse.

An exclusive focus on patriarchy has some unintended consequences, too. For one, it corrupts our idea of a solution. This was illustrated, most recently, by a statement by the bereaved father of six-year-old Samia Afrin Saima who was raped and killed in July 2019. He urged parents to stay “alert” so that their daughters don’t have to endure the brutalities that his had to. “I couldn’t protect my daughter,” he said, “try to protect yours.” As authentic as his emotion is, the fundamental issues underlying his remark are more complex. Firstly, it supports a case for police officials to outsource their duty to provide security to the parents (read citizens) themselves. It also exemplifies our need to feel connected to the victims to be sympathetic: “our daughters”, “our sisters”, “our wives”. This is patriarchy in its most alluring form. Inherent in this form of identification is a tacit rejection of the individual identity of the rape victims. Yes, a female victim is certainly someone’s daughter or sister, but this is NOT why raping her is wrong.

A unique protest in Jaipur, India about two years ago saw four girls standing on the roadside with some posters in their hands, which read: “Come on, rape me please, because I ain’t anybody’s sister”, “I am waiting to be gangraped, because my husband isn’t waiting for me at home,” “Can anybody tear off my mini-skirt and make me naked? My father won’t feel ashamed of me.” As provocative as the message of these four girls is, this is a powerful statement against people’s tendency to ascribe value to victims through their relations with the male members of society.

Another unintended effect of the exclusive focus on patriarchy is increasing the vulnerability of the victims, who are often forced to believe that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. Charlotte Shane July, while debunking this “mythology” of rape’s status as the ruination of all who go through it, posits that by promoting this belief, we inadvertently establish a fantasy of absolute male sexual power and absolute female vulnerability. “We are, in essence, honouring the timeless belief that a woman’s worth, self-respect, and ability to function within society are dictated exclusively by the sexual use of her body,” she said. This probably does a more lasting damage to a rape survivor than the actual act of rape.

Unfortunately, our society is still unable to address rape with the clarity and sobriety that the topic deserves. Unless we address rape in all its permutations—and not just within the context of patriarchy—no amount of outrage will help to reduce it. It is, therefore, important that we approach the problem with an open mind and not exacerbate it with our own narrow figuration of rape. Also, it’s important that we recognise that rapists are not some vile agents of patriarchy hiding in the bushes to strike but rather ordinary people with discernible motives. Of course, there is no denying the cataclysmic impact of patriarchy on our society. But there is also no denying the importance of fostering frank, honest conversations about sex—and sexual assaults—in non-generalising and non-victimising terms. Only then can everyone take part in the conversation and possibly find a solution that actually works.


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