Rape is a political act. It is a means of intimidation and control which function to perpetuate the subordinate status of women and men and now, children in patriarchal (read ‘criminal’) societies.

In Against Her Will, Susan Brownmiller argues that the actuality and possibility of rape has served as the main agent in the “perpetuation of male domination over women by force.”

Now, in India, it is no longer ‘women.”. It includes little girls like Alifa and the 11-year-old girl in Gujarat whose dead body was found in a waste bin with 80 wounds. Rape no longer remains confined to women and to candle-light marches and slogan-raising in market squares.

It has assumed a character that reaches far beyond the gender and sex issue to encompass a larger universe where brutality, murder, burning is no longer a crime that is punishable under law. But the parameters of rape have changed in India in recent times. But let us first take a look at how it was before and is still – elsewhere….

Brownmiller’s account goes back to the furthest reaches of recorded history to look for evidences of attitudes towards rape. She contends that once ‘discovered’ by men, rape has been, and continues to be used as a means to control women by men of the fear it inspires. The total absence of a quid pro quo from the woman who is a victim of rape has made this a volatile weapon the hands of men. She writes: “from prehistoric times to the present, I believe, rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

This essentially, is the “ideology” of rape. The knowledge that women have that the possibility of rape exists, and that they, according to the unwritten laws of society, are ultimately responsible for the acts of violence against them, acts as a powerful form of control. To make this control effective, it is not necessary for all men to rape all women; just a few men can effectively carry it out on behalf of the rest.

Susan Griffin, in an article published in 1971, extended Brownmiller’s argument to include what she calls the justification for the “male protection racket.” With the prospect of rape lurking everywhere, a man could argue that a woman needed protection: his protection from every other man. So “each man could maintain his hold on his women by threatening her with what could be done to her, in the absence of his protection, by the rest of the men.” No woman, it follows, should be without her “protector.” In this sense, all men benefit from rape by justifying and reinforcing their power and control over women.

Rape is one of the many manifestations of violence against women placed in a much wider continuum of socially and politically inflicted violence which includes within its canvas, systematic violations of women's economic and political rights. Society has castrated women in every which way and rape is just one dimension of this castration. A means by which she is politically manipulated to harbour and nourish feelings of guilt, fear, distrust, anger and frustration.

The law, ironically, chooses to harass and distrust the victim rather than give her justice. In all rulings on rape cases, people conveniently forget that rape bears a direct relation to all power structures in a given society. This relationship is not a simple, mechanical one but involves complex structures reflecting the interconnectedness of gender, caste and class oppression that characterises society. If we refuse to understand the nature of sexual violence as is mediated by caste, class, race and state power, we have no hope of developing strategies that will eventually allow us to purge our society of oppressive, mysogynist violence.

The main problem lies in that we do not realise that to grasp the true nature of sexual assault, we must place it within its larger political context. If we wish to understand the true nature of rape as experienced by women as individuals, we must be aware of its social mediations. The high incidence of casteist rape, incestuous rape, marital rape and communal rape in India against the backdrop of a corrupt and tottering democracy, heightening poverty and ethnic terrorism, equals the rape of women in Nicaragua against its backdrop of imperialist violence, against the backdrop of apartheid in South Africa, the racist-inspired violence on Afro-Americans and other racially oppressed people in the United States.

Rape cannot be separated from the larger spectrum of violence against women that could range from ‘simple’ harassment to murder. It is just another weapon in the arsenal that keeps patriarchy alive and thriving. It is the attitude of misogyny central to the institutional structures that is responsible for maintaining individual violence, including rape. This misogyny results in the blaming and the shaming of the victim, two accepted modes of treatment in the South Asian community.

We must recognise that such treatment creates and sustains a deadly conspiracy of silence around the whole issue of rape. It punishes the victim and causes her to bear the burden of violation in isolation and allows the perpetrator undeserved freedom. The end of all violence towards women, including rape, can only come when society, the legal and judicial machinery and the State recognise the institutionalised character of such violence and treat it accordingly.

The equivalent of the word rape in many Indian languages, beginning with Hindi, is balaatkar, derived from the root word bal, meaning strength, in a physical sense. Rape, therefore, is inhuman, because it thrives on the primitive law of the jungle - the survival of the fittest. Rape is mainly understood to be a product of capitalist society where the maximum number of rape victims come from the lower rungs of society, in terms of financial backing, social status, minority status, caste, class and race. Rape could be simplified to mean a criminal act of invasion of a woman’s personal integrity. But within the paradigms of patriarchy, it is primarily held to mean an assault on the legally recognised male rights of possession. The Hindi-Urdu phrase for rape is izzat lootna which literally translates as ‘the robbing of honour.’ Whose honour? Not the woman’s. But the man whose ‘property’ the woman is - father, husband, brother, or son. Documentary filmmaker and human rights activist Sehjo Singh writes in “Crimes of Honour”, in Seminar : “In a rape, the aggressor is a man, the rapist. Te aggrieved party is also a man, the father or the husband. The woman is only the damaged property. This concept of rape informed the ancient legal codes. The Code of Hammurabi, for instance, prescribed less punishment for incest than for rape, since the father owned his daughter. Even today, the non-recognition of rape within marriage is the affirmation of the same unconditional right of the husband over his wife’s body.”

Rape is not an 'act of lust' perpetrated by men who cannot control their irrepressible libidos. Men's motives for rape mostly arise out of their socially imposed need to exercise power and control over women through the use of violence. Most rapistst are not psychopaths, as their cinematic and televised portryals sometimes suggest, but are 'normal' according to the prevailing social standards of male normality.

No analysis of a rape should ever equate the concept of masculinity with an immutable biologically and psychologically determined product of man's inherent nature. Masculinity rather, needs to be understood in terms of its social determinations. The failure of the anti-rape movement in the USA to gather support from ethnic minority groups of Black, Latin American and Native American women is ascribed to its failure to develop an analysis of rape that acknowledges the social conditions that foster sexual violence and the centrality of the power structure that determines these social conditions.

It must be understood and acknowledged that men rape not because they are men per se. All men are socialised by their own economic, social and political oppression, as well as by the overall level of social violence in the country in which they live to inflict social violence on their women, which includes rape. Rape, therefore, is not a simple by-product of maleness. Nor is it, as is commonly portrayed, the result of man's anatomical construction.

Neither does it result from an immutable male psychological constitution. For, if this were true, then sexual violence would not flow directly from official policy.Arlene Eisen in Women in Vietnam points out that US soldiers received instructions for their search-and-destroy missions which included the raping of Vietnamese women phrased in political terms, Rape, as is common knowledge today, is frequently a component of the torture inflicted on women political prisoners by fascist governments and counter-revolutionary forces. The Ku Klux Klan in the USA has used rape as a weapon of political terror.

But Alifa and the Unnaon girl and the rape victim in Gujarat were minors, girls, not women. So, this takes rape out of its gender identity to reach out to a wider world where men are not only rapists but also victims because they are the fathers of the girls who were raped and killed. It was meant as ‘punishment’ because they were the daughters of so-and-so, or, belonged to a different faith or caste or community or something else.

Fear is the emotion that dominates our lives today and this is not because of gender or sex. Men are equally intimidated by fear – the fear of whether their girls will return from school or not; whether their wives will be spared when they go to relieve themselves outside at night, or to the temple, or to fetch water, or to office, the fear of what will happen to the women for what they are wearing.

Fear proscribes who and where we live, what caste or community or faith we were born into or converted to, where we walk, where we park, where we sleep, eat and travel and with whom. Is there a safe place where we can hide, live, and perhaps, begin to dream?

(Photograph of protests in Lucknow, MEHRU JAFFER)