Is there a rape culture in Assamese society?

Crimes against women in India have seen a rise from 3,29,243 in 2015 to 3,38,954 in 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. It also shows that 34,651 cases of rape were registered in 2015 and 38,947 in 2016. There has been a sharp increase in the number of rape cases compared to other crimes against women. The other major crimes include – cruelty by husband or his relatives, assault on woman with intent to outrage her modesty and kidnapping and abduction of women. Rapes have increased by 12%, while other crimes by 3%. Assam has the second highest crime rate in 2016 – with a rate of 131.3, followed by Odisha, Telangana and Rajasthan. The total number of registered crimes in Assam was 19,169, of which there were 1779 cases of rape, 3378 cases of sexual assault and 895 cases of cruelty by husband and his family. The data shows crimes registered in these states, which could also mean that there were more crimes reported in certain states than others.

The recent gang rape incidents in Nagaon have certainly created a commotion for some time in the last month. It was reported that a group of eight men raped a 35 year old woman all through the night in an isolated place. Her spouse was tied to a tree and beaten up. This couple apparently was offered shelter for the night by the offender, who manipulated them to the isolated place. There was another incident that was reported the following week. A 12-year-old girl studying in class-v was raped and burnt alive by three men – an adult and two juveniles. She was raped after she returned from school and was alone at home. The girl succumbed to death a few hours after being shifted to Guwahati Medical College and Hospital from Nagaon Civil Hospital. Although there were rapes committed by people from other communities, the crime when committed by a person from the Miyah community raised an outcry and took a political turn. The recent incidents were also not an exception to that. The BJP MLA from Khumtai constituency condemned the incident of the 12-year-old with an allegation that it was planned by Bangladeshi migrants who have become a threat to the society. He further went on saying that such actions should be reciprocated in the same way. Another BJP MLA from Hojai Constituency made the entire community responsible for the violence against the 12-year-old. He said that the perpetrators have adapted to Assamese culture and traditions, yet they afflict the locals. This MLA attempted to incite the people to come together against such Bangladeshi migrants. In a discussion over the recent rapes in Assam Legislative Assembly, the health minister of Assam said that there has been a pattern in the nature of perpetrators from last 10-12 years and the only pattern he could come up with were the names of perpetrators from the Miyah community. The AIUDF MLA from Dhing constituency too, read out names of offenders from the other communities. These incidents received undesirable attention thereby distracting from a larger public debate about violence against women. The discourse failed to recognize sexual objectification of women as a threat to women’s safety and the need for renunciatiation of all other political pretexts which are not substantiated with facts and figures.

Is rape a consequence of cultural interpretations that view men as legal and rightful possessors of women? For instance, while all other types of rape are criminalized, marital rape is still contested in its recognition as a crime solely on the basis of marital relation. Does marriage gives right to the spouse to force intercourse even against their partner’s will? When sexual abuses, however trivial it might be, are not recognized and penalized according to its severity, there are chances of such acts becoming a norm in the society. Social and cultural practices prepare men and women to treat one another in ways that contribute in defining gender roles. For example, Hindu marriages have a custom of touching the feet of the groom as he blesses the bride. Right from the time of attaining puberty, women are conditioned by social and cultural practices into believing that getting married to a capable man was the most important thing in life. The small marriage – tuloni biya or xaanti biya – is celebrated in Assam when girl attains puberty and serves to introduce the girl to customs of marriage and children. The custom of treating a banana tree as the spouse and worshipping the tree contributes in idolizing men as the girl grows up. A game is played where gamusas are rolled to take round shapes and the girl treats the object as her child. She can be a good mother only if the object does not fall as she plays a catch and throw game with an elderly woman, as a part of the custom. Our society approves of a culture where men are given lessons at being callous, aggressive and domineering. Practices of cooperation and mutual respect among men are not encouraged. Being vulnerable is disregarded for men as it does not fit the definition of masculinity. Many men are unable to express themselves when they feel weak. This allows men to disregard emotions. The rapist can also be a victim to the crime committed by him in the sense that he never learnt how to nurture love and affection. His inability to express and nurture emotions could result in frustrations which contribute to violence and offences against others.

Women are often treated by men as available objects to release aggression. Rape as a crime against women is not an unheard story in the past. What changed over time is the perception towards sexual violence which perhaps for generations wasn’t perceived as an offence. Women were treated as valued property of fathers or their spouses. After surviving rape, she is perceived as a devalued property and so the practice of offering the rapist to marry the woman is prevalent in many societies. In most rape cases, offenders try to shift the blame on the victim. The statement made by the offender that the victim got what she deserved, often receives validation in some circles. In addition, statements of the kind ‘had the victim not resisted, then the case would have been otherwise’, which we saw in the case of Nirbhaya. Some significations of rape culture are victim blaming, slut-shaming, fear of not being validated upon reporting a sexual abuse and sexual objectification. Women can be accused of calling for attention or having some motive for reporting a false rape. Rapists and sympathisers use these myths for justifying the action. Crime against women in India suggests a need for something more to contemplate than the current discourse. If we could look back a little in Guwahati, we recall the incidents of 2012 G.S. road molestation, the news where girls wearing shorts were compared to monkeys in a local news channel in 2015, the photographs of two girls shared by a well known news reader when they were outside an alcohol shop in their traditional attires on the day of Saraswati puja early this year, as examples that are emblematic of the manner in which dominant, middle-class, male-dominated cultures portray independent women in Assam. The road from such views, to those that lead to tragic violence against women, is unfortunately well short and well-travelled. Distracting women with ideas that such violence can be done by only one class of people, belonging to a particular religion is misleading and dangerous because it deflects from the long struggles that needed for a gender just society.

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Rulee Phukan Written by:

Rulee Phukan is from Guwahati and is an independent researcher. She has worked with Tata Institute of Social Sciences as a research fellow in a project for two years in the conflict affected areas of Assam.

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