The West has managed to control its discourse on sexual violence against women by placing rape as a problem of psychology than as a problem of culture
Sam De Brito, a columnist for the Australian daily Sydney Morning Herald, wrote an article on May 20, 2014 entitled What we can learn from Tara Moss’s rapist (unfortunately no longer available on the web). In her book The Fictional Woman (2014), the Canadian-born Australian writer and model, Tara Moss describes her rape, which occurred in 1994, at the hands of a serial rapist, Adrian Griffiths. Brito says that he “Googled the man responsible … to look at the face of the man who assaulted her, to see if there was some tell-tale flaw that would mark him as a rapist.” He notes that he was surprised to find that he could recognize him as “one of those guys you’ve probably seen in passing in any one of a dozen bad TV shows and is still working, racking up credits with some of the biggest names in the movie business.” Griffiths was charged with raping about a dozen women and “was eventually jailed for two years, but for only one rape because friends he had boasted to about it testified against him.”
This article immediately came to my mind as I was reading about the controversy surrounding Leslee’s Udwin’s documentary on the Nirbhaya case, especially with regards to the similar manner in which it projected the rapist Mukesh Singh as your average Indian joe and the non-chalant and matter-of-fact style in which he explains the causes and circumstances of the assault.
While appreciating the stark differences between the consequences for the two victims – Moss and Nirbhaya – and also the degree of violence involved, I could not help but notice that the parallels, as far as the perpetrators are concerned, are quite stunning. Just as Brito could not discern anything extra-ordinarily hideous about Hughes’ appearance, so Srila Roy points out, “not only do they not appear to be monsters, the five men and one juvenile convicted in the case appear frighteningly ordinary.” There is also their absence of regret and a refusal to admit that what they perpetrated was a horrific crime.
In the case of Moss, too, Brito tells us: “When I spoke to Griffiths he was hardly the voice of remorse, saying ‘I have no idea what the f— that’s about’ and hung up [on] me.”
And to complete the picture there are the insensitive statements of their respective defense attorneys. While the lawyers of Nirbhaya’s rapists have expressed disdain at the violation of cultural norms by women travelling with unknown persons in the evening, Brito informs us with evident disgust the view of Griffiths’ lawyer: “His problem is he [Griffiths] was a ’70s kind of guy in the ’90s. [He] found himself with some old attitudes in some new times.”
But here the similarity ends for while persons such as Mukesh Singh are to be found even in the West, as Brito’s article shows, the problem of their misconduct is interpreted differently. When rape occurs in India, it is understood to be a cultural problem, the pervasive influence of ancient patriarchial values in contemporary society, but when it happens in the West, it is a psychological problem of the particular individuals. The culture as a whole is never held guilty or even considered suspect.
An article that deals with several incidents of violence committed by Australian men, notes: “A strong sense of jealousy, a sense of entitlement and insecurity — these are the attributes found in people who kill. And it’s usually someone you know. In Australia the killer isn’t someone who creeps into your home at night or abducts you on the way home, it will likely be your partner, family member or a friend.” The last is true even in case of Moss who knew Griffiths as a workplace colleague.
Two self-perceptions about Western society are evident in the foregoing: firstly, Western males commit violence on account of issues in their own personality traits. And secondly, violence is most likely to occur in the private sphere which is outside the jurisdiction of public culture. People are free to behave as they like in private and this is the space where crime mostly occurs in the West.
Likewise, in an attempt to make sense of Moss’ rape, Brito refers to a US study of “college-aged men about their sexual histories” which “found that only about six per cent of the men surveyed had attempted or successfully raped someone.” Even among the group of rapists most of them were serial offenders and they were as a group “generally violent men” which I suppose means that they would behave violently with men as with women but it is just that if the victim is a woman the nature of the violence is likely to be sexual.
The point is that even if rape may be common in the West (“one in four women will be a victim of sexual violence”) the Western self-narrative claims that the number of rapists in the West is comparatively small, they being serial offenders, and they are motivated by their own perverted dispositions.
Brito also tells us that according to the US RAINN organisation (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network): “it is important not to lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused … by the conscious decisions of a small percentage of the community to commit a violent crime.” It cautions against “an inclination to focus on particular segments of the student population (eg athletes) … or traits that are common in many millions of law-abiding Americans (eg “masculinity”), rather than on the subpopulation at fault: those who choose to commit rape.”
More than the truth and falsehood of these narratives, what is notable for us here is the manner in which the Western culture chooses to perceive itself in light of its problem of sexual violence. This is such a far cry from the kind of hysterical broadstrokes that have cropped up in the Nirbhaya case – the incident itself and the documentary – the discourse on “rape culture” or middle-class versus poor immigrants or modernity versus tradition. Or as Leslee Udwin, the documentary-maker, herself puts it: “I began this film with a narrow focus … why do men rape? I discovered that the disease is a lack of respect for gender. It’s not just about a few rotten apples, it’s the barrel itself that is rotten.”
If we take RAINN’s view that “it is this relatively small percentage of the population (the roughly six per cent of males) which has proven itself immune to years of prevention messages, that we must address in other ways,” as an example of the Western response to rape occurrences in its culture, then the BBC documentary on the Nirbhaya case simply smacks of a hypocritical and patronizing attitude. The implication is that if a rape occurs in the West then we do not need to target the overarching culture or the general character of “our” men but zero-in on the source of the problem through a forensic psychological analysis of the violent nature of the rapists themselves. But if it happens in India then we must drag into the limelight whatever aspect of Indian culture can be dragged into it, from patriarchial traditions and epic narratives to economic problems and communal politics.
The emphasis in the West on localizing the problem to the specific perpetrators was visible even in the recent attacks on Indian students in Australia where there was reluctance to admit cultural racism as a motive though nobody denies that some Australians are racists. On the other hand, an incident of gender violence in India always brings to fore an interrogation of the Indian cultural position on respect for women.
It never ceases to amaze me how deftly the Western culture addresses its problems without even slightly tarnishing its brand image while Indians are likely to calumnize their own culture over their failure to deal with the same issues. I recall a conversation with an American acquaintance who, when I found out that he was from Los Angeles, asked if it was difficult to live in such a dangerous city. He replied to me without the slightest sense of embarrassment (so typical of Americans, I suppose): “You live in Mumbai. I am sure there are certain places in the city that you do not visit at certain times. We do the same in LA and we are ok.” It was a sobering response. Inspite of having lived in Mumbai for more than 30 years, it was the first time I realized both that it was a dangerous city but that it never came across as dangerous to me because I had instinctively accommodated myself to playing by its rules.
Everywhere in the world we make this compromise between civilized society and the uncivilized underbelly. I think what makes the statements of Mukesh Singh and his lawyers particularly offensive is that in their own crude ways they are alluding precisely to this compromise which we routinely practice but are too embarrassed to call out in public. And they drive home the painful truth that all our rhetoric of “rights” and “freedoms” – of men or women – can only renegotiate at best but will never fully terminate that spatial and temporal division between the noble and the savage.
But this is true not just of Delhi, it is the case with every other metropolis on earth. What the Nirbhaya case illustrates is that to get caught on the wrong turf makes a difference between life and death. And as a developed society that projects itself as a model for the rest of the world, the West shows us by its interpretation of rape, that “progress” only means that the locus of sexual violence will shift comparably from public space to private i.e. a woman will be more likely to be raped by a friend than a stranger, and the discourse of sexual violence will shift from the language of culture to the language of psychology.
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