Laws against sexual violence hold up a useful mirror to the assumptions of the society that drafts them, and India’s are particularly revealing. For one, it is taken for granted that sexual violence among adults will always be directed at women. Women are victims. This expectation has its own convoluted, if concealed, logic. Victimhood generates associated responses: a victim is wounded, unfit, pathetic, anything but a fighter, a protester, an individual bent on asserting her rights. The assumption that the victim is a woman doubles the timidity, passivity and shame expected of her. At long last, a global rights organization, Amnesty International, has asked for a “gender-neutral” law on sexual violence that shall apply equally to targets of violence irrespective of age, sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or appearance. The organization has shrewdly chosen as examples words such as “modesty”, “honour” and “morality” that occur in the wording of laws against sexual intrusion as well as plentifully in the discourse around them.
Such words lay bare the dangerous implications of the laws. Associating ‘modesty’ and ‘honour’ with women exposes the reluctance of this society to punish men for sexual violence, because such words provide loopholes that allow the criminal to get away by suggesting that the victim was not ‘modest’, whatever that may mean, in dress or behaviour. That ‘she asked for it’. ‘Modesty’ and ‘honour’ are control words, drawing the boundaries that women are not supposed to transgress. Amnesty International is asking for a law that will make only the physical and mental torture its focus. But good sense is not India’s forte where women are concerned. So this may or may not work.