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Asking for what?

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NILANJANA S. ROY   |   Published 01.05.05, 12:00 AM

Think of this as a question on a hypothetical exam paper. ?Is rape caused by a) women in skimpy clothes b) women who smoke cigarettes in public c) women who walk around a city in the company of men who are not their relatives d) women, full stop.?

That?s pretty much the Shiv Sena?s attitude to the rape of a young girl on Mumbai?s Marine Drive this week. The girl was out for a walk in a city often seen as women-friendly, in a part of the city where it?s common for people to go for walks late at night. She and her friends encountered a drunk constable who asked intrusive questions ?does your mother know you?re out, who are these two boys with you. Then he dragged her into a room and raped her; other pedestrians heard her screams and came to the rescue.

When she went out for her walk, what did the young woman expect? A chat with her friends. A little exercise, a chance to stretch her legs. The sound of the sea, the lights of Marine Drive. She certainly didn?t ask to be raped.

I don?t expect the Shiv Sena, who expressed their views in an article in Saamna, to be progressive. I?m not surprised that instead of expressing their shock at such a terrible crime, they chose to make the argument that women who step out of line must be taught a lesson. The Sena is threatened by emancipated women; where you and I might see freedom and an end to repression, the Sena sees the waning of their might.

What does shock me is the poll conducted by a national newspaper which asked readers whether they endorsed the Sena?s views. The poll showed a more or less even split in opinion; about 50 per cent of the readers who responded said that yes, they felt women who wore ?revealing clothes? were asking for it. Other readers pointed out that women in burkas and conservative saris have not escaped being raped during riots; some few made the point that rape is not an act of sexual passion ? it?s an act of violence.

It?s easy to get angry. It?s easy to point out that no woman who slips into a light skirt and top looks at the mirror and thinks, ?Honey, you look good enough to be a rape victim tonight.? No woman who lights up a cigarette strikes a match thinking, ?Ooh, time to be raped.? No woman who strolls late at night in a public area goes out saying, ?I?ll be back in half an hour, 15 minutes for the walk and another 15 for the rape, okay??

But beyond this anger is a question. Do any of us secretly or openly endorse the idea that a man has the right to rape? How do you make the huge leap in your head from censure, appropriate or not, to endorsing an act of terrible violence? The opinions I often hear after a particularly terrible incident of rape are revealing: what was she doing there, at that hour of night, why did she get in the car, why was she alone, what was she wearing. No woman I?ve ever met lives a life where they ask for it, when ?it? means rape. Maybe the poll should have asked how you get to a point in a man?s head where the question is a woman, threatening his sense of himself, and the answer is rape.

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