As grand a place as India is, full of its idiosyncratic beauty, it’s also a land of many problematic ideas and beliefs; one of them was reflected in Maneka Gandhi’s statement. The Minister for Women and Child Development recently said that the concept of marital rape, and hence its criminalization, cannot be applied to India because of issues like poverty, illiteracy, religious reasons and the way Indians perceive marriage as an institution. This statement follows on the heels of the minister’s reaffirmation of India being committed to advancing gender equality.
The hypocrisy of Maneka Gandhi’s stance is probably the least problematic thing about the issue. The fact that marriage is treated as a contract for a person to often forcefully demand sex from their spouse, especially in India, makes it all the more important for a ministry that’s supposed to ensure a woman’s rights to recognize the importance of a concrete law in the context of marital rape. It’s not hard to notice the irrational light Indians see marriage in, given that certain sections of the society define a woman by her marital status and that its importance supercedes that of even financial independence and safety. It naturally conditions people to be hesitant about speaking up against abuse that springs out of this supposedly ‘pious’ relationship. Given the societal stigma that’s certainly going to surround someone wanting to complain about sexual abuse in a marriage, having the law on their side could make all the difference- between speaking up and living through an abusive relationship, often between life and death too.
It is important to realise the importance of criminalisation of marital rape in a country where sex outside marriage is generally considered a taboo, which gives rise to a situation where people get married just for the sake of its physical consummation. Maneka Gandhi’s statement and the move of not criminalising marital rape, have essentially endorsed the idea that marital sex needn’t require consent because the partners have entered into a relationship where they no longer have the agency of and control over their own bodies by the virtue of entering into conjugal life. The move also implies that there is nothing really wrong with marital rape. These are dangerous ideas to publicise because it implies that their discomfort with sexual abuse in a marriage is unwarranted. It will only lead to more instances of marital rape, because people cannot legitimise their fears and will hence give in to their partners’ demands.
The minister talks about the sanctity of marriage. What about the sanctity of a person’s body? Marital rape is still rape. It is irrational to relate the concept of consent to marriage, illiteracy, poverty and religion. No relationship in the world warrants the violation of a person’s body and their control over it. Being poor and illiterate cannot be reasons for legitimising rape. There can be no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ about rape and consent, no matter what the context is.