We hear much these days about independent India’s soaring economic growth and advanced IT skills. But in the last couple of weeks a much grimmer story has emerged: the sickening gang rape and murder on a bus of a young unnamed woman. Apparently her death came about through evisceration when, after multiple rapes, an iron bar was shoved into her. It is a story which might at first seem of questionable relevance here, concerned as we are with minor attraction and with consensual sex not the atrocious rape and murder of an adult.
Again bearing in mind John Donne’s words that no man is an island, which we had occasion to ponder in relation to the American elementary school massacre last month, the bell tolls for us all at such times: wherever and whenever there is man-made suffering and death we do well to look for any connectedness with our own lives and attitudes, and to challenge ourselves. The expression “man-made” is used advisedly. Indian women have risen to protest in their thousands, setting in train an unprecedented debate about endemic sexual harassment and violence in the country.
When feminists in the West make similar claims we are wary, because we know all too well their capacity to exaggerate: the militants, it sometimes seems, regard any sexual interest shown by a man in a woman outside of a committed relationship as rape, or “abuse”, from sex with a willing adult prostitute to a boss’s mildly flirtatious remarks to a secretary; even in a committed relationship, these hard-liners insist that on every occasion of intimacy the man all but needs to get the woman’s consent signed on a dotted line – a notion bravely challenged by British parliamentarian George Galloway recently in defence of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
What India reminds us, though, is that feminists – or simply women – are not always wrong when they complain about male behaviour, and more particularly about patterns of truly horrific physical and sexual abuse. India has long been a patriarchal society, in which the status of women has been so low that wives have been considered little more than adjuncts of their husbands, such that it has been considered fitting for a widow to die when he did. In the ancient custom of Sati (or suttee), formally abolished in 1829, a widow would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, thus being burnt to death in his cremation. Traditionally, this was supposed to be a voluntary act of devotion on the woman’s part, Sati meaning “good wife”. But extreme social pressure, and even force, sometimes obliged a woman to be a “good wife” in this way.
Echoes of that extreme expression of patriarchy have never fully disappeared: although illegal, Sati still occurs occasionally, the last time as recently as 2008. Arguably things as getting worse, too, because in the last twenty years or so widow burning has been joined by bride burning: it accounts for a staggering 2,500 deaths per year in the country. A bride is typically doused in kerosene at home by her husband or his family and set alight, due to dissatisfaction over the dowry provided by her family.
An even more widespread, and growing, form of abuse is so-called Eve teasing. The Eve of the Bible tempts Adam with the forbidden fruit, notionally an apple, but also a symbol of sexual desire: not to put too fine a point in it, the temptress is a prick teaser. Indian men in recent decades have perhaps felt more teased than in former times. The modern, professional, educated Indian woman is not confined to wifely duties at home: she travels to work. Her clothes, without being revealing, may be seen as provocative just by being smarter than those of perhaps less well-to-do men she allegedly “teases”: her career success is an affront to their esteem, a sign that women need to be put back in their place i.e. under men’s control. So men feel licensed to take revenge by “teasing” them through sexual harassment in public places. Often this is no worse than wolf-whistling or mild groping, but it can take extremely serious forms, leading to violent rape and worse. So-called “teasing” may include throwing acid in women’s faces.
Such atrocities may seem far away and of little concern to the readers of this blog, who are based predominantly in the most developed and prosperous Anglophone western countries, where women’s rights are relatively well entrenched. But that is the point: as minor-attracted persons we often see feminists as the enemy, not because we want Indian-style patriarchy but because the oft-called “feminazis” frequently seem utterly rabid and unreasonable in their hatred of paedophiles. We feel they do not understand that paedophilia is about love, affection and feelings of nurturance, not about dominance or abuse of power. This misunderstanding can sometimes feel gratuitous and malicious, as though the feminists are just horrible, hateful people.
What we need to understand, though, is where they are coming from. When we see the terrible things that men with patriarchal dominance do to women in societies such as India, we can begin to appreciate their suspicion and passion against us. Susan Brownmiller, in her classic 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, pointed out that in times of war women are routinely subjected to rape and every kind of atrocity by men who are simply soldiers – ordinary guys, not necessarily the most extreme psychopaths. If ordinary men can behave so badly, why cannot ordinary paedophiles?
Don’t worry, I am playing devil’s advocate here, not selling out. All I am saying is that we should not be too defensive against feminists. We should criticise their exaggeration in the West of petty grievances. We should not put up with them parlaying loving adult-child encounters into “rape”; but neither should be refuse to acknowledge that power is sometime abused and that not all paedophiles are nice people any more than Norman Normal necessarily is, nor his wife Norma. We should reject the sex-negative aspect of much feminist thinking but embrace its insistence on relations of equality – equal, that is, not in terms of size, or age, or power, but of respect and love.
I’m not done with India and empire yet, though. I’ve decided to make this an imperial trilogy. I started with the “empire” of Heretic TOC. In the third part I aim to return to India and other parts of the British Empire with a somewhat less bleak view than the one presented above.
- Gil’s latest Sniffer Dog blog has some pungent reflections of his own on the old colonialists in This Jimmy Savile media beat-up over there in Pommie Land. Here is a taster:
Again, over many years now we here at Sniffy Dog have learned to expect nothing better from the Land of the Potty Pom. That’s the way they are, afflicted with what Pope John Paul II aptly described as The English Disease. Better, we think, to quarantine the place, sort themselves out finally, learn to look after their own children and their own people finally instead of exporting their woes continually to the colonies where we have to put things back in order, extract their heads out of their arse, teach them to behave, to conduct themselves as passingly civil human beings, and avoid being infected by them in the process.