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The roots of rape: Questioning structural cases of sexual violence against women

Publication Date : 25-04-2014


Every other day, we hear and read news about the rape of women and girls. The Nepali media, thankfully, has become more gender sensitive than in the past while reporting such incidents. The activism of INGO/NGOs working on the issue has also gained momentum. Nevertheless, there are several problems in the ways in which sexual violence against women is currently addressed.

After violations

As more and more funding is directed to INGOs and NGOs for combating sexual violence against women, the involvement of the common people is decreasing. The issue is thus mistakenly understood as an agenda of the INGOs and NGOs alone.

Even though, other organisations are also engaged in this issue, they have a very narrow spectrum of work. Their major focus is on things to do after a woman has been violated instead of preventive measures to stop violence.

Project reports of INGOs and NGOs all focus on amending the law, making police reporting mechanisms swifter, establishing fast-track courts and providing shelter to survivors of violence. These issues are undoubtedly important but they are all concerned with the necessary actions that need to be undertaken after a woman or girl is raped by a perpetrator.

There is little conceptualisation on the need to address the structural issues concerning sexual violence against women. It is probably because working on the structural, long term issues is tricky; they might not be suitable to be packaged into series of funding projects.

Even if these projects are well designed, they do not always fit into the neat INGO and NGO definitions of measurable ‘impact’, ‘change’ and ‘progress’. Instances of violence, therefore, continue and there will always be more victims and their need for justice to work on. There will always be perpetrators to arrest and send to prison.

Structural causes

This is not to say that there have not been any efforts at the community level to prevent sexual violence. Communities are being vigilant to ensure the safety of their daughters, sisters and wives. Some families even exercise greater control over what women wear and where they go.

But such preventive measures do not always stop violence. What we need is a greater discussion on the structural causes surrounding sexual violence against women. I argue that the issue of sexual violence against women in our society is closely tied to the notions of hegemonic masculinity, femininity and sexuality.

The first obvious but less discussed issue in our society is that there are different norms for men and women regarding sexuality. There are exceptions, but men in our society have always had greater freedom in expressing their sexuality.

Their ‘uncontrollable sexual urges’ are almost acceptable because they are men and they still hold powerful positions in family, community and state. There is no discussion whatsoever on how to control and manage male sexual desires. Instead, many societies, including our own, have made allowances for men to fulfil their sexual desires even beyond the institution of marriage.

Why do brothels exist despite being regarded as immoral spaces? A female prostitute who caters to the sexual desire of men is considered to have no honour. But a man who seeks her services for pleasure is not questioned about his purity. 

Though forbidden by law, it is still socially acceptable for a man to marry more than one wife. Whatever reasons given for the second marriage for men, underneath all spoken reasons lie something unspoken: his perception of his first wife’s inability to satisfy him. Nobody the marriage of a 50-year-old widowed man to a 20-year-old unmarried woman.

There are numerous undocumented and unexpressed cases of marital rape, sexual harassment and rape that happens within the confines of the ‘home’, which is considered a safe haven for women. Research on sexual violence shows that women are most likely to be sexually violated by men they know rather than unknown strangers in public spaces. It is high time we start talking about how men need to control and manage their sexual urges and express them in a non-violent way.

Male view

The notions of honour regulated by religious discourses and cultural norms closely shape women’s sexuality. Though norms vary among different ethnic groups of Nepal, many issues remain common. There is a high emphasis on the virginity of women. Women learn growing up that ‘sex’ is something bad, dirty and immoral.

Media portrayals of women thrive on narrowed conceptions of female sexuality. Near indispensable item songs in Kollywood and Bollywood movies such as ‘Udhreko choli’ and ‘Chikni Chameli’ reinforce a belief that only ‘bad women’ are expressive of their sexuality. These lewd item songs filled with sexual innuendoes are nothing more than a fulfilment of the male sexual imagination. It is not surprising since most of the scriptwriters, directors and producers are men who mistakenly assume that their viewers are men as well.

Perhaps when we have a greater number of female scriptwriters, directors and producers movies, we will see popular heroes dancing in skimpy clothes as women surround and ogle at them.

There is a need to discuss the close linkages between masculinity and sexuality. The practice of sexuality in many societies is nothing more than an expression of need and fulfilment of male sexual pleasure.

There is next to no conceptualisation on the need and existence of female sexual pleasure. It is sad to see that even now, a ‘real man’ is defined by his ability to take women by force. Cinematic representations of ‘female rape’ are seldom focused on the sufferings of the victim.

The way ‘rape scenes’ are filmed, with the camera zooming on the women’s body, it transforms rape into something different altogether. Such scenes are feeding into a new form of male sexual fantasy of forcing women against their will.

While filmmakers may defend their creations in the name of artistic freedom of expression, I think filmmakers should discuss among themselves about the utility and impact of these ‘rape scenes’ on the audience. Any filmmaker who has listened to the pain and suffering of a woman who has been raped would film the ‘rape scenes’ in a way that is closer to reality.

It is time for Nepali society to be more open about the issues of sexuality. It is high time to delink women’s sexuality from the notion of ijjat (honour) and redefine the concept of a ‘real man’.


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