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Issue in Focus: My right to say ‘yes’ and my right to say ‘no’

A black-and-white silhouette of a girl standing in a deserted wasteland

Women in our societies largely do not have any acquaintance with the word ‘consent’, but they are very familiar with the word ‘violence’. The right to choose, whether to consent to or reject a particular relationship, or a sexual act within that relationship, is a basic right for human dignity. In our society, consent from a woman, is never really sought in any relationship in the first place, whether marital or sexual. It can be incidental but need not be a condition for a relationship to be established or for it to continue.

The situation is fast changing, as women gain more opportunities of education, and of moving out of their homes for a livelihood. As they begin to realize their rights over their personhood, bodies and life, they have begun to recognize their right to choose and assert it. But this has also meant a growing backlash from society. We can see different kinds of violence emerging in response to this assertion from women. The increase in the number of acid attacks, and honour killings is a very visible form of this backlash.We can see an equation here. Asserting one’s choice in the form of one’s right to say ‘yes’ leads to one kind of violence, and asserting one’s choice in the form of a ‘no’, showing one’s disapproval and lack of consent also leads to another kind violence on women.

This can be understood if we see the right as not just an individual right, but as one which can challenge many existing hierarchies and hegemonies. The reason that they have induced so much violence is precisely because these assertions of choice have begun to challenge traditional caste boundaries which dictated who one could marry and more importantly, one cannot marry. These boundaries were what kept the caste hierarchy intact for centuries. One of the methods for maintaining endogamy was to control women’s sexuality. Who to marry, who to fall in love with, who to maintain sexual relationships for and with was circumscribed by caste and sub-castes. Particularly among the upper castes, women were the carriers of the caste’s honour, and the route for preserving caste and family property. The boundaries of this fort were guarded violently by religious texts and notions of ‘honour’.

Which is why when the walls start crumbling, the guards come out even more forcefully to defend the structure. A woman choosing her partner, particularly across castes, has invoked violence in vicious ways, recently. Khappanchayats openly order the murder of young couples who find love in a different caste, sub-caste, or gotra; and more importantly, choose to marry each other. Thus, it becomes an open defiance of rigid and violent caste boundaries. Many brutal instances of ‘honour’ killings have taken place in the last two decades to punish the violators of caste sanctity, that is, women and men who have begun to choose their lovers.

On the other side, there are punishments for saying ‘no’. Stalkers, ‘rejected’ lovers routinely attack women for not responding to their advances, or for rejecting their ‘love’. Even the bravest girl confronting stalkers can have acid thrown on her face, because she refused to heed to sheer harassment. Or have threats come her way each day, or be sexually assaulted by a rejected man. These too reflect an outrage and backlash against the challenge that women’s simple right to choose has posed to patriarchal structures. It is often said after such incidents that the man had been ‘crazy in love’, that he had felt cheated and used, and so on. An incident in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University in July 2013 demonstrated this. A student of B.A (Korean) entered a class room, and attacked a girl with an axe so brutally that she could barely survive months later, while losing her memory. After hitting the girl, the boy consumed pesticide and slit his throat, and died later. Apparently, the boy had been ‘in love’ with the girl for some time, while the girl had firmly refused his advances. According to him, the girl had used him and cheated his feelings. But the truth is that the girl had been feeling harassed by his constant stalking. The boy just could not accept that this girl did not want to be in a relationship with him. In 2011, in Ranchi, Jharkhand, a boy beheaded a 17 year old college girl because she refused to talk to him. In Delhi’s Munirka, a man shot and killed a school girl for not reciprocating his desires. Apart from these incidents, the rising cases of acid attacks on women by spurned lovers are an obviously alarming indicator of this violence. Clearly, women become victims of men’s ‘love’ and desire every other day. The definitions of love have very little or no content of reciprocity or consent. It is never asked how a relationship that is expressed through subtle or extreme forms of violence can be considered love.How can one-sided obsessive stalking be considered love? Are women simply expected to concede and oblige, without any consideration of their own feelings and desires?

Then there is also another form of violence which overrides a woman’s right to say ‘no’- marital rape.There is no legal or societal recognition of rape within marriage, because marriage itself is considered as perpetual and irrevocable consent to sexual relationship with the husband. Renewing that consent for each sexual act between the husband and wife is simply not considered as a need or a right. And there is just no question, according to accepted morality, that a woman might want to refuse a sexual act with her husband at a particular time. It is held that rape can be perpetrated only by an ‘outsider’. Yet, in reality, the unequal relationship between the sexes and the absolutely skewed way in which both men and woman are socialized about sex in our society ensures that there can be very little mutual pleasure and sensitivity in sexual acts between a husband and wife. The law in India still refuses to accept rape within marriage as rape. Yet, it could be the most recurring form of violence against women, as women cannot report it under law, and are forced to bear it to maintain the ‘sanctity’ of the marriage.

Consent should indeed be the foundation of any sort of relationship between humans. In our society, we have begun to experience new forms of violence in reaction to an assertion of both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’. These assertions need to be viewed also in their collective import, rather than as rights of individuals alone. 

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Photo Credit: By LostOneself