By Neha Kirpal
Tara Kaushal’s first book, Why Men Rape: An Indian Undercover Investigation (HarperCollins, Rs 399), is being called “the most awaited book of 2020”. The Mumbai-based writer and media consultant with a passion for social justice has written on gender, sexuality, equal rights and socio-cultural issues for publications across the world.
She was awarded the Laadli Media Award for gender-sensitive writing in 2013-14. In 2018, she was also awarded a Femina Women Super Achiever Award. We talk to her about her experience interviewing nine rapists for her book, and what she learnt during the course of her research.
What inspired you to write this book and how did the project take shape?
The idea for this book came to me in 2013. For me, getting molested daily on the DTC buses that took me from Noida to college in Chanakyapuri severely impacted my attendance – though I loved my course and topped throughout, and though I carried a knife.
And this is why I was deeply shaken in the aftermath of the Delhi gang-rape. Jyoti Singh Pandey could have been me from 10 years before. And so the idea for this project appeared in 2013, though I began working on it full-time four years later.
But I think it was much before that. My family moved from naval colonies across the country to civilian housing in Noida when I was 12. I was stalked, molested, flashed at and propositioned fairly regularly on my way to school. Once, walking my dog early one evening, I narrowly avoided being abducted by a gang of men in a Maruti van.
Suddenly, my well-intentioned parents curtailed my access to the outdoors, policed my clothing and hemlines, and imposed curfews. I was miserable. And maybe, just maybe, the questions I had started asking as a 12-year-old baby feminist newly in Noida – why should the actions of men impact my life, the lives of women; why do they do it; why can’t they stop – sowed the seed for this book that I wrote almost a quarter of a century later.
What were some of the findings of your research that surprised or disturbed you?
A few months into my research, my spouse and I were reading our respective books against an ancient wall of the Hatgadh Fort, somewhere in rural Maharashtra. So engrossed was I in my compulsive note-making that I didn’t notice the gaggle of five college-age boys until their shadows loomed above me, peering at my studying.
“Whatchu doing, bahina?” they asked in Marathi, with the typical curiosity and reverence village folks have for city ones. “Writing a book about what?” Sensing an opportunity to educate and be educated, I invited them to stay for a chat.
“Problem kya hai ki kisiko pata hi nahi rape kya hai [the problem is that no one knows what rape is].” They’d all heard of it on the news, but didn’t know what it really meant. This was the start of the realisation that there is NO understanding of rape and consent across the country. I had expected a slight variation in ideas, a difference of nuance, not such disparate views.
One of my subjects, a serial gang-rapist, said he didn’t know that rape even existed. “If I see a girl in a room and have sex with her, in this day and age she won’t even go tell anyone. What has happened has happened, move on. Just no one should find out. It becomes rape only when someone finds out.”
From writing on sexuality to now sexual violence, what has your research taught you about men-women relations in India?
The gender dynamic in India is very complex at the moment. The pluralities of global culture laden with ideas of women’s liberation and modernity (among other things) gallop across India on the wings of the internet on smartphones. These ideas interact with regional and local societies and cultures, and have a trickle-down effect, percolating even the remotest villages I’ve visited — whether or not cultural custodians like it.
But while we’ve begun to raise our daughters to be more empowered, few are raising their sons to deal with the empowered women that are emerging. A dear friend is a highly educated and successful professional, who, in her 30s, married another professional she met online. They moved abroad, but the marriage collapsed shortly after.
“He wanted me to make him a tiffin everyday, babe,” she said to me, “and he didn’t want me to travel for work… Why didn’t he just marry some village girl if that’s the kind of marriage he wanted?” Men and women are trying to negotiate these new realities, and fumbling.
I was quite amused when the RSS chief blamed education for the rise in divorce. He is right. But, while he meant it as criticism, I see it as positive. Women just don’t take this shit anymore. Across countries, across cultures, wives, sisters, mothers, daughters are increasingly aware of ourselves as somebodies, not somebody’s, with human rights of our own. We are standing up for ourselves, demanding and resisting on the back of familial support and/or economic independence.
Divorce is only one example of how the gender dynamic is playing out on the ground in India today.
You interviewed several rapists for this book. Please share your experience of meeting these men. What struck you most about your conversations with them?
I met nine men who have raped, across classes – there was a doctor, a journalist, a political henchman and a farmer. What struck me was that most of these men, when you meet them, seem so ‘normal’.
I agree with the feminist philosopher Kate Manne when she writes that calling men who rape ‘monsters’ has damaging results. “Monsters are unintelligible, uncanny, and they are outwardly frightening. What is frightening about rapists is partly the lack of identifying marks and features, beyond the fact that they are by far most likely to be men. Rapists are human, all too human, and they are very much among us. The idea of rapists as monsters exonerates by caricature.”
When we call these men ‘evil’, ‘crazy’ and ‘mad’, we situate them as abnormal and irredeemable. This absolves society of any responsibility for their creation, thus allowing us to remain blinkered to the need for social introspection and systemic change.
“[I]t leads one to view sexual violence as a special type of crime in which the motivations are subconscious and uncontrollable rather than overt and deliberate as with other criminal behaviour,” write eminent sociologists Diana Scully and Joseph Marolla in their study of convicted rapists.
How do you feel parents should bring up their boys and girls differently than what they are now, so that the rape culture in India changes in future?
The bottom line is that boys and girls should not be brought up differently. Currently, girls are thought of as different and certainly not equal to boys – from birth to food to education to marriage to leisure and death. And there is serious sex segregation, so boys grow up with no healthy associations with girls other than in their families, and vice versa. All this has got to change.
You have spoken about your own #MeToo moments with Gautam Adhikari and Navroze Dhondy. Did you have to file any legal case, and what was the outcome of speaking up for you and them?
By the time #MeTooIndia arrived in September 2018, I had not an iota of an illusion that Indian law enforcement works. I had seen it personally, with an FIR I had filed against online harassers in 2016; studied seven of my nine subjects; and spoken to many survivors.
So, while I was glad for the opportunity to name Gautam Adhikari and Navroze Dhondy as “My #MeToo Media Men”, are you surprised that when there was all that talk about translating the allegations of #MeTooIndia into IRL FIRs and due process, I didn’t proceed? I filed a case against Navroze with the National Commission of Women; Gautam lived in the US and so I didn’t bother doing even that against him. I heard recently that he passed away late last year, and that was an ignominious end to a stellar career.
But this is not okay. The court of the media, social media and public opinion cannot replace a country’s justice system. The battle cannot rely solely on the pens of some empowered survivors (because not all survivors, even thrivers, want to talk about it) and feminists. The punishment cannot be some nebulous social censure. But even this — access to redress on social media, #MeTooIndia — is a privilege, not available to a Dalit village woman.
How far do you think the #MeToo movement has helped the cause of working women in India?
Looking back, I’d call it a mixed success.
Some of the accused have faced legal, social and/or economic consequences, some more severe than others; others have not. Some have taken the ‘offence is the best form of defence’ route. Others have gotten themselves exonerated by their own companies’ sham internal complaints committees, serving as their own judge and jury — like Vikas Bahl, the co-owner of the now-defunct Phantom Films; and Mukesh Chhabra of Mukesh Chhabra Casting Company. The backlash has heightened the paranoia and polarization around the ‘false rape complaint’, and #NotAllMen and #MenToo trend intermittently on Twitter.
Is the movement welcome, necessary? Oh, absolutely. It is a long-overdue correction against an unfair system; it made survivors and our physical, psychological, economic and professional damages visible. But #MeToo is not enough. What social, monetary price did these men pay, and how late in their lives?
Worldwide, the movement could not touch predators who are currently powerful. The reigning Indian megastar who raped his then-fifteen-year-old co-star over a month during the filming of a movie when he was in his forties will never be named because his survivor fears she will never work again.
Then there’s the predatory half of an Indian literary power couple whose wife is an enabler, sure to unleash a war on anyone who even tries to out him. This is triply unfortunate as the most powerful men can make the most dangerous and prolific predators. They’ll be further emboldened having escaped this day of reckoning. And they have time and testosterone left in them.
What’s worse in India is that #MeToo did not lead to the formation of Time’s Up, a movement which seeks to effect concrete change.
What’s your take on the Bois Locker Room incident?
I’m not surprised at all. In addition to the historic reasons for our unhealthy gender dynamic, we have the influx of porn and the rapid sexualisation of society, particularly since 2016, when Jio brought free internet to every phone. Rape is discussed in the mainstream now. So what do you think will happen when these factors converge in the minds of teenage boys?
These influences are not being combated by healthy, comprehensive sexuality education. We need CSE — call it ‘moral science’ if that makes it easier for people to palate, because respecting and understanding others’ and our bodies is moral and science.
Are things getting better or worse in this matter with the younger generations?
Whether talking about the gender dynamic in general or gender violence in particular, things are going to get worse before they get better.
“Violence is indicative of conflict in society — complete peace can be indicative of a highly oppressive status quo. The power differential isn’t static today because women aren’t accepting their realities anymore, and few men are willing to make peace with this fact,” says the famous criminologist Dr Vijay Raghavan of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
“The truth is women are much more powerful than us. So, these rules are just to subdue them,” is something I heard from jail. It follows that women not colouring inside the lines, not following the rules, must be overpowered and punished.
Violence is a symptom of the transition to an egalitarian society and, Dr Raghavan believes, the backlash will continue until “a new equilibrium is finally achieved.” I believe this dawn will come.
First published in eShe’s June 2020 issue
Syndicated to Money Control