At the root of rape is language

The myth of Callisto is just one amongst the countless stories, fables and anecdotes of ‘ravished maidens’, a trope so recurrent and all-pervasive in literature, that it can be said for certainty to be an expression of ‘institutionalised rape.’

In a well-known story from Greek mythology, Callisto, a nymph of the warrior goddess Artemis (also known as Diana in Roman retellings), was raped by Zeus, the king of the Greco-Roman gods, while she rested in the forest, tired after a hunt. After the rape, Artemis exiles her, and Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife, turns Callisto into a bear. Wrenched from imminent motherhood, for a bear couldn’t raise a half-human, half-god child, Callisto is finally ‘rescued’ by Zeus out of pity and turned into the Great Bear constellation.  

The myth of Callisto is just one amongst the countless stories, fables and anecdotes of ‘ravished maidens’, a trope so recurrent and all-pervasive in literature, that it can be said for certainty to be an expression of ‘institutionalised rape.’ Ancient and Medieval literature from Greco-Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic, Norman or Celtic sources reveal references to women, from virgins, to wives and mothers, being sexually sacrificed almost ritually, and without a bat of an eyelid, to please a tyrannical god, or as war booty for the victorious soldier. Who can forget the maidens Chrysies and Briseis, in Homer’s Iliad, who are vanquished by the Aegean commander Agamemnon and the warrior-hero Achilles, when they destroy the temple of Apollo in Troy? Similarly, in French Romance literature of the medieval period, although the heroine is courted and pursued by a gallant knight, innumerable virgins and female figures get sexually assaulted, raped and even killed by assorted male characters of the fables. In fact, in Old French, there is actually no word that literally corresponds to rape, though in modern French the word viol exists, which means sexual violation. In the words of the renowned French feminist Helene Cixous, “Language conceals an invincible adversary because it is the language of men and their grammar. We mustn’t leave them a single place that’s anymore theirs alone than we are.”

Cixous’ clarion call to women to investigate, demolish and redesign the ‘grammar and language of men’ was a milestone in the tumultuous history of French Feminism. Language had been an unequivocally male bastion, as were all the subject areas of human enquiry, such as philosophy, history, medicine, cosmology, physical sciences, as well as the arts, poetry, dramaturgy, music, painting, and of course logic and rhetoric. The archaeology of human enquiry betrays such a mammoth misogyny in every aspect of life that subjugation of women had been entrenched in the cultural DNA of every civilisation. This is especially true of the foundational holy texts and scriptures, from the Bible – Hebrew, Latin, English and other translations – to the Hindu scriptures such as Upanishads, Vedas, or ancient texts such as Manusmriti, where rape is ‘the theft of sexual property,’ indicating that a sexual assault on a woman violates the man who holds the rights to a woman’s sexuality, usually her father or husband, but not the woman herself.

In the distorted logic of the sexual marketplace, rape is a crime inasmuch as it defiles the sexual good that the female body is, making it unfit for further consumption of her legal (or prospective) consumer, i.e., her husband. A raped woman is a damaged good: she can’t be sold by her father or enjoyed by her husband.      

Theories of sexual aggression and victimisation have been shedding light on the role of rape myths in the perpetuation of sexual assault. Literature, history, philosophy and medicine have been instrumental, epistemologically, in spreading afar and justifying male aggression against women, by cordoning off the female world behind the bars and barricades of definitions, codes, conduct, terminology, phraseology, medical and religious lexicon, thus not just creating, but rather, enthusiastically accepting the rapist as a punisher of loose women (since ‘only sexually wanton girls get raped; they ask for it’).

Numerous rape narratives in literature have demonstrated that the rapist, often a member of the aristocracy or business class, such as in Samuel Richardson’s classic Pamela, or Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, doesn’t suffer as much social vilification as he undergoes a moral struggle within himself as a revolt against his heinous act. Further, literature has been implicit in perpetuating the myth that women secretly covet rape; that they mean ‘yes’ when they say ‘no’; they just act coy or resist to prolong the sexual titillation; at the base of it, no woman can refuse a sexual advance — the refusal is always a disguised and tacit approval.

All foundational stories and histories of origin contain the rape of women and murder of men, women and children. From Livy’s history of Rome’s origins, to the present day extraction of historical records during medieval or colonial times, politics has been inextricably linked with the bodypolitic — especially of the woman. Raped, mutilated, dead or disappeared women litter the pages of history. The American state of Virginia is named after a historico-mythical character Verginia, who, when threatened with rape, is killed by her own father to let her escape the fate of being ‘violated.’ A number of American presidents have been known to rape their female acquaintances or attendants, but the tales are either hushed up as unsubstantiated rumours, or are circulated as juicy gossip of the President’s sexual bravado. In the world wars, women have been routinely used and raped: more so if they were from the working class, or had communist inclinations. Chastity is not a deterrent to rape: the hitherto chaste woman becomes defiled the moment she’s forcibly consumed.      

Closer home, in traditional Hindu scriptures and ancient lore, the ultimate authority of a husband over his wife was indicated by ‘his operational availability over her body’, as suggested by scholars of Indian gender studies. “Marriage makes man master of his wife’s womb,” thus overruling any possibility of such a thing as ‘marital rape.’ Further, the ideal wife, according to scriptures, is “one who does household chores like a servant, gives counsel like a minister, is as beautiful and charming as the goddess Laxmi, is as patient as the earth-goddess, bestows love and tenderness like a mother, and gives pleasure like a courtesan.” A classic example of the treatment meted out to the wife is how Ram banishes Sita to the forest because he cannot fathom how a man, Raavan, can leave a woman within his power untouched. In the Hindutva-laced veneration of Ram as ‘maryada purushottam’ (the first among honourable men), his despicable but socially-enforced misogyny is firmly reinforced as the strength and nobility of his character, while Raavan, who indeed deserves respect for knowing how to behave with a woman, and who had vowed never to touch a woman without her consent, is cast as an evil abductor and the arch-villain.

Sita horrified at seeing Ravaan cutting Jathayu's wing.
Wikimedia Commons/Raja Ravi Rama (1848-1906). Public domain.

As the current brouhaha against Bollywood item numbers and the chartbusters from the Punjabi pop singer Yo Yo Honey Singh amply demonstrates, objectification and commodification of the female body go hand in hand with the never-ending brutalising of women. In this age of sexual fuzziness and ambiguity, the classic dichotomy between the virgin and the whore, or the sexually available seductress and the sexually unavailable chaste woman, is breaking down. Bollywood and exposure to western media have had a lot to contribute in this regard. While the Delhi gang rape victim has been given the sobriquet ‘Damini’ — perhaps after the important Hindi film depicting the harrowing experience not just of rape, but also the attendant legal procedures, wherein the woman, and her witness, experience repeated verbal rapes — it is also Bollywood that thrusts upon us the item numbers in which the dancing girl willingly and knowingly equates herself with meat which must be eaten.

Though some examples do now exist in which the hero as sex symbol comments on his own sexuality before a battery of women consumers (the song ‘Subah Hone Na De’ from the recent film Desi Boyz comes to mind), it is almost always the female who is the object of the cultural male gaze (wherein, even the women look at each other through patriarchal eyes). Whether item numbers should be banned is a different debate, and frankly, I am against any kind of creative censorship, albeit a sense of self-regulation and a tilt towards conscientiousness, would do wonders for our films.

This is certainly not to say that all forms of sexual desire should be put under surveillance or be relinquished. In fact, just the opposite is the hallmark of a truly progressive society, in which sexual desires can be expressed freely and without violence, where the leashes on sexuality are let loose, despite being attached to an enlightened approach to sexual mutuality. The song ‘Aga Bai’ from the Rani Mukherjee starrer Aiyya reclaims the agency for the female body by articulating the feminine desire for consensual sex and carnality. Erotically shot, but aesthetically pleasing, this song can be the new template for future item numbers, as our lyricists, musicians, script and dialogue writers wrestle with the challenges of verbalising the melodies of sexual equality.

About the author

Angshukanta Chakraborty is a media scholar and writer based in New Delhi.