Isn’t it high time we criminalized marital rape?
Rape has become a familiar word in the Indian sub-continent.
In Bangladesh, in only six months in 2019, 731 incidents of sexual violence were reported by Bangladesh Mahila Parishad alone. The victims were raped and killed, but what is more alarming is that not a single case of marital rape was reported.
Bangladesh has a notion about rape that thrives on the idea that rape is a crime that occurs outside the sanctity of the home. But rapes are not always committed by strangers; sometimes, the perpetrators are the very individuals who are supposed to be the most trusted.
Marital rape, although real in the sub-continent, is swept under the rug because the rapist is not a stranger. The concept of consent is non-existent for married women in Bangladesh, owing to outdated laws and ancestral cultural narratives, passed on by generations.
A large segment of married women do not even register that they have been abused, since the necessity of consent for sex within a marriage is downplayed. They silently or grudgingly endure instead of protesting. As a consequence, there is no accountability or repercussion for these rapists, legally and socially.
It is a multi-faceted problem that starts with our cultural socialization from early childhood, which teaches us about “stranger danger” but forgets to instill in us that we need to be just as aware of the risk of being violated by also those who surround us.
For many, the stereotypical image of a rapist is that of a depraved man, who is alienated from our daily lives in the domestic and social spheres. The rapist is thought of as an unknown, faceless monster who is not part of our community, who is not within the family sphere, and certainly not our husbands.
In 1993, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights declared marital rape as a human rights violation, but Bangladeshi law makes it legally impossible for a man to be held accountable for raping his wife, if his wife is over 13 years of age.
Section 375 of the Penal Code (1860) states that “sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under 13 years of age, is not rape.”
On the one hand, our society gives men who are sexual offenders as husbands a free pass, and on the other hand, thousands of married women are desensitized towards the infringement of their right to consent.
Society creates a safe cocoon for men to commit marital rape by drawing a distinction between rape and marital rape. When someone commits a crime like murder, we call him or her a murderer, regardless of who he or she murders.
However, we draw a distinction when it comes to rape, which itself is a brutal act as the survivor has to live with the horrors of the incident.
When we label rape as “marital rape” we try to soften the tone of the crime, and try to find justifications for the rapist’s unacceptable and unforgivable conduct and it, in turn, endorses a punishable crime where the victim has to live with her rapist.
Sometimes married women are not even aware that they are being assaulted or raped. They are taught that they have no choice if it concerns their husbands. For many women, it is a sense of obligation they feel, endowed by familial and patriarchal cultural teachings handed down by generations.
Even when they confide about being raped to a trusted few, they are told that sexual intimacy between husband and wife is “normal” when demanded by the husband.
When the law of a country discriminates in protecting the rights of women based on her marital status, then there is little to prevent marital rape, since it is not even considered to be a crime.
Society is outraged to hear a man has raped someone. We condemn rapists and demand that they are severely punished. They are de-humanized in our minds. But when the same act is committed within marriage by a man who happens to be a family member or a friend, we do not treat the matter with the necessary gravity it demands. We do not criminalize the act as we should.
We find it difficult to imagine that someone we know personally could actually be a rapist. Some even find the concept of rape within a marriage to be ridiculous, thus dismissing the credibility of the woman in question.
Ostracizing a rapist is not a solution, but a new narrative where women can find the courage to speak up for their sexual rights within marriage must begin.
Men also must realize that there are consequences to violating consent, even within marriage.
It is high time that the laws of the country start criminalizing marital rape, instead of sheltering rapists.
Nasia Chowdhury is an educator and a GED instructor.