New Internationalist

To a place of healing

Issue 397

Lindsey Collen on the dramatic change in attitude towards rape.

Twenty-five years ago, there was great consternation in the village I live in, Bambous, when a young woman neighbour, Santa, was abandoned by her fiancé after he had tricked her into accompanying him into an empty house and then raped her. The consternation was around how to pressure the man to make amends for the rape by forcing him to go ahead and marry her. This was done by a band of Santa’s male relatives going over to his village and threatening to castrate him. The Criminal Code, as the band of men knew, specifies that castration is ‘excusable’ (meaning has lesser penalties) if carried out in direct response to an attack on a woman’s ‘chastity’.

Santa had acquiesced in the original marriage proposal. ‘I’m already 25,’ she had explained to me, ‘and my mother is a poor widow. She’s so pleased she’s found a suitable boy for me, because he owns a plot of land.’ But from the beginning Santa found the man repugnant. The rape obviously disgusted her further.

However, a shotgun marriage went ahead. Such was the attitude to rape, only 25 years ago.

I was among the women who had tried to give Santa the courage to refuse the marriage. But, after failing, and with the wedding preparations going ahead, I still had to face a serious moral dilemma when Santa asked, ‘Will you help me? Will you type a few wedding invitations?’

Anyway, the marriage lasted no more than three months. ‘I’m back!’ Santa announced one day. She got a job in a factory, made lots of friends, and lived happily ever after with her mother.

In those days rape within a marriage was not only not illegal, but was generally deemed impossible, a contradiction in terms. Marriage entitled a man to his wife, so how could he rape her? In the District Court in Bambous, I heard a barrister for the defence in a rape case get away with openly deriding two women who had been raped by police officers inside a police station.

It was against this baseline view of rape that, when my novel The Rape of Sita came out in 1994 and I came under death threats from some religious fundamentalists and under attack from the Government, a long debate ensued. It was something of a turning point in attitudes towards rape. Rape, once perceived as being ‘the woman’s crime’ could not go on being so. Old women who couldn’t read at all supported me for ‘allowing women who’d been wronged to walk with their heads held high’, as they put it.

I often wonder how it was that attitudes changed so much and so fast. Rape is now universally denounced. Woman speak out in public. Marital rape has been made an offence.

Perhaps the main underlying reality is that women’s oppression in Mauritius has always, since slave times, through indenture and into the modern epoch, been countered by a surprisingly strong women’s consciousness. Women never seem to have accepted the idea of being inferior. Oppression was imposed, resented and resisted. From the 1950s onwards a very organized, vocal women’s movement grew up around the political issue of the right to vote. Today there are over 600 women’s associations in Mauritius, and almost all of them have a dimension that is both emancipatory and political, as well as the jam-making and embroidery. There are two in Bambous.

Come 2001, when a Mauritian woman, Sandra O’Reilly, spoke out publicly about two double-rapes she suffered in one night, consciousness had reached such a height that the more advanced sections of the women’s movement put forward and won support for the demand that rape victims be able to report directly to a hospital and not have to go to a police station.

And by the end of 2006, after some women’s mobilization, the Women’s Rights Ministry, together with five main hospitals, issued a ‘protocol’ on what everyone should do after a sexual assault. You, as victim, can now go direct to a hospital for all the care you need, and a woman police officer interviews you as a witness, far away from the patriarchal structure of a police station. Police medical officers now examine you in a place of healing.

So women in Mauritius avoided making the demand for ‘Women police officers in each police station!’ or for ‘More punishment for rapists!’. Demands which, if won, probably would only strengthen, instead of weakening, the very patriarchy that allows such a thing as rape to exist.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

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