Bring on the marriage strike

Some Indian men are threatening a marriage strike for a most dubious reason. Nilanjana Bhowmick tells them to bring it on.

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Let me begin with a cliché: at the pulsating centre of every Indian family are marriages. But who benefits from them? Apart from the wedding planners, caterers, decorators and other related businesses, the main beneficiaries of marriages in our country are – drumroll – men.

So, it was quite amusing when a section of Indian men went on a #MarriageStrike earlier this year, even as a bench of judges were hearing public interest litigations filed way back in 2015 that sought to criminalize marital rape. India has strict anti-rape laws – but with an exception that says sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife cannot be termed rape. This clears the path for men to get away with sexual assault within marriages.

According to the male strikers, criminalizing marital rape would leave men open to baseless criminal charges and make marriage a dangerous institution. But here’s the thing. Marriage is already a dangerous institution in India: for women.

For a majority of Indian women, it means loss of agency, freedom and confidence; intense emotional and physical labour; mental and physical abuse. Marriages impose such burdens on women that they are often forced to leave paid work. Why do you think only 22 per cent of Indian women are part of the formal workforce?

While these men were foolish enough to come out and tell the world that they want to preserve the right to rape their wives, our country as a whole has failed to protect women from this form of physical and emotional violence, which is socially sanctioned and hence remains hidden inside our homes.

Statistics back up this claim. The latest National Family Health Survey (2019) revealed that sexual violence by husbands in India was 40 times higher than that perpetuated by other men. The percentage of married women in India who experienced physical, sexual, or emotional violence by their spouses was 31 per cent, while over 5 per cent of women reported being forced into sexual acts by their husbands. These numbers are just what’s being reported – in a country where consent is often a fuzzy concept, especially when it comes to conjugal rights.

For years our government’s position on marital rape has been that it is an international (read ‘foreign’) concept that ‘cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament, etc’. The quoted words are from a written parliamentary response by a former Minister for Women and Child Development.

But marital rape is not just a concept – it is a crime, a violation, sexual assault. While criminalizing it would neither reform nor democratize the institution of marriage, it would at least bring in a semblance of accountability.

Here’s another cliché: Indian men are entitled. And most of that entitlement centres around the skewed power dynamics of their relationships with their wives. Anything that threatens that power centre brings out the fool in them. And a fool will say or do anything – including outing themselves smugly as pro-rape, as evidenced by the marriage strikers.