WOW | Coffee Break
Three contemporary feminists: Luna Bhattarai, Youth Trainer, Founding Member of Rage Against Rape, Activist; Sumeera Shrestha, Executive Director of Women for Human Rights; and Dr Lhamo Sherpa, Independent Researcher share their views about rape culture with WOW’s Aakriti Maya Aryal.
How would you define rape culture?
Luna: In our society, rape culture shows its face in so many interactions ranging from teasing women, harassment (public or private), discrimination between sons and daughters and most of all, the normalisation of all of these behaviours. In Kathmandu, this is maintained by the mentality that estai ta ho ni (this is how it is), bhai rahancha (these things happen), keta bhanya estai huncha (men will be men).
Dr. Lhamo: The term “Rape Culture” was coined in 1970’s in the United States by feminists in response to conversations about the pervasiveness of rape and sexual violence in culture. There was continued debate about this term because of the discomfort of people had associating rape with a concept as broad as the culture.
Sumeera: When I think of the word ‘culture’ I assume it to be the pattern of life. Rape culture describes how an act of sexual violence is a pattern of life, normalised and accepted in a neutral way. Social attitude regarding rape culture is simply that it is a way of life. Kathmandu is the cultural, political and geographical hub of the country making the lives of people here very multicultural, with the added layer of increased access to the outside world. This amalgamation of people, ideologies and value systems makes violence patterns in Kathmandu unique and complex. Rape culture here ranges from domestic violence to alcoholism, to internet violence and everything in between.
Is rape culture normalised in our society?
Luna: Our society is very patriarchal. Rape culture is normalised through our religious practices, our culture and our households within our families – all the layers contribute to enforcing the patriarchal status quo. Society is just a reflection of individual households and voices that speak out against this system are sparse and external. I had had these conversations with brothers and cousins within my family and asked them “Why do men look at me like that? Why do they sing songs when I am walking by? I have never once felt the urge to do the same!” To which they reply that they themselves have never even considered the fact that they are making women feel uncomfortable with their behaviour. That is how normalised rape culture really is, it’s to the point that men often don’t even realise that their actions make women feel unsafe every day.
“Women are so vulnerable that despite our strongest convictions, we have to pick and choose where we put up a fight for the sake of our own physical safety.
– Luna Bhattarai”
– Luna Bhattarai”
Sumeera: When we talk about normalisation, it means that there is some sort of joint consensus. It means that we are comfortable with sexual violence in our society. While most people get angered by the act of rape, they are complicit in other forms of rape culture. Rape culture is like a spectrum that every individual falls under, some are more accepting of violence against women and others are less tolerant but everyone is a part of it. Acceptance patterns include people of all genders and ages, the moment an individual accepts that such is reality with an “estai ho” they are actively contributing to rape culture.
Dr Lhamo: I hesitate to use to word “normalised” because I feel like there is a high level of awareness lately in Kathmandu. But there are two forms of reactions, vertical and horizontal. Vertical awareness is top-down and includes public education, awareness of human rights and women’s rights. Horizontal awareness is in regards to intervention, governmental policies and systematic changes. Though individual awareness is high, the system is not prepared to handle and punish perpetrators as they should. As long as horizontal changes are not instituted, rape incidents will continue to rise.
Have you ever felt unsafe?
Luna: Very recently, a construction worker in my neighbourhood was teasing me and blowing kisses at me from a couple of stories above. The very next day, I was driving back from a party on my scooter and my husband was in front of me on his own motorcycle with my sister on the back. They were quite a distance ahead of me when two men on motorbikes surrounded me and simultaneously slowed me down and followed me. When I recalled these experiences, my husband questioned why I didn’t go up to these men and confront them personally like I usually do when I face everyday harassment on public transportation or on the streets in the daytime. The answer is that I felt scared. I was afraid of going up to the construction worker because he had a bunch of men around him, the same goes for the men on bikes. Women are so vulnerable that despite our strongest convictions, we have to pick and choose where we put up a fight for the sake of our own physical safety.
Who are the biggest perpetrators of rape culture in Kathmandu?
Luna: The many aspects of our society such as households, religion, individuals and most of all its social education. This isn’t a male vs. female issue. If I don’t challenge ideas and harassment I am part of the problem too. If I judge other women for the way they dress and express themselves, I am also contributing to rape culture. From the stories that we hear and the way we react to it… we are perpetrators in the ways we react. For example, the new bride of my male cousin divorced him and my mum called me to give me the news immediately judging the bride and putting the blame on her. I asked my mother if she knew the reason for the divorce. Turns out that my cousins’ family wanted more dowry! Once again, my mother’s judgement immediately changed as she praised the woman for being bold enough to ask for divorce.
Sumeera: When we are talking about rape culture, it is both an individual and systemic issue. If we are talking about perpetrators as individuals, it can include everyone from actual rapists to people that are complicit in the face of sexual violence, who don’t speak up and take part in victim blaming. If we are talking about perpetrators as a system, we need to think about sex, gender, gender roles, and caste dynamics – discrimination in all of its forms. When there is discrimination, power dynamics are created. Soon, this becomes power imbalance motivating people to exert power over more vulnerable groups. Since rape culture is a systemic issue, perpetrators are those with power and can be individuals, organisations (advertising/media), groups of men, groups of women etc. Rape culture begins with gendered differences, and everyone needs to understand and acknowledge that they are a part of the system as well. We need to question our value system and the way we think under the patriarchal status quo.
“Rape culture begins with gendered differences, and everyone needs to understand and acknowledge that they are a part of the system as well.
– Sumeera Shrestha”
– Sumeera Shrestha”
Dr Lhamo: In our society, men are at the forefront of perpetuating rape culture. With that being said, social hierarchies such as economic status, age etc. must also be considered. Power dynamics are central to rape culture; power is the biggest perpetrator of all.
What are ways we can combat rape culture in our society?
Luna: Change begins at home and within the family. Society has plenty of rules and regulations set for us. More specifically, in a nosey society like ours, gossip and judgment are commonplace. We have to teach our children good values from early on. We have to teach them that honour doesn’t rest on the vagina, and that gender roles are archaic. My father always told me and my sisters that he isn’t worried about us at all because we are financially independent and socially empowered. He jokes that he worries about his son in law more than about us!
Sumeera: There is a strong culture in Kathmandu of passive observation. To combat rape culture, we have to speak out and be active challenging and questioning people when they are sexist, abusive or are harassing those in front of us. As mothers, daughters, sisters we have to speak up and challenge the roots of patriarchy. We need to stop letting things go. We need to support informal organisations and spend our time and efforts aligning our actions with our values. We need to understand the different forms of privilege including caste and class and value human life. I also believe strongly in raising children with values that actively combat gender-centric norms by practising gender-neutral parenting and teaching consent to both boys and girls from a very young age.
Lhamo: There is a book that I read recently called Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman that details how there are two types of thinking, system one and system two. System one is immediate reactions to information that is ingrained within our psyche, whereas system two is a slower process of critical and analytical thinking. Another book, Biology of Belief by Dr Bruce Lipton explains that almost 95% of the information in our minds is fixed by the age of seven, what we learn afterwards comprises of only a measly 5%. These concepts go together, most information that is “set” in our mind we respond to with system one thinking making us incapable of critically analysing information that we aren’t conditioned to agree with. When we hear news of rape incidents or sexual violence, it often conflicts with the observational information we have been exposed to all of our lives. Since most of us haven’t seen rape or sexual violence committed, news of rape and what leads to rape isn’t deeply ingrained in the minds. People often have defensive reactions when confronted with their role in rape culture. In order to combat this, we need repetitive information. Headlines that read RAPE! With images of vulnerable looking, young women feed to existent stereotypes that people already hold, making the reality of rape culture seems like a distant concept. We need news to relay the whole story, from rape incidents to trials, to convictions, to socialisation that leads to rape.
Do you think that rape culture creates rapists?
Luna: I would say that rape culture motivates rapists. Someone might cat call on the street- nothing happens, then they might touch a woman inappropriately – nothing happens again, slowly abuse escalates because of the lack of repercussions. When rape culture is normalised like it is, individuals aren’t held accountable for their actions because the blame is shifted to the victim. The victim is questioned about why she dressed a certain way, why she consumed alcohol, why she was talking to this man and the actions of the abuser don’t get questioned at all.
Sumeera: I don’t believe that anyone is born a rapist, it’s the socialisation process, individual behaviours and power exertions that lead to rape. The culture to be masculine and therefore dominant and assert power through violence is internalised and this culture creates rapists. This is also why marginalised communities and children are most vulnerable to sexual violence including but not limited to, rape.
Dr Lhamo: Since all people with psychological problems aren’t rapists, rapists are not all born with some kind of psychological issue. Rapists are the product of the information that they hold in their minds, and the lack of systematic accountability. If there is a person that has raped in Kathmandu, there is a very high probability that they will not rape in Singapore because the system of enforcement is strong. Laws and law enforcement needs to instill a sense of fear and understanding in people, so in that way, rape doesn’t just come down to culture – the legal systems need to be strong and punitive.
“Power dynamics are central to rape culture; power is the biggest perpetrator of all.
– Dr Lhamo Sherpa”
– Dr Lhamo Sherpa”
How does our society contribute to the objectification of women?
Luna: In advertising and media we see images of women that are hyper sexualised and devoid of any identifying characteristics. If not that, there are ads that contribute to the idea of the “perfect woman” being there to serve her husband and family. There was a recent bank advert that depicted actor Keki Adhikari being the ideal domesticated woman that brings food to her husband Dahayang Rai, fixes his tie and serves her son while advocating the benefits of online banking. When some of us criticised the stereotypes shown in this ad, the backlash was unbelievable. Comments on social media were direct insults to my character and humanity. It is one thing to criticise my opinion, but what is often found in the realm of social media is that when a woman in our society have a contradicting opinion, criticism is directed to her womanhood! It’s as though people are insulted by the fact that I am a woman with an opinion and that is all they see. In today’s age of internet – sexism on social media is a huge contributing factor to rape culture.
Dr Lhamo: The biggest example of objectification in our government is our president herself. She holds the position with the hope that she would strengthen the case and voices of women throughout the country. But look at her reaction to Nirmala Panta’s rape; she failed to pressure the police and government into taking any kind of legitimate action. What’s more, she hesitated in speaking out against sexual violence in the country, defensively reacting against the interest of women in Nepal minimising the voices of women challenging the patriarchal status quo in the country. Hence, if the supposed ‘most powerful female in the country’ is an object, where does that leave the rest of the nation?