A Chilean feminist song about rape culture and victim shaming has recently gone viral. The performative piece, based on the work of Rita Segato by a group called Las Tesis, was first presented on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25, 2019. The song sent a tremor among feminist intellectual circles and encouraged others around the world to replicate it. The song has been translated, adapted and performed in London, Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, Barcelona, Nairobi, and last week, it reached Dhaka with a powerful chant: “The responsibility is yours; the rapist is you!”
The timing could not have been more apt. The protest performance is a visible, vocal public act that gave currency to the ongoing agitation, which started following the rape of a university student. The scope of the song is much bigger than the immediate incident, the impact of which probably will die down now that the alleged rapist has been captured. Thankfully, the perpetrator of the crime is now in custody, and the victim has already identified the violator. Indeed, the police deserves immense credit for nabbing the criminal with such dexterity and efficiency. Not often can we credit our uniformed men with such compliments. In fact, there have been many instances when members of the force have been accused and found guilty of raping, abusing or harassing women while in custody. This may justify one line of the song that says “the responsibility is yours, you police—the rapist is you!”
The lyrics, however, go much deeper than the surface statement. It unpacks a very sophisticated cerebral discussion that I am afraid is unavailable in our society at present. I say it with caution; but public reactions in the comment threads trailing the video clips enable me to make such an observation.
The song begins by blaming “macho patriarchy” that treats birth of a woman as a curse. It flays the ant like male attitude that considers women as metaphorical sugar. Responding to the virgin/vamp myth, in which women are either idolised as a mother/goddess or vilified as a lewd monster, the song points out that the free movement of a girl or the pretext of indecent dressing can never be an excuse for women being raped. The song holds patriarchy and its various agencies such as police, state, and the government responsible for rape to exist in the first place.
These are powerful words. Any literal interpretation of the song can miss the serious undertone, and I can see the danger of a line that calls everyone a rapist. We are all rapists for being passive consumers of a system or culture that allows gender power imbalance to exist. The song does not limit itself to the usual medical or psychological issues of rape. It factors in the larger context of patriarchy in which women are abused and oppressed. From a feminist perspective, rape is the result of differentiated and unequal gender roles in deeply rooted social traditions of male dominance and female exploitation.
A rape indeed is more than a physical violence, as Foucault reminded us in 1977. For him, legal system construes rape as a physical violation of a body—hitting of one body part with another. Rape is not a mere punch in the face, he provocatively stated. The existence of an illogical two-finger test for rape victims until the Supreme Court banned it in Bangladesh in 2018 is a case in point where rape propels rapes of various kinds. A rape victim is subjected to a series of traumas and humiliations that is no lesser than the actual act of violence. Media reports with gendered language or stereotypes often sensationalise rape, and are even guilty of contributing to male fantasy as they present the news as a sellable commodity. Our endorsement and consumption of such news items makes us all a guilty party.
The lyrics offer a bold shift from the #MeToo to “you too”. The confessional statements and coming out of the closet movement that became popular last year in which women narrated their side of the stories to expose the level of abuse has been taken to a new height. From the first person point-of-view, we move to the second person finger-pointing: the “you” is all of us.
When the rapist of the university student was produced before the media there was a sigh of relief. The profile of the guy matches the textbook stereotype of a rapist: a stranger in the alley swooping on a lonely girl in darkness. He exposes the underbelly of our city. A nightcrawler who roams the dark shadows beyond the airport road. He is an addict, and preys on vulnerable individuals. Seldom do we talk about marital rapes where a person is forced to perform an act against her/his will. Then there are the instances of peer gang rape. In recent days, we have seen men involved in power politics are getting implicated.
The number of sex related killing is increasing alarmingly. Even children are being violated and killed. I don’t want to bore you with numbers. We get to hear only the sensational cases when a university student is thrown off the roof of a multi-storied building or a little girl is abused by a religious preacher. We get to hear when victims complain about being drugged in parties. There are so many acts of violence that remain unreported and unaddressed! For instance, we will never know who killed Tonu inside Comilla Cantonment.
The song then is about a call for change. It is sung in a language that is meant to shock us. It points out that there is an unjust power relation between men and women in social practices concerning sexual or other behaviour. Language is a dress of our thoughts, and everything that we do or think is expressed in languages. By extension, our social practices are shaped by the language that we use. So when a religious leader compares women to tamarinds or a political leader deems of his wife as “a thing”, we realise that there is a tainted thought process that treats women as objects positioning the male as the privileged subject. If I am using similar language, then I too am subscribing to a world view that wants to degrade, devalue, subjugate or violate the other; the rapist, then, is me!
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org