The Farce of Self-Defence

Ananya Agarwal

Why promoting self-defence is a negligent and weak attempt to solve the rape crisis in India

Content Warning: Rape and Sexual assault 

Rape and everyday instances of sexual violence are a lived experience for Indian women. In 2018, the Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women. This follows from the 2012 gang rape that shocked the nation, made headlines globally, and brought the conversation around sexual violence to the forefront. 

One would assume that since then, the number of rape cases in India would have gone down. However, as per the Crime in India 2012 report released by N.C.R.B. (National Crime Report Bureau), the number of reported rape cases rose from 24,923 in 2012 to 33,356 in 2018. These numbers are limited to rape and do not include reports of other forms of sexual violence, such as an attempt to rape, sexual harassment in different forms and, stalking, etc. It is important to highlight that most cases of these various forms of sexual violence go unreported. 

Under these circumstances, we see many advocating for self-defence as a solution to rape. A prominent example is a statement by the Delhi High Court advising girls to learn self-defence. There are several instances of Indian actors advocating for self-defence. When asked about the threat of harassment and assault that women face on a daily basis, they suggested that women should learn how to defend themselves. Actor Sushmita Sen shared her own story of being harassed recently by a 15-year-old boy and how she was able to detect him out of a crowd and confront him because of her self-defence training. She advised girls to learn self-defence.

“It is important to understand how sexual assault is rooted in a display of dominance and power over women”

The argument for self-defence goes back to the 1960s and the 1970s when it was seen as a means of empowering women. If women could learn to protect themselves against their attackers, there would be a decline in the number of rape cases. It is important to understand how sexual assault is rooted in a display of dominance and power over women. Tearing down the patriarchal mindset was and remains a humongous task. It may have been easier for women to take their security and well-being into their own hands because the system failed to help them. 

“The idea of self-defence is problematic for many reasons, primarily because it gives in to the idea that brutal attacks are impossible to stop, that they can ‘happen’ to anyone, anywhere, and therefore, the victim-survivors should stay alert and be well equipped to defend themselves”

Even though women’s position in society has arguably improved since the 1960s, the self-defence argument remains popular in the mainstream. It is problematic for many reasons, primarily because it gives in to the idea that brutal attacks are impossible to stop, that they can ‘happen’ to anyone, anywhere, and therefore, the victim-survivors should stay alert and be well equipped to defend themselves, at all times. This leads to transferring the responsibility from the attacker onto the person who is being attacked – creating a very clear shift of blame.

On invoking the idea of self defence, like in the bygone decades, we make the debate about a victim-survivor’s ability to protect themselves. However, it is not a question of whether a victim-survivor is able to protect themselves when they are in that situation. It is a question of why they find themselves in that situation in the first place. If we think that self-defence can prevent rape, we must question if victim-survivors will stop being targetted by rapists once they learn how to defend themselves. Will learning self-defence prevent an attack? The simple, and yet harsh answer is no.

“More often than not, the attacker is known to the victim-survivor”

When we think of rape, what comes to mind is a vicious attack by a stranger in a dark alley.  But more often than not, the attacker is known to the victim-survivor. It takes place in their own house and in their bedrooms. As per the data provided by N.C.R.B. (National Crime Records Bureau), in 2018, 94% of all sexual offenders were family members, friends, neighbours, employers, live-in partners, etc. In such cases, the victim-survivor may not be able to use the strategy of self-defence while under attack. This can be due to many reasons, for instance, the internal conflict caused due to familiarity with the attacker can lead to a range of feelings like fear, betrayal and bewilderment.  

It is also imperative to emphasize the concept of re-victimization. An individual who has experienced sexual assault earlier in their life may struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.), which may cause physical as well as psychological trauma. When faced with a similar situation again, their brain and body may react by shutting down to prevent further trauma rendering them incapable of defending themselves in any other way. Research shows that it is common for the victim-survivor to freeze in cases of first-time assaults as well. Sexual assault is not a natural interaction wherein people can apply their common sense and know how to react. It can be an extremely traumatic event and advocating for self-defence makes the victim-survivor answerable for it.

“The lack of acknowledgement that a person who is being raped may already be in a physically vulnerable position and self-defence may not be an option at all is a big blind spot when considering it to be the solution”

Moreover, the use of self-defence can result in escalating the situation and lead to even more harmful consequences. The lack of acknowledgement that a person who is being raped may already be in a physically vulnerable position and self-defence may not be an option at all is a big blind spot when considering it to be the solution. Victim-survivors often have to make the difficult trade-off between defending themselves and potentially aggravating the attacker(s) further, risking immense pain and even more severe injuries. 

In 2018, it was found that every fourth rape victim in India was a minor. According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, 34.7% of all crimes against children are rape cases. Sexual offenses also take place, for instance, against physically and mentally disabled, as well as aged people. Cases of sexual assault have surfaced while people have been in custody, by police personnel, public servants, jail staff and others. Last week, a custodial rape case came to light in the state of Orissa where a 13-year old tribal minor was repeatedly sexually assaulted by the Inspector-in-charge. Citing self-defence as a solution to rape and sexual assault does not address the plight of minors, physically and mentally disabled, elderly, who may not have the physical capacity required to defend themselves.

“Much like many other cited solutions, some of which seek to restrict and confine people within societal boundaries “walk around in groups”, “show no skin”, “don’t step out after dark”, self-defence also does not provide a concrete solution”

Today, many understand that sexual assault is immoral and look down on it, but they are not cognizant of why it’s wrong. Before we instill fear in potential sex offenders, it is essential to educate them about why it is wrong and how they could be violating someone and impacting their life in immeasurable ways. Much like many other cited solutions, some of which seek to restrict and confine people within societal boundaries “walk around in groups”, “show no skin”, “don’t step out after dark”, self-defence also does not provide a concrete solution. 

While the idea of self-defence may be attractive, it is an unsatisfactory attempt to solve a larger and more foundational issue. The attention, instead, should be on challenging the systemic conditions that allow rapes to happen as frequently as they do while letting rapists get away without justice. It is critical to focus on creating awareness about sex education and consent as well as fighting the stigma surrounding sexual assault and supporting victim-survivors.

 A management consultant by profession, Ananya is a part of team Bol. She enjoys experimenting with different creative mediums and seeks out all things chocolate.

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