Since the brutal gang rape in Dehli in 2012, India’s rape laws have tightened significantly. While this is obviously a necessary and positive development, India is now also seeing a newer troubling phenomenon. An article in the WSJ reports that as a “desperate last resort,” women who find themselves pregnant out of wedlock and abandoned by the baby’s father are filing rape complaints against their former partners.
“No one keeps a tally, but the cases are common enough that police in the capital city of New Delhi have a special term for them: ‘false promise’ complaints, referring to men who promise marriage in hopes of persuading a woman to agree to sex,” the article explains.
These complaints conflate the act of rape with that of deception: “False-promise allegations often don’t involve a single sexual incident, but rather the contention that all of the sex within a relationship was actually rape, because consent was gained using deception.” The article goes on to say that women file these rape complaints as “one of the few tools” available to them “to achieve social acceptance,” since single mothers commonly face being ostracized by their families and wider society. A woman’s “image in the society is more vulnerable than a man’s,” explained one New Delhi lawyer. Furthermore, the practice is both relatively common and legal, according to the courts.
While the legal, social, and moral complications of such a practice are many, here I hope to address the latter two from what might be called a Catholic “new feminist” perspective.
India, like many other places in the East, seems to be entering into a time of reflection and dialogue about the role of women in society. One reporter notes, “The battle for women’s rights in the world’s largest democracy has only just started.” As India moves towards greater protection and freedom for women, let us hope that while the feminist movement in the US may sometimes serve as an example of what to strive for, it can also act as a cautionary tale for the avoidance of further problems.
In the case of India’s false promise complaints, some may argue that the main issue lies in a society that ostracizes pregnant, unmarried women for simply practicing their sexual freedoms as men do; a Catholic new feminist analysis will instead argue for the importance of personal responsibility in moral choices and charity toward others in social relationships.
When John Paul II called for a new feminism in Evangelium Vitae, he asked that women work to “overcome all discrimination, violence, and exploitation”, but also that they not fall prey to “models of ‘male domination.’” The interpretation of “male domination” is a subject of debate: here we simply acknowledge the call for women to avoid entering into a power struggle with the aim of controlling another human person.
Sadly, when the sexual act becomes separated from the loving and secure context of the marital covenant, it does result in a power struggle: usually for both parties involved. Without the complete assurance of a lifetime commitment, fear of betrayal or abandonment accompanies the act meant to give witness to a lasting promise. Thus, while the sexual revolution championed by secular feminists in the US assured new “freedoms,” it in fact brought with it a host of complications and battles for power.
Here we must pause to make an obvious distinction between the actual act of rape in which one person is acted upon violently and without her consent by another, and the act of premarital or extramarital sex in which two parties engage freely in sexual activity. A woman who is raped cannot be held responsible for violence done to her: men who perpetrate such crimes should be prosecuted justly. In these false promise complaints however, women file “a rape complaint to try to secure a marriage,” thereby confusing the issues. While the men who have abandoned these women may be guilty of many things including cowardice and irresponsibility, accusing a man of a violent crime that he did not commit cannot be the solution to such a problem.
Today, India’s women are beginning to experience more freedoms, socially, than they have in past generations – though much work still remains to be done. Girls have more access to education than they did in the past, but they still lag behind boys. And even with the hope for an increased number of women in political positions, women in higher education on the path to promising careers, sadly, still live in fear of sexual assault. As one woman writes, Indian women seem to be “liberated with clauses” – a mix of hope for future developments and fear of past discrimination. Events like the horrific gang rape in Delhi have sparked a much-needed public conversation about women’s rights. One activist notes, “Students are reading about and debating the history of women’s movements. There’s deep introspection about how we end up sustaining violence and discrimination against women.”
As with second wave-feminism in the US, though, “modern” Indian women seem to be going beyond a welcome embrace for these very positive social developments like higher education and prosecution of sexual crimes. They have begun to buy into the idea that if (like men) they can have higher education, careers, legal rights, etc., they can also (like men) enjoy sexual “freedoms” outside of marriage.
Two problematic presumptions underlie such a belief: first, that sexual activity outside of marriage is a kind of freedom; second, that men have somehow experienced a “good” by embracing such activity. Men who engage in sexual promiscuity not only act immorally, but may suffer or cause others to suffer the many consequences predicted by Paul VI in Humane Vitae, not the least of which is reducing another person “to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” Certainly the men of India who abandon their pregnant partners would fit this description.
These problems of men are also shared by women who engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, but they are increased exponentially by the simple fact that women have babies. India’s “false promise” complaints are not lodged merely by women who have been abandoned by men, but specifically by women who are pregnant with the child of a man who promised her marriage. Women bear one key visible consequence of the sexual act: pregnancy. For this reason, women are simply naturally more vulnerable. Even with the use of contraception, pregnancy remains a possibility, no matter what percentage the likelihood.
The WSJ article notes that India’s culture still holds women to a higher standard than that of men: “across wide swaths of Indian society, women known to have had sexual relations or to have given birth out of wedlock can face extreme stigma and have almost no good options.” The solution to women’s vulnerability will not come with an eradication of a “double standard” or the social stigmas accompanying single motherhood, however. In fact, this has been tried in many places in the world. While the consequences may include the positive result that children of single mothers and women themselves are less ostracized from society – no “scarlet letters” and their accompanying rejection – one cannot disregard the great body of evidence that shows just how much fatherless children suffer. Single motherhood is never an ideal situation, most especially for children. Moreover, the eradication of social stigma is not a cancellation of the natural vulnerability that accompanies a woman’s ability to become pregnant. Even in societies where women do not face being ostracized, single mothers are left with the unshared burden of parenting, and men are often able to evade their fatherly responsibilities.
Here we must make another crucial distinction, however: that is, just because women are more vulnerable than men, this does not make them less responsible for their actions. John Paul II addresses this point in Mulieris Dignitatem, saying that woman’s human dignity “directly depends on woman herself, as a subject responsible for herself, and at the same time it is “given as a task” to man.” In this statement, the late Pontiff addresses the issues of both vulnerability and responsibility: the woman is called to be a person in possession of herself as a moral agent; at the same time, man is called to care for the woman – in this case, the woman who may bear their child.
The governing principle, then, must be one of personal responsibility for both men and women. Women and men who freely choose to engage in sexual activity outside the loving and secure context of marriage both must take full responsibility for their moral choices and the consequences thereof, including pregnancy. Sexual activity outside of marriage results in a power struggle which can be avoided by placing such actions within the context of a loving life-time covenant, governed by the truth of man and woman “entrusted to each other as persons,” as Pope John Paul II notes.
As feminism moves eastward across the globe, women of the West have a responsibility to ensure that others can both see and learn from our mistakes, in the hope that they may avoid repeating them. Women and their families throughout the world benefit from things like access to education and participation in political systems: a Catholic new feminism will work to promote these goods for women who are still treated in a discriminatory manner. At the same time, we cannot allow the lies about “sexual freedom” to be conflated with “women’s liberation.” Men and women both suffer when sex is removed from the context of committed marital love; because of their natural vulnerability, women often suffer more.
The women of India deserve better than being deceived and abandoned by men; they also deserve better than being lied to with the false promises of “sexual liberation.