Recently, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Haribhai Parathibhai Chaudhary claimed in the Rajya Sabha that marital rape cannot be criminalised in India as marriages are sacred in the country. Thus making laws against marital rape in India a culturally irrelevant concept. Of course, several jurists, activists and feminists were angered; not just by the statement but also by the fact that it would mean regression as far as the passing of laws is concerned. The Justice Varma Committee, which was set up after the Nirbhaya case, had clearly suggested that marital rape be recognised as a malaise facing Indian society and relevant laws be made to make the act punishable. Then, what makes the honourable minister claim that ours is an exceptional society and laws regarding marital rape are not culturally relevant?
Firstly, a lot of violence against women in India continues because it is written off as being one of the private domain. You may go to the police to register an FIR and you will be told, "yeh ghar ka maamla hai" thus making it "okay" for them not to register the FIR. If one is not aware of her rights, one is most likely to return disappointed assuming that in fact the law does not cover matters related to our personal lives. A fallacious assumption. In any case, there are laws that govern marriage, property, inheritance, child adoption, dowry and violence and several such "personal" matters, then what makes marital rape an exception? It is good to remind ourselves in such situations that the personal is indeed, political.
Personally, I'm not sure why cultural relevance was a question at all. India is one of the most patriarchal countries there can be and I say this from personal experience. I understand my views may be biased in this respect, but again, I do have enough facts behind me to support my claim. There is no woman who can claim that she has not faced any form of sexual harassment in her life. Not even a young child of 2 years of age, who barely understands what it is to be human is safe. Nor is a 70 year old woman who is way past her prime years. What makes marital rape culturally relevant is precisely this fact that women in India, even today are forced into marriages and often to men who they do not wish to marry. The scope to negotiate the terms of marriage are limited, vis a vis her own family as well as the groom's family. If her consent for the marriage itself is not of much significance, then why do we assume that her consent would be considered important in matters of sexual relations?
Marriage in India is considered to be the legitimate access to having sex. It's easiest to check into a hotel if you can say and "look" married. Ask a non wedded couple their experience while getting a room even on a vacation, and you will know that I mean. With a cultural assumption that marriage is a free pass to having sex, marital rape only seems like a possible consequence of such an assumption. When consent to marriage is a consent to all that comes with it, especially sex, it seems only fair that such statements are made which reek of the same patriarchal assumption; that marital rape is a misnomer, something odd that doesn't fit with Indian society and it's concept of marriage because you consented when you signed up for the marriage in the first place. The concept of consent for sex isn't relevant in our deeply patriarchal, cultural imagination. But the laws against marital rape then, certainly are.