Tuesday, June 29, 2010

On the Criminal Law (Amendment) Draft Bill, 2010; Sexual Assault, etc

I have been part of several discussions on the Criminal Law (Amendment) Draft Bill, 2010, which proposes crucial amendments to the sections of the Indian Penal Code that deal with sexual assault. Here's something I wrote for the New Indian Express, that was published on 30 May 2010, as part of a larger feature on this Draft Bill.


Gender and biological sex are two different things(Opinion | Aniruddhan Vasudevan)There are sure to be other takes on the Criminal Law (Amendment) Draft Bill, 2010 from the queer perspective, considering that the LGBT spectrum is wide and covers several sexual orientations and gender identities. This is just one. 

Section 375 of the IPC, which currently deals with sexual assault on women above the age of consent, should be made gender neutral, at least with respect to the victim of the assault. The argument often made to restrict Sec 375’s applicability to women is that sexual assault is a gendered crime. While the language of law appears to be speaking of gender, it is, in fact, speaking of biological sex. 

In other words, while the law perceives “women” as possible victims of sexual assault, it in fact means “females.” Therefore, it has been impossible for it to understand gender as a much broader axis of power, oppression and violence. 

Thanks to this lack of understanding of gender as a matrix of social codes and transgressions and not as some ‘natural’ outcome of one’s biological sex, the language of law fails to perceive that persons other than women are also regular targets of sexual assault. The possibility of serious harm to bodily integrity is a matter that also concerns persons other than women; bodies that are other than biologically female. For instance, when a kothi-identified person or an aravani is sexually assaulted by a man, it is indeed a gendered violence, for it is the person’s gender expression that becomes the site of sexual violence. Why should such violence be considered under a very archaic and morally-loaded category, “Of Unnatural Offences,” under Section 377?

Our understanding of what it means to be gendered has expanded beyond the narrow perception of sex=gender. You could be biologically male (sex), but if you are perceived to step over the gender norms that are purported to pertain to that category, you could be a potential target of sexual assault. We can continue to understand sexual assault as a gendered crime, without discounting the sexual assaults perpetrated on women, by taking into account the reality that bodies of those other than biological females constantly do become targets of sexual violence. 

To deny the very possibility of violence on the bodies that are gendered in so many ways, and not only those that are biologically female, would indeed be a gross disservice to feminism which, in the first place, expanded our understandings of what it means to be gendered. In other words, to apportion victimhood, when it comes to sexual assault, only to women is a regressive move that only reinforces the false notion that both ‘the sexual’ and its assault locate themselves in (certain parts of) the female body alone.

— The author runs the Chennai-based Shakti Center