I accept the ambiguities that revolve around the term as I begin to discuss the word "consent." But I also wish to emphasize the importance of this seven-letter word, which is so powerful that it has caused wars in the past and continues to create disruptive frameworks even today. It was consent that provoked the great war of Mahabharata, and it was consent that produced the historical epic of Ramayana. However, engraved in history is not just the meaning of the word or the abundance of the term, but instead, its absence and the suffering it has caused to women.
As the Supreme Court takes up Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, patriarchy sharpens its swords, and consent remains trapped. The web of ambiguities in which consent lies was developed over time and embedded across generations into our consciousness. Patriarchy, in itself, is a flexible process, which has allowed it to persist even today.
In the Indian context, I find cultural norms located in the Upanishads responsible for causing ambiguities around consent. The Upanishads reduce women to mere vessels, lacking authority and individualism, created by man himself for himself. The Brihadarnayaka Upanishad, specifically, mentions a ritual where a man has to invite the woman for copulation, and if she resists, he is allowed to overtake her by force or recite a mantra that takes away her splendour.
"If she does not consent to have sex with him, he should bribe her, and if she continues to refuse, he should beat her with a stick or with his fists and overpower her."
In the West, the invisibility of consent today finds its justification in the intellectual theories of Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. While Locke argues consent to be an inexpression, for Hobbes, consent means power. For Rousseau, consent is too elite for a woman to possess. Well, the value of this prized possession continues to rise! Rousseau also claims that women are incapable of consenting as they lack individualism, reaffirming what the Upanishads argued.
Rousseau declares that women "must be trained to bear the yoke from the first ... and to submit themselves to the will of others," that is, the will of men. The influence of women, even good women, always corrupts men because women are "naturally" incapable of attaining the status of free and equal individuals, or citizens, and incapable of developing the capacities required to give consent.
And so, based on access, different groups found this rationale, allowing them to deprive the woman of her consent, via norms and great theories. I want to mention here that my interaction with various women exposed me to the different ways consent was undermined, where unawareness and fear grappled, where stories of subordination justified passivity, where "no" was valued only if the woman was "well-behaved" or where her "no" was perceived as an act.
With the depravity of a human right and its gross violation every day, the mundaneness in which such acts occur, patriarchy emerges victorious, defeating the voice of such women. It is interesting to note here that while earlier a woman was perceived as lacking rights and authority due to a man's "natural superiority," today, a woman's access to political rights and their mere consent to marriage makes consent during sexual intercourse irrelevant.
"The appearance of inequality between two individuals cloaks the unequal status of husband and wife through the contract of marriage."
One must keep in mind that the only cases of consent violation that make it to the court are the ones that showcase physical resistance. The ambiguity around other cases is cloaked by legal opinions that present a picture of the man's inability to understand the woman, of him being careless, of the woman's character being dissected, by creating "objective standards" and justifying actions as "reasonable mistakes."
A study by NFHS has shown that 82% of married men are sexually violent with their wives. In light of this, studies have shown that women often justify forced consent by saying things like "he occasionally forces himself," fear of abandonment, fear of violence, or to gain affection.
I wish to conclude by stating that the liberal society that sustains consent deprives women of it. Consent for women is treated as irrelevant, while that of men is given. The ambiguity that surrounds the term is further exacerbated by the lack of awareness in women as a result of the deprivation of education and the instillment of fear by the internalization of norms. Research has shown that the risk of experiencing unwanted sex reduces by 11% for each year of schooling that a woman has completed. Education then becomes a potential solution to the problem.
The failure to define consent is found in voluntary attempts to create ambiguities around it, entrapping it in a complex web of "natural characteristics" attributed to the sexes. Marriage acts as protection against coercion and a woman's loss of agency in the relationship, facilitated by historical, legal, and sociocultural factors, which make it impossible for them to have a say.
Having said that, I want to assert that no symbolic consent exists. Silence is a No, and a No is a No. A No is not to be considered a cloak of modesty for desire. Women are individuals with autonomy and authority. Only a Yes must be considered a Yes. Furthermore, consent once given does not mean consent for life.
"According to Rousseau, 'they must always say 'no' even when they desire to say 'yes'. Men are the 'natural' sexual aggressors; women are 'destined to resist.'"
The false play of patriarchy makes it difficult to define consent by producing obstacles. Thus, we must recognize the mutuality of consent and erase the ambiguity that surrounds it.
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