“I am not now to learn that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second, or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”
That was the speech Mr. Collins makes to Elizabeth Bennet when she refuses his marriage proposal in Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Did Elizabeth succumb to Mr. Collins subsequent applications? No. Her ‘no’ remained a ‘no’ and her consent not being forthcoming, her suitor was forced to seek satisfaction elsewhere.
Mr Collins, of course, was a civil man and did not take recourse to marring Elizabeth’s beauty by throwing acid on her face or stabbing her to death. That is, however, what we are seeing these days. The other day, there was a news item about a girl being stalked and murdered by her former male friend with whom she had been close. The man had been unable to take ‘no’ for an answer.
This seems to be a universal malaise. The Hindi movie ‘Pink’ dealt with the subject quite extensively. A woman’s consent (to sexual overtures) is taken for granted if she is alone with a man in his room or house. Her ‘No’ is disregarded.
Consent, in and to any relation, should be a matter of right - when a girlfriend says it to her boyfriend, when a wife says it to her husband; indeed, when any woman says it to a man, it should be the last word.
Unfortunately, it looks like men think they have rights over a woman, more so when there is a relationship or friendship of some sort (and many times even when there is no relationship whatsoever). I remember reading a Mills & Boon (it was written in 1983) where the hero marries the heroine and then sets about exercising his ‘marital rights’ over her. This was the attitude in England as recently as the eighties, where it was quite normal for a woman to be subjected to sexual relations by her husband, whether she consented or not. That is, of course, marital rape, as yet not a crime in India.
The man always seems to think that the woman doesn’t know her own mind; her ‘no’ is just a form of caprice and teasing, and he has the right to force on her his will. This attitude has been grievously reinforced in numerous movies where the hero is seen sexually harassing the heroine, who then succumbs and falls in love with her tormentor.
Consent is an important factor in any relationship and our immediate problem is how do we sensitise our young male population that harassing a woman, without her consent, is not acceptable behaviour.
As with anything related to inequality of the sexes, it all boils down to how women are treated in society and how they are perceived. The home is the first place for instructions where examples have to be set. Parents need to take care that they never discriminate between children of different sexes. Children are quite perceptive and quickly catch the subliminal messages transmitted in any relationship. If they see their sisters being treated in any way inferior to them, or in a manner calculated to disregard their wishes and thoughts, this is how they are going to interact with them at large. An unequal relationship between the parents too, where the father is dominant and the mother subservient to his wishes, will also transmit the same message.
I have this theory that boys should never be made to feel that women are the weaker sex or need to be protected. The step from protector to perpetrator is a short one. The moment one segment of the population is seen as being in need of protection, that is where all the ideas of inequality and oppression creep in. Though it might sound nice to inculcate notions of chivalry and gallantry in the male minds, it is actually doing both the sexes a disservice. The girl child is not weak and the boy has no right or reason to view her that way.
Schools are another important place where gender roles and perceptions are shown very glaringly. Teachers and school supervisors have a huge responsibility here; because if they reinforce traditional gender stereotypes or put down the female sex, this is something that the boy is going to imbibe and internalise. Most children study in the same school for a number of years and have the same classmates. The right message sent out over the years is sure to have a positive effect. In fact, along with sex education, gender sensitisation workshops need to be conducted regularly. Boys need to be told very categorically that they need to respect a girl’s right to be friends and have relations with whomever she chooses. She has no obligation to say ‘yes’ to anybody. There is nothing like ‘tacit’ agreement; her consent has to be explicit. A girl with sexual experience should not be seen as promiscuous (how I hate that word), any more than a man with sexual experience is seen as promiscuous. A woman’s body is her own and she has the absolute right over it.
And a 'no’ means exactly that – NO.
Janaki Krishnan (Author)