Marital rape is not a crime in India

India is among roughly 30 countries in the world, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China, where marital rape is not an offence. Indian rape law excludes sex acts between a man and his wife, an exemption that goes back to colonial times. Starting two weeks ago, judges in the Delhi high court began regular hearings on a number of legal challenges asking for this exception to be struck down on the grounds that it is antiquated and unjust.

Spouses can be charged for physical assault or killing their wives, rendering the exemption for rape arbitrary. It is also out of sync with a century or more of evolution in the rights for married women in India and globally. Though creating a new offense requires a change in law that must go through parliament, lawyers are arguing the court can just remove the clause that details the exception.

As a social message, the exception to the law sends out the worst message to India’s young women. “The marital rape exception thus denies to one class of women—married women—the guarantees that law offers to all others,” Gautam Bhatia, a Delhi-based lawyer, wrote in the Hindustan Times newspaper. That exception, “publicly says to the world that consent is irrelevant to the question of rape in a marriage.”

While the court has been deliberating over the challenges, and seeking opinions from various civil rights groups, men’s rights activists began a protest on Twitter earlier this week in response to these proceedings.

What is #MarriageStrike protesting?

Criminalising marital rape, detractors of the lawsuit argue, will destroy the “Indian family system.” Unwittingly, that’s quite a scathing indictment of Indian marriage.

Working from that claim, if married men who rape their wives are sent to jail, it would mean the end of the idyllic heteronormative family system. Does that mean non-consensual sex is an intrinsic part of marriage?

The protest is led by the Save Indian Family Foundation, which calls itself the largest pan-Indian men’s rights group. It may seem odd that India, known for the unequal status of women, has a men’s rights group, but its members say that domestic violence laws are misused in India against a husband or his parents in cases of conflict after marriage. They contend that if the marital rape exception was to be struck down, it would lead to an avalanche of false cases against innocent husbands on this ground too.

That this stance is ironic is an understatement, given that marriage in India is still heavily stacked in favor of a man and his family, and countless women suffer harassment, abuse, and even death because of deep-rooted social evils like dowry.

But Indian men’s right activists are not having it. As a protest, they want to propose an alternative family structure without wives, where they will rely on other family and community ties—and themselves—to cook, clean, survive, and perhaps even propagate. So basically, er, a feminist reorganisation of existing patriarchal structures?

As a woman, being able to pinpoint men who do not understand the basic tenets of consent is a bonus that one never saw coming from a vitriolic social media campaign. The kind of men who are so afraid of women that they would rather not have a law that criminalises all forms of rape. The kind who would argue that the idea of sexual consent is moot in a marriage.

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