It was the year 2004. One fine evening, I was watching a popular Hindi show with my family. It was a climactic scene where the husband was forcing his newly wedded bride into a sexual encounter. When the wife described it as rape, surprisingly both my male and female relatives burst into laughter pointing out that a husband can never rape his wife! Like it was a made-up idea.
Although the story is a bit outdated I can assure you that the storyline hasn't changed much since. In a survey conducted by BRAC, only 4% of respondents considered that a wife can be a victim of rape by her husband. Our society and family have molded our minds in such a way that a malicious concept like Martial Rape seems like a mythical idea to almost every generation.
Statistical facts like 27.3% of women being forced to engage in sexual intercourse by their husbands (Ranjana, 2023) don't even bother the majority of our population. Speaking from my personal experience, even the majority of my university acquaintances (both male and female) don’t even know, let alone acknowledge the concept of marital rape.
In a study conducted by John Townsend, a male respondent, Mahbub aged 29, said that he thought marriage meant having endless sex with one's wife and that consent was not required in this situation. Additionally, he believes that asking the wife for permission to have sex is unmanly. Men cannot control sex, so their wives must give them what they need anytime they ask for it. In my opinion, it is critical that we examine the origins of people's behavior such as Mahbub's before jumping into issues and worries about the failure and backwardness of our justice system. It's a simple justification: if we never get to the base of the problem, we can't communicate about it, so we can't talk about solutions or battle for acceptance.
...in most Bangladeshi marriages, the wife's consent isn't even a factor. If a husband wants her, a wife has to give herself to him whenever and however he wants
“My sister-in-law told me: ‘Go close to your husband whenever he pulls you towards him and whatever he says you should follow. Do not say ‘no’ to him”. This is what a 28-year-old female respondent from a rural area in Townshed’s research said. This quote makes it clear that in most Bangladeshi marriages, the wife's consent isn't even a factor. If a husband wants her, a wife has to give herself to him whenever and however he wants.
The prevalence of this concept is a reflection of the widespread influence that patriarchy has on our society and lives. Bangladesh stands out as a predominantly patriarchal society. The role of gender is crucial in shaping societal norms, family responsibilities, and power dynamics within the household. These norms lack gender neutrality as they allow for oppressive and regressive sexual behavior in men under the guise of it being a natural characteristic. For example, it is often seen as fortunate for a man to have multiple sexual partners. Even 'eve-teasing' is seen as a common behavior among men that is harmless.
Similarly, when a man takes charge in a domestic setting, it can be seen as a sign of a strong marriage or household. Therefore, some individuals may ascertain their masculinity by disregarding their spouse's sexual needs. Considering these factors, along with the traditional beliefs surrounding gender roles in marriage, it can be seen as the wife's responsibility to meet her husband's physical desires, even if they may seem unreasonable.
Some individuals may ascertain their masculinity by disregarding their spouse's sexual needs
Being born in a typical middle-class Bangladeshi household I've observed that men typically play a central role as primary earners and decision-makers in important family events even if the economic responsibilities are shared by both partners. Marriage is a clear game of hegemonic power play here. During the ceremony, a man is recognized as the provider and guardian of a woman. He vows to protect his wife and is entrusted, according to established conventions, to be the dominant half. The husband's sense of ownership over his wife is crucial to the institution of marriage, and its maintenance creates the fiction of a "happy, successful marriage". Clearly, the portrayal of women as possessions results in unequal treatment within a marriage, and the issue of marital rape is approached with bias.
Women do not even feel that they have any kind of control over their own bodies once they are married off. Thus, tales of sexual abuse by partners or marital rape are confined to the 'private' world of bedrooms because our mothers, aunts, and every other female relative will convince the victim that it's all in good fun.
The patriarchal views that prevent the protection of women from martial rape because they are seen as nothing more than their husbands' property and are required by the male-controlled definition of marriage to provide sex are that married women are supposed to offer "sexual access" to their husbands in many situations, rape is not regarded as legally or socially possible (Cusmano, 2018). As a result, our societies and families have grown comfortable ignoring or denying the problem, just as the common saying goes, "Delulu is the Solulu.". Women do not even feel that they have any kind of control over their own bodies once they are married off. Thus, tales of sexual abuse by partners or marital rape are confined to the 'private' world of bedrooms because our mothers, aunts, and every other female relative will convince the victim that it's all in good fun. It's not even allowed to be a living room issue let alone legal. The victims, the perpetrator, or us, the third parties don’t talk about this enough for it to be an issue. Unfortunately, the people of the same mindset are in drafting, refining, interpreting, ratifying, and implementing our laws. As a whole, our constitution gets away with its backwardness and severe loopholes like, “Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under thirteen years of age, is not rape.”
...unfortunately, the nineteenth-century thinking of European governments that a wife became property upon marriage is still in effect in Bangladesh.
As a nation, we might have made mentionable progress. However, we cannot escape the fact that backdated and discriminatory laws like Section 375 still exist in our written constitution. I cannot run away from the fact that marital rape is a laughing issue in my family! We simply cannot have any more generations that don't believe in the concepts of consent, mutual respect, and equality within marriage. The marital rape exemption is a remnant of British colonial rulers who enacted the current Penal Code in 1860. While England criminalized marital rape in 1991, unfortunately, the nineteenth-century thinking of European governments that a wife became property upon marriage is still in effect in Bangladesh. Honestly, it seems that it sends all our efforts to reach equity a thousand years backward. It's high time we brought the cases of marital rape from the ‘private’ to the ‘public’ sphere. We need to discuss it and disseminate it to future generations. Undoubtedly, the sooner we can talk about it, the sooner we solve it.
Anika Tahsin Haque Katha is looking forward to building a career as a development researcher specifically in the gender arena as a student at the University of Chittagong, pursuing a BSS degree in Development Studies. Anika is a development enthusiast. Through her involvement in feminist initiatives, she aims to make a positive impact on society and drive meaningful change.