JANUARY 15, 2013



The public preoccupation with both the death penalty and castration as punishment for rape continued last week, with the Pakistani activist Asma Jahangir reportedly suggesting that the rapists of the Delhi rape case be either punished with castration or else face the death penalty.[1]The consistent demand for punitive castration in India may be somewhat boosted by the Indian media reporting the following developments – last week, the South Korean court ordered Asia’s first chemical castration[2]; the Malaysian bar is pushing for castration[3] as a punishment for repeat sex offenders; and that such punishment has reportedly been long used in other countries[4]such as Germany, Denmark, and some states in the U.S.

The most recent demands for castration can broadly be divided into two categories: popular and legal. Here we wish to problematize both, the legal and popular demands for castration by drawing out the reductive understanding of rape implicit in this demand; and by tracing the problematic notion of emasculation-as-justice driving this demand. We call for a suspension of the demand for castration on three broad grounds, listed here and discussed in greater detail below:

–          The logic of castration as legal punishment locates the threat of rape squarely in the male body (specifically male genitalia), reinforcing the heteronormative paradigm of peno-vaginal penetration that feminists have been trying for decades to dislodge from Indian rape law.

–          Such a punishment obscures the role of institutions in enabling and preserving rape. It also delinks sexual assault from structures of caste, class, sexuality and disability, which shape sexual violence.

–          The popular demand for castration relies on a logic of emasculation (napunsak banana) that actually re-centers “good,” protectionist masculinity as the way to creating a safer environment in our communities.

In legal circles, chemical castration has sometimes been presented as a more effective alternative to prison sentencing[5]. Rather than surgically and irreversibly removing the penis or the testes, chemical castration entails administering anti-androgen drugs that suppress testosterone production. In the popular imagination however, this mode of punishment undeniably evokes the gratification of “cutting off the problem at the source” by administering a well-deserved emasculation to the rapist. For example, on the website Punjabi Portal, one user wrote: “Nai fansi nai honi chahidi but rape Karen wale de part nu cut ke usnu napunsak bana dena chahida … Taki oh rape taan ki viah Karen de Kabil v na rahe” (Rapists shouldn’t be hung, but their part should be cut and they should be emasculated … so that they are unable to rape and unworthy to “marry”). [6]On Twitter, another user wrote: “delhi gang rapers ko napunsak bana diya jaye” (emasculate the Delhi gang rapists) [7]; yet another Twitter user said: “Guys in India arenapunsak to the power infinity..Capable of pulling a stunt like Delhi bus gang rape case or acid attack”.[8]The Facebook page “Hang in Public..Delhi Gangrape Culprits”[9] with 531 “likes” bears on its wall numerous fantasies of torture and castration.Elsewhere, it is the Delhi police who are berated for being napunsak[10] for failing to protect women from rape, and for targeting protesters. This language of napunsakta, which at once calls for the emasculation of the hyper-masculine rapist and berates the Delhi police for not being manly enough, exemplifies the ways in which,as Iris Marion Young notes, “dominative masculinity … constitutes protective masculinity[11] as its other” and so legitimizes the control of women in the name of protection.But as Kavita Krishnan noted in her now viral speech[12]: “This machismo is not any solution to the problem of violence against women — it is the root of the problem itself.”

What does the demand for castration presume about the nature of rape, and what possibilities does it offer as a legal response to rape?To begin with, the demand for castration locates rape as a crime of sex. In this view,rape is something men do to women, with their penises,because of an excess of testosterone in their bodies. It is ironic that this impetus towards castration has gained momentum in the aftermath of a brutal rape conducted not only with penises, but with iron rods.Are we really persuaded that a more controlled libido would have prevented those six men from committing their brutal act of disciplinary violence against the young woman who died in Delhi last week? Do we believe that it would have prevented the rape of the minor Dalit girl who committed suicide after she was lured[13]—by a woman—to her rape by two caste Hindus in Punjab? Would it have prevented the infamous mass rape of an entire village of Kashmiri women in Kunan Poshpora by the Indian army in 1991—and if so, are we willing to convict and impose castration on the army personnel involved in those rapes? When Thangjam Manorama was picked up by security forces in Manipur, sexually tortured and shot in the genitals after being charged with being a militant, was it the raging testosterone of the soldiers that led to her rape? Or are we willing to consider that in all these instances, the derision and apathy of the police; the impunity granted to soldiers under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Manipur and Kashmir; and the abysmally low conviction rate around rape across India may have played a greater part in these scenarios?

The enormously reductive understanding of rape as a penis-driven crime fixes responsibility on individuals and prioritizes biological motivations, while obscuring the social, cultural and political structuresthat enable rape. Additionally, it completely overrides the work of activists across different constituencies (women’s rights, queer rights, child rights, dalit rights, disability rights) to expand the definition of rape beyond the peno-vaginal paradigm in the law. As Flavia Agnes notes, “Vaginal penetration is only one of the many ways in which women are chastised and humiliated [particularly in episodes of caste and communal violence such as Partition, the Gujarat carnage, and Khairlanji]. Acid attacks, slashing of the face, stripping and parading, dragging women to the ground and kicking them on their abdomen, etc. are some of the other violent ways in which women are shown their place in public.”We would agree with Agnes that “while we are addressing issues of sexual assaults [we must] stop awarding a special status for peno-vaginal penetration as compared to other types of violations.”The peno-vaginal understanding of rape also overlooks the frequent role of women in enabling rape, as well as the vulnerability of men or transgender people: for instance in Khairlanji, where women dragged out Priyanka and Surekha Bhotmange[14]by their hair, beat and stripped them before leaving them to be raped by men; or in Kashmir, where scores of men have been sexually tortured in custody by security forces; or indeed all over India, where gay men and transgender[15] people are routinely subject to rape.What use would the castration fix be in such scenarios, animated by power and hate rather than lust? This takes us back to the key question that activists in India have been actively working through, especially during the re-drafting of the sexual assault bill over the last few years: what constitutes sexual assault?

In conclusion, we want to extend some recent insights from feminist arguments against the death penalty, which apply to the demand for castration as well. One notable point across these critiques is that calls for more stringent punishments blithely presume an efficacious functioning of the legal machinery. Flavia Agnes warns that “around one-third of all rape cases are filed by parents against boys when their daughter exercises her sexual choice and elopes …With the clamour for death penalty [and, we would add, castration], how will we deal with such cases?”[16] Given the notoriously paternalist mentality prevailing among the Indian police force[17], in such instances the law becomes a mechanism for the caste-bound sexual regulation of young women and men by their families. Furthermore, as Kavita Krishnan so eloquently argued, the death penalty is no solution for low conviction rates, but a spectacular deflection from the real problem of police inaction. Similarly we might ask whether the legal fix of castration would do anything at all in terms of improving the conviction rate for rape in a scenario where the police regularly refuse[18] to register cases of rape[19] to begin with!

The mass protests possibly indicate a growing public awareness that rape is not merely a crime between individuals, but a crime for which the institutions of government and socials structures are equally if not more responsible. Despite the major gaps that have compromised the protests on Raisina Hill, they have publicly moved rape beyond the narrow frame of “women’s issues”[20]and implicated the government. However, this frenzy for a quick solution for rape by seeking revenge over justice[21]also obscures the structural problems highlighted by Dalit[22]and disability rights feminists.[23]For example, as Anu Ramdas rightly reminds us, the “rightful but selective[24]national exclamation of horror against this urban gang rape furthers the normalization of rapes and gang rapes of dalit and adivasi women,” which have rarely elicited such outrage, and which certainly would not be helped by the castration fix. Before we decide the terms of punishment and legal reform, we would like to ask what kinds of bodies we seek to protect, whose safety we hold dear, who we criminalize and why.