Exploring the idiom of ‘bodily integrity’

Columnist  | Sowjanya Tamalapakula

Opinion, Columnists

The idea of bodily integrity has not been extended to deconstruct the hegemony of heterosexual patriarchal caste endogamous marriage.

Rape and murder of Muslim women during the 2002 Gujarat violence is construed/perceived as a symbolic emasculation of the Muslim community.

What is bodily integrity? It is interesting to ponder whether even feminists in India understand the concept of “bodily integrity”! It is an extremely significant philosophical and political concept that should be unravelled at many levels in a complex society like India with various intersectional structures of caste, class, community and gender.

In simple terms, bodily integrity is nothing but one’s own autonomy over one’s own body. Bodily integrity as a term was popularised in the post-Nirbhaya context. In the context of communal violence and partition of British India, violence against women was horrendous as well as sexual in nature. Women are seen as properties or extensions of their husbands, families or communities they belong to. Rape and murder of Muslim women during the 2002 Gujarat violence is construed/perceived as a symbolic emasculation of the Muslim community. Women are not seen as independent or autonomous beings but as objects owned by father/husband, families, caste groups and communities. Therefore, women are subjected to violence to fight the owners of their bodies. However, it is unfortunate that the concept of bodily integrity has been propagated only within the limited paradigm of rape of middle-class women by the man outside the family and caste group. It has not been extended to the everyday violation of bodily autonomy that a woman faces across caste groups. For example, something as simple as enforcing a particular type of dress or ornament on woman against her will by any person in the family or outside is also a violation of bodily integrity.  

The idea of bodily integrity has not been extended to deconstruct the hegemony of heterosexual patriarchal caste endogamous marriage. Therefore, marital rape is not criminalised in Indian law. The traditional concepts of sexual purity and fidelity in marriage, modern concepts of “commitment” and “loyalty”, all aim to control woman’s choices and violate her integrity. Women’s freedom to have sexual relations outside marriage is construed as promiscuity or lack of commitment. It signifies that she is an extension of her husband/partner and an object owned by her husband. In a patriarchal society, man has cultural and socially sanctioned space to access women outside marriage and women are expected to only show their loyalty by giving ownership of their bodies to their husbands or intimate partners. This is certainly another form of violation of bodily integrity. Centrality of marriage/family in Indian society is one of the tactical components that obstruct the right to bodily integrity of women. Girl children are silenced by parents when they complain against the inappropriate touch or molestation by uncles or family friends which precisely teaches them that they have no autonomy over their minds and bodies. In such cases, upholding the familial bonds is prioritised over the security of the girl children within families. The same parents may treat sexual harassment of their girls on the streets very seriously because the predator is from outside the family and caste group.

Glorification of motherhood in middle class society is another idea that curtails the woman’s right to bodily integrity. Women are forced by families and doctors to put their bodies through abuse and violence in order to become mothers. In Indian society, motherhood is not a choice but an inevitability. Therefore, it is not only rape and sexual violence in public space but also the subtle and insidious ways of everyday violations which are threats to woman’s bodily integrity. Another example is that women are demanded to follow a particular dress code and wear particular markers (jewellery) of a married woman such as mangalsutra which are acts of violations of her bodily integrity. Bodily integrity is an absolute concept like freedom. Freedom has no limitations or negotiations. Similarly, bodily integrity is nothing but refusing anything that one’s mind refuses to accept onto one’s body. Ranging from an unwanted touch to enforcing marriage on a woman against her will amount to violation of bodily integrity.

It is also important to discuss how one’s autonomy is constructed and cultivated. It is true that today many middle-class women assert that their marriage or the traditional dress code they follow is their own choice. This happens precisely because we live a society that conditions us much before we ourselves explore our life and world around. The institution of marriage is the only viable and available form of conjugality in India. Other forms of intimacy are suppressed and stigmatised. Ironically, many feminists have not deconstructed the institution of marriage and not subverted the ideology of monogamy.Subversion of family means loss of their own caste privilege for caste Hindu feminists and therefore continued to uphold family and caste identity. A woman’s loyalty or commitment to a male partner is only substantiated and maintained by her sexual purity which also again means that she is owned by her partner and she has no autonomy over her body. Women’s bodies are used as sites of patriarchal honour of families, caste groups and communities. Therefore, honour crimes and forceful marriages take place in the lives of women. Thus, without deconstructing the institution of heterosexual, endogamous marriage, it is hard to deconstruct caste and therefore difficult for women to have autonomy.

Women from the marginalised communities are sexually violated on an everyday basis as they are seen as only objects owned by powerless groups and therefore the powerful communities have a right to use and abuse them. If rape is violation of bodily integrity, then such violation takes place almost every day in the lives of the marginalised women. The bodily integrity of a woman has to be respected by the society. A complex society with its structural inequalities cannot ensure such security. However, it is a misconception to believe that one’s bodily integrity is violated only by rape in public space when in actuality women’s bodily integrity is violated almost every day whether she belongs to middle class or marginalised sections.