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Saumya Arya Haas Headshot

The Definition of Rape, My Rage and Hindu Goddess Wisdom

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We've been arguing about rape a lot lately. The legal definitions of both "rape" and of "victim" have recently been challenged in separate proposed legislation. (I understand many people prefer the term "rape survivor;" in this article, "victim" refers to the legal language only.)

I'm relieved to hear that The "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act" makers are changing the controversial wording of "forcible rape." The retraction is good but does not lessen the pain (and anger) caused. I'm still angry. I was starting to calm down, then I read about the proposed bill in Georgia which would change a "victim" into an "accuser" in the case of rape, stalking or domestic violence. You're not a "victim" until the defendant is convicted of the crime.

This enrages me. Maybe I need to practice forgiveness, or do more deep breathing. Or something.

There are better informative articles about these bills, and I recommend you read them. This is only a personal and spiritual perspective. And it is personal.

Why does it matter what rape is called? Or a victim?

When I was 11 years old, a complete stranger came up behind me and put one hand down my shirt and the other between my legs. He made a sort of chirping noise, a "come on" sound like you'd make to a sluggish animal. This being prior to my current non-violent, pro-dialogue phase, I turned around and punched him in the face.

It was called "Eve Teasing" in India where I grew up. It included everything from crude comments to brutal sexual assault on women and girls, usually in public. Teasing: the phrase defined the casualness of the act and the casualness of the act fed into the off-hand phrase. I always turned and faced my attackers, and I always fought back. A girl whipping around, yelling, screaming, hitting, was clearly unprecedented. They always looked shocked. They always stepped back.

I got used to that chirping sound, and being groped, and punching grown men. I got used to being called pagli (crazy girl) for hitting people. It was not an affectionate term, but dead serious. Only a crazy girl would lash out in response to being teased.

My story is not meant to be an indictment of Indian culture or a commentary on the condition of women in South East Asia. North India was violent in those days in many ways. I don't live there anymore, and I have no idea what it's like for other women. I only know what it was like for me. I've discovered that life in the United States is not so different. When I was raped, it was here. And yes, people denied that it happened and called me crazy.

I imagine that every woman or man who experiences molestation or rape must have a voice (internal or external) that chirps up and says "that wasn't really rape." Or it wasn't rape enough. Or it wasn't "forcible." Or it was just teasing. Or it was because of teasing. Or whatever. It's hard enough to call it rape in the privacy of one's own head and heart. It is hard to face oneself in the aftermath, much less one's attacker and detractors. It's hard to face whatever comes next: cops or no cops? Abortion or no abortion? Do you tell your mom? Does your faith fail you or help you forward?

I am a Hindu and a Vodouisant. When I look at images of Kali and Erzuli Dantor, I see strong-looking divine ladies that are role models to our broken selves. Dantor holds an infant in a protective grasp: When we feel like a helpless child we must become the fierce mother. Kali, bristling with weapons and dripping with blood, looks like something I need to conjure in myself: a spiritual warrior to defend me from further harm. But I could never get over the serene look on their faces. I wanted the Goddess to look enraged. I wanted her to be as pissed off as I was. Sometimes I wondered if I got the wrong Goddess. Who is the Goddess of Rage? Of Shame? I don't think we have one. In all the diversity of images, the Divine Feminine has one invariable trait: She looks you in the eye. Her gaze is steady. Yet she gets stuff done: children protected, demons defeated, realities destroyed and recreated.

When we are groped and shoved, beaten and ashamed, when truth is twisted by denial, there is something steady within us that helps pain become wisdom and howling rage become a level striving for justice. Whether you understand that as God or Goddess, a particular archetype or a humanist moral sense, we have it. It helps us turn and look pain in the eye and call it what it is, then do something about it. We can respond with strength and without violence.

We can choose our words.

Passion to change the world: yes. Unthinking rage that never lets me release my pain: no. Easy to say, hard to practice. Violence marks us. I've lived through and witnessed a lot of it and I'm still struggling for serenity. I find guidance in my faith but also signed up for an anger management course.

What rape is and what rape isn't, can be precarious in our individual minds. As societies, we struggle to do right. It's hard to stand in the daylight and call it what it is. Don't try to sneak up behind survivors. We will turn and face you: detached and serene, but ready to fight.

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